On the Monday before Thanksgiving  my father, Cecil H. Underwood, passed away. The date was November 24th, nineteen days after his 86th birthday and twenty days after Barrack Obama was elected President. My father was born two days before Election Day in 1922, elected the youngest Governor of West Virginia two days after he turned 34 and elected the state’s oldest Governor on his 74th birthday. In my post, Why a Collaboration Evangelist, I wrote:
Perhaps it’s a “nature and nurture” thing, as I have always been a strong believer that teams of smart people with diverse backgrounds and points of view will always have a better chance of solving challenging problems and finding new opportunities to add value to any enterprise than the model where “one smart guy solves all the problems and makes all the decisions.”
From the nature side, I was born the day after my father was inaugurated as the 25th governor of the State of West Virginia at the age of 34. One of the things he told me about that campaign was although they had only one paid staffer – his driver – the campaign was supported by 3000 volunteers. The campaign put all of their efforts into organizing and energizing their volunteer network to register and get supporters to the polls. They spent the money they raised on the new technology of the day called TV advertising. This strategy enabled him to become the first Republican governor in 25 years in a state where Democratic voters outnumbered Republicans by 2.5 to 1.
The many papers around the world that carried the news of my father’s death described him as “a high school teacher who became a governor.” While it is true that he started his career as a high school biology teacher and his last formal employment was as a Drinko Scholar at Marshall University, my father was always quietly teaching through his actions to those of us who had the good fortune to know and work with him. At his memorial service, I remembered my father by sharing some of the lessons he taught us by the way he lived and the way he led. These included:
1. No obstacle is too high to overcome if you believe in yourself and are willing to work very hard to achieve your goals.
My father took on monumental challenges from the beginning of his career. At the age of 22, he challenged a long standing incumbent to win the first of six terms to the State Legislature. Twelve years later he was elected Governor. But at the end of his first term he lost a race for the US Senate (at that time, Governors could not run for re-election) and over the next 36 years he ran unsuccessfully for Governor three times.
During this period, I remember thinking that maybe my father had “peaked too soon” at the age of 34, like an NBA team playing their best ball before the playoffs. He showed me otherwise in 1996 when he was elected the State’s 32nd Governor. During his second administration, more jobs were created, more roads were built and more school children and seniors were connected to the internet than during any other four year period in the history of West Virginia.
As I admired his work ethic and the successes of his second term, I thought he was the greatest role model for working hard and beating the odds that anyone could ever have. But again I was wrong. Not wrong in the role model, but wrong in the act.
The most amazing thing I saw my father do was to come back from a paralyzing stroke he suffered in 2006 at the age of 83. The entire left side of his body was paralyzed with the exception of his fingers, which he could move slightly if he wasn’t too tired. At his discharge planning meeting a few months later, my sisters and I told Dad he needed to move to an assisted living facility to continue his rehabilitation. He was none too happy with our proclamation and wanted to know what he had to do to live at home again. We told him he needed to be able to walk.
So, for the next three months, he did 5 hours of physical therapy a day – riding the stationary bike, lifting weights and doing anything else the PT staff at Charleston Gardens told him to do. His efforts were rewarded as he indeed did walk again and was selected “Stroke Recovery Patient of the Year.” More importantly, he was able to return home for several years.
2. Always help others in need.
During the Christmas Holidays of 1995, as he was contemplating running for governor, my father mentioned his desire to use the Governor’s office to encourage all of the religions and faiths of West Virginia to work together to promote job training and healthy living. Although I knew this was very important to him, I never heard him mentioned it during the campaign.
Then, during the first event of his inaugural weekend, a Multi-denominational Prayer Service, he called for the creation of Mission West Virginia, a non-profit that recently celebrated its 10th anniversary and has helped thousands of low income residents find jobs and improve their quality of life. I remember sitting next to Bill Phillips, his longtime friend and campaign manager and whispering, “Did you know he was going to do this?” “No,” Bill replied, “Did you?”
