Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Starlight, star bright

The Citi where I work lost a star yesterday. A quiet, steady, constant star by which we steered; a star without whose presence we are quite lost.

Wayne Powell was far more than met the eye. To the eye, in fact, he looked like just any average guy. The statistics, on the face of it, would have born that out. He was 47, married, with four kids, a hard worker, kinda paunchy and slightly balding. He went to church. He loved to fish and hunt and go to his kids' soccer games. But look at him more closely, my heroes. Look more closely with me.

Wayne and I and many of our colleagues attended a regular meeting at which we discussed our work and because we work for a big company these meetings would often feature arcane acronyms, often so arcane that people had an idea what they meant, but no clear recollection of what they actually stood for. One of these was ORC. Every time it came up in a meeting, I made one of several silly jokes taken from Peter Jackson's movie version of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and every time I made one, Wayne and I would laugh. Somehow or another, I began to tease him about actually being an orc, and because he was incredibly good-natured and humble, he would laugh with me. One day I got an email from Wayne which contained a typo, a missing word that changed the meaning of the email, and his intention. There were a million people on it, so I emailed just Wayne and said something like, Hey, you might want to correct that...I know it's just a typo but it might cause confusion. He responded with an email that said, more or less, "Typing is difficult when you have the short, chubby fingers of an orc. If I had the long, slender fingers of an Elf, I would make less typos..." and thanked me for calling out the mistake.

But it was such a fortuitous mistake. It gave rise to an ongoing, conversational joke that leavened many of our days at the office. Our Resident Expert on All Things Elvish and the rest of the gang conspired to give him a hobbit name, and an Elvish name, and finally we gave him his own, Powgolas. Various parts of the real estate around us will always carry a hint of the Shire, and his own desk will always be right in the middle of Rivendell for me, despite the email joke created by our Resident Expert, below. Laughter was one of the things Powgolas made very easy for us all, as diverse and different as we are. 

“The Age of Men is over. The Time of the Orc has come.” -Gothmog

But we knew he was no orc. He sent me a note once after we'd "promoted" him to Elf-hood. It said, "You are an Elf, too. But almost, a Wizard." He thought I was more than I am. He made me better than I was.

More than kindness, there was a deep abiding loyalty and truest love in him. His wife, rather famously, is a wonderful baker, so admired for her cakes that they sell at fundraising events for astonishing sums. Birthdays at the office are most commonly celebrated with grocery store bakery cakes. These could not, out of loyalty to his beloved wife, be eaten by Wayne, though his figure (like my own) betrayed how much he loved cake. She was the light of his life, and I know this as well as any of my colleagues, though I never met her. He didn't say much about her at the office, but he had only to mention her name and you knew that she was his completion, in a more profound sense than the trite "my other half" sometimes used to try and capture that feeling. His children lit him from inside just as much as that beloved wife, and much of what he did was centered on them. We knew their names, how things were going in school, who was having surgery, who had a tournament