Roy Exum: 'Do Well By Doing Good’

Sunday, August 18, 2019 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum
I was sitting on my porch last week with a pair of churchmen and reveled in the conversation when it coursed into the topic of friendship. The Bible's King Solomon had much to say about the beauty of friends when he wrote the Book of Proverbs … “As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend” … and I was moved to be in the same circle of these two friends who met long ago as theology-school classmates.
Several hours later, as more than just fate would have it, I sat at my desk and, in the silence, I read a commencement speech that the then-president of Johns Hopkins University -- Bill Murphy -- gave on a late day in May of 2005.
His speech was every bit as masterful as you may suspect, including several stories that could be expanded into best-selling books, but his tale at its ending was worthy of King Solomon himself.
So pull up a chair with me, this on Homewood Field in 2005, just after 9 o’clock in Baltimore, and share this excerpt from Dr. Murphy’s commencement address, in the hope that neither of us will ever forget this story of friendship whenever we hear a very familiar song.
Dr. Murphy had just told his newest graduates about the magnificence of meeting Pope John Paul II at The Vatican and, as almost an aside, mentioned when Pope John Paul died (in April 2, 2005), about the same time a guy named Sol Linowitz passed away…
* * *
“ …  who was a Johns Hopkins University trustee. Sol Linowitz was one of the founders of Xerox Corp. We all know about Xerox, because we all make copies. Well, Sol was the lawyer who negotiated the rights to get the patent on the first Xerox machine. Eventually, he became chairman of Xerox and built it into a multi-million dollar corporation, and made a lot of money.
At age 52, he retired, and moved to Washington at the request of then-president Lyndon Johnson. Sol went on to serve every president from Johnson through Bill Clinton. He negotiated the transfer of the Panama Canal; he was the ambassador of the Organization of American States; he was Jimmy Carter's ambassador to the Middle East, and negotiated the first Middle East peace accord with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. He gave an entire life, after his business career, of dedicated service.
Some years ago, Sol told me this story. One day, his daughter came to him because she was having some problems, and she asked him what he thought about his life. He said to her, "In all frankness, I can't tell you if what I'm doing has done any good, whether my being founder and chairman of companies, starting an industry, negotiating a Middle East accord, or if any of these things will have a lasting impact." He said there is just no way of knowing.
But then he told his daughter something else. He said, "For my entire lifetime, every day I try to do at least two things for somebody, or some people. It may be going to visit somebody in a hospital, writing a note, making a phone call, touching base with someone. That's the way I know I have meaning to my life. Because in some ways the big things we do may or may not have lasting impact. But the small things that we do are extraordinarily important."
I'd like to close with one last story that I think you will especially understand, because today you are receiving a degree from what you know firsthand is a very competitive school. All of you, I am sure, have along the way felt pressure from your peers and perhaps from your parents to get good grades and become accomplished, so you can go on to even greater achievements later in life.
Today, I want to turn those expectations on their heads. Today, I want to encourage you to do well by doing good. The trick is not to fall into the trap of thinking that the way you do well is to do so at the expense of others. It's not a zero-sum game. And I'd just like to relate this story to make my point.
There is another trustee of Johns Hopkins who I'd like to tell you about. His name is Sandy Greenberg. In his youth, Sandy was a very good student, but he came from a poor family. And so he went to Columbia University on a scholarship, and there he met his roommate, who also was receiving financial aid.
Now while he was a sophomore at Columbia University, he contracted an eye disease that eventually proved to be glaucoma. But the trouble was, it wasn't detected early enough, and as a result he became legally blind, while still a student at Columbia. I ask you all to imagine for a moment having been sighted all your life, and then all of a sudden being faced, in a very competitive school, with losing so much sight you could no longer read. This is what happened to our trustee, Sandy Greenberg.
But something else happened to Sandy that may surprise you. Sandy said that when he lost his sight, his roommate began to read his textbooks to him, every night.
So I'm going to put you in that position, in a competitive school like Columbia, or Johns Hopkins. If your roommate had a serious disability, would you take the time to read textbooks to him every night, knowing the more you spend time reading textbooks to your roommate, perhaps the less well you might do with your other activities? That's not as easy a question as it first appears.
But luckily for Sandy, our trustee, his roommate did. And as a result, Sandy went on to graduate with honors. He got a Fulbright Scholarship, and he went off to study at Oxford. He was still quite poor, but he said he had managed to save about five hundred dollars as he went along.