Inherent in all of these lessons is an overarching one our father taught us by example – “Actions speak louder than words.” A few years later, we realized that my father had already put into action the true meaning of being a “compassionate conservative” by launching one of the first “faith based” initiatives.
3. Don’t judge others. See the value in all people. People who disagree with you do not always need to be your enemies.
To my father, there were no people better or more important than others. He was as comfortable with Presidents, Governors and CEO’s as he was with farmers and construction workers. He abhorred racism, sexism, classism and all of the other “ism’s.” He was proud of the birth heritage of West Virginia as the only state formed by succeeding from another state in opposition to slavery.
Before the term was popularized, my father understood the meaning of “multiple kinds of intelligence” and he saw the goodness and value in all human beings, regardless of their titles, the money in their bank accounts or their years of formal education. He didn’t judge others.
He taught us that political opponents do not have to be personal enemies.
I remember having a conversation with a Democratic member of the Legislature years ago who told me, “I really enjoyed being in the House with your father, because we could argue about policy and call each other SOB’s all day long, but remain friends and still have a drink together at the end of the day. We could do this because we knew we shared a common desire to help the people of West Virginia, even if we disagreed about the best way to do so.”
His ability to rise above partisan politics in service to his beloved state was evident in the many commissions he served on and causes he championed when out of office. Whenever asked to help the state in any way by any governor, regardless of party or previous races, my father always stepped up to help promote a bond issue, or raise money for a special project or lend a hand in some other way.
4. Don’t try to do everything yourself. Ask for help and work together with others to get things done.
My father’s chosen professions of politics, government, business and educational leadership all share one thing in common. These are professions where you cannot do everything by yourself. Indeed, 100% of your success comes from working with and through others.
As I mentioned above, my father loved to tell people that in his first campaign, he had “one paid staffer and 3,000 volunteers.”
And before the ability to “reach across the aisle” became a political slogan, my father worked with members of the Democratic Legislature in both terms to develop and implement programs and initiatives to help those in need and move the state forward.
5. Never stop learning, innovating and looking to the technology of the future for answers.
When students ask me what’s the most important key to entrepreneurial success, I tell them “creative perseverance.” I learned this not from reading the biographies of successful for-profit entrepreneurs,
but from watching my father. He taught me this through his hard work and determination and by never giving up, but also by always trying again with something new. He taught us to “try, try again” but he also taught us to not try the same way over and over again.
During those Christmas Holidays in 1995 when he was considering another run for governor, my father and I were reading Bill Gates book, The Road Ahead. It dawned on me that if he decided to run, my father could be the Governor that brought the interstate highway system to West Virginia during his first term and the Governor who brought the information superhighway to West Virginia. I knew my father had a vision of using technology to bring employment, educational and health care opportunities to the people of the rural state. We bought the web site address governor.com, built one of the first political web sites ever used and his advertising agency, Charles Ryan & Associates came up with the slogan, “A Leader for New Times.”
What I didn’t realize at the time was that embracing technology and looking to the future for answers was nothing new for Cecil Underwood. Only years later, reading John Morgan’s book, West Virginia Governors, did I learn that my father proposed a plan for the gasification of coal through the use of nuclear energy in October of 1960. My father was an innovator and – although he would not have used this word – a futurist. One of the programs he proposed in the 2000 campaign was to bridge the digital divide by giving low income families free access to the internet and re-built computers donated from government and business. This proposal mirrors exactly the work of the innovative nonprofit Computers for Youth and the 2008 presidential proposals of the group the Personal Democracy Forum.
My father grew up in a home with lots of love, but without the modern conveniences of central heating, running water or electricity. His first job off the farm was as the janitor of his one room school house at the age of 12. But by the time he left this earth, he was using a laptop with a high speed internet connection and championing the investment in and use of technology to help those born in similar circumstances. And he never stopped collaborating with others to make things happen.
So, the next time you are faced with a major challenge, remember the lessons Cecil Underwood taught us over 86 years of living and leading.
Note: This post was originally posted on January 1, 2009.