Connecting with a Visionary: Peter Goldmark

26 07 2010

Peter Goldmark is one of the most interesting, creative, and thoughtful people I have ever met.

For starters, Peter’s career is one of the most fascinating I can imagine.  He has worked at very high levels in all three sectors: public, private, and nonprofit.  As a young whiz kid in his 30s, Peter was the budget director for the State of New York and then executive director of the New York Port Authority.  He then became president of the Rockefeller Foundation.  After that, he moved to Europe, where he served as chairman and CEO of the International Herald Tribune.  Today, Peter directs the Climate and Air Program for the Environmental Defense Fund.  What a remarkable career!

I first met Peter about 30 years ago, when I was working for Colorado Governor Dick Lamm.  Governor Lamm invited Peter, who was then head of the New York Port Authority, to a cabinet retreat.  Peter helped put in perspective the problems and issues we were facing in Colorado, and he provided creative suggestions for our state government.

I next saw Peter in 1998, shortly after I had begun work at The Denver Foundation.  Peter was a keynote speaker at the annual conference of community foundations in Miami.  At the time, he was CEO of the International Herald Tribune.  In 1998, community foundation leaders were focused on a variety of local issues, such as crime, education, and access to health care.  In Peter’s keynote speech, he said that the biggest issue confronting community foundations in the United States would be…international terrorism!

This was three years before 9/11.  At the time, I don’t think international terrorism was on the radar screen of any community foundation executive in the United States.  I daresay that most people at the conference thought Peter was a bit crazy.  His admonitions about terrorism seemed unduly alarmist and unrelated to our daily lives. 

Immediately after 9/11, I remembered Peter’s speech.  Through the Council on Foundations, which had sponsored the conference, I was not able to get a transcript of the speech, but I secured an audio tape.  I then transcribed tape and I’ve re-read the speech dozens of times.

Peter was extraordinarily prescient about 9/11.  After describing the threats of international terrorism, he spoke about how to prepare for – and hopefully prevent it.  He said communities need to, “build a framework of trust and shared values which will allow them to work together.  And this is a process in which community foundations have both experience and credentials.”  He went on to say that getting to know your neighbors is also critical.

Peter concluded the speech by imploring communities to be prepared for international terrorism.  “Let us then prepare against a chance, a possibility even as daunting as this, a possibility we would rather not think about, ‘for chance happeneth to them all.’  Societies that prepare themselves to meet severe challenges are the ones that most often surmount them.  Communities that have thought and prepared in order to uphold their most fundamental values in the midst of a crisis are the ones that most often preserve them.”

These remarkable words were spoken three full years before 9/11.  Needless to say, I have thought about them frequently in the last nine years.

When The Denver Foundation and I began the Next Decade Project, one of the very first people I thought to contact was Peter Goldmark.  I couldn’t imagine anyone better to help us gaze into the future and prepare for the next decade.

I contacted Peter and asked if he would be willing to meet with me.  Even though he really didn’t know me, he graciously agreed to have a conversation.  Originally, we were scheduled to meet in California as part of my first trip for the Next Decade Project.  Alas, due to fog in the Bay Area, Peter’s plane was delayed by more than four hours and we were unable to meet.

Shortly thereafter, Peter volunteered to stop in Denver on his way from New York to California.  I am still humbled by this generous act.  The stop in Denver added at least six hours to Peter’s travel day.  And he agreed to do this for a virtual stranger!

I picked up Peter at DIA and we drove to Strings Restaurant for lunch.  I like to patronize Strings because its owner, Noel Cunningham, is one of the most caring and philanthropic people I know.  Plus, the food is delicious.  Peter and I had an extended lunch conversation at Strings, after which I drove him back to DIA for his flight to California. 

In my next blog post, I will recount some of Peter’s many interesting ideas for The Denver Foundation.

 — David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation

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