His roommate, meanwhile, also went on to graduate school. One day, Sandy got a call from him at Oxford. And his former roommate said, "Sandy I'm really unhappy. I really don't like being in graduate school, and I don't want to do this."
So Sandy asked, "Well what do you want to do?"
And his roommate told him, "Sandy, I really love to sing. I have a high school friend who plays the guitar. And we would really like to try our hand in the music business. But we need to make a promo record, and in order to do that I need $500."
So Sandy Greenberg told me he took all his life savings and sent it to his roommate. He told me, "You know, what else could I do? He made my life; I needed to help make his life." So, I hope you'll remember the power of doing well by doing good. Each of you, in your own lives, will be faced with challenges, with roadblocks, with problems that you didn't anticipate or expect. How you are able to deal with adversity will be influenced, to no small extent, by how you deal with others along the way. What you get will depend a lot on what you give. And that's the end of the story of doing well, by doing good.
Ah! I almost forgot. You probably are wanting to know who Sandy's roommate was. I think you've heard of him. Sandy's roommate was a fellow by the name of Art Garfunkel, and he teamed up with another musician by the name of Paul Simon. That $500 helped them cut a record that eventually became "The Sounds of Silence." Recently, we had the pleasure of going to Sandy's daughter's wedding, and it was Art Garfunkel who sang as Sandy walked his daughter down the aisle.
When you get to be my age (which, for some of you, is really old — though it doesn't seem so old to me anymore), you will find yourself beginning to ask, did my life make a difference?
That's the day of personal reckoning. And I think the only way to face it is to consider, every day of your life: How can I do something for somebody else? How can I give back to others? It may be teaching, it may be becoming a doctor, you may be successful in business — no matter what your career path, there will always be the opportunity to give back. The chance will present itself to be giving of your time, giving of your money — but mostly, to be giving of yourselves, of your own heart and soul.
My hope today, as you commence to new beginnings, is you will always keep your eyes open for those opportunities to give and embrace them as your best sure way of doing well. I wish you all good luck, and God Speed. Thank you.
-- Dr. William R. Roddy, Commencement Exercises, Johns Hopkins University, Thursday May 26, 2005.
* * *
Greenberg went back to Buffalo, where he received another diagnosis: glaucoma. That winter, doctors operated on Greenberg’s eyes. The surgery didn’t work. Greenberg was going blind. He was so depressed that he refused to see anyone from college.
But Garfunkel went up to Buffalo anyway.
“I don’t want to talk,” Greenberg said.
“Sanford,” said Garfunkel. “You must talk.”
Garfunkel persuaded Greenberg to go back to Columbia and offered to be his reader.
In September 1961, Greenberg returned to campus. Garfunkel, (another roommate Jerry) Speyer, and a third friend read textbooks to him, taking time out from their own studies, and Greenberg ended up scoring straight A’s. Still, he was tentative about getting around alone and relied on his friends to help him
Then, one afternoon, Greenberg and Garfunkel went to Midtown Manhattan. When it was time for Greenberg to go back to campus, Garfunkel said he had an appointment and couldn’t accompany him. Greenberg panicked. They argued, and Garfunkel walked off, leaving Greenberg alone in Grand Central Terminal. Greenberg, bewildered, stumbled through the rush-hour crowd. He took a shuttle train west to Times Square, then transferred to an uptown train. Four miles later, he got off at the Columbia University stop. At the university’s gates, someone bumped into him.
“Oops, excuse me, sir.”
Greenberg knew the voice. It was Garfunkel’s. Greenberg’s first reaction was rage, but in the next second, he realized what he had just accomplished—and realized, too, who had made it possible.
“It was one of the most brilliant strategies,” Greenberg says. “Arthur, of course, had been with me the whole way.”
After graduation, Greenberg got his MBA from Columbia and a PhD from Harvard. He married his girlfriend, Sue; was a White House fellow in the Johnson administration; and went on to become a successful inventor and businessman.
* * *
“You are talking to the luckiest man in the world.” – Sandy Greenberg, Columbia University, Class of 1962.
* * *
Hello, darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence
-- Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, “The Sound of Silence,” 1964 (The song went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the first week of '66, topping The Beatles' "We Can Work It Out" and the duo reunited for another studio album. Their 2nd album featured the remixed version and was titled "The Sounds of Silence" to capitalize on the song's popularity. The song later appeared in the 1967 film “The Graduate” along with a few other Simon & Garfunkel tracks. “The Sound of Silence” was the 18th most-sung song by various artists in the 19th century.
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