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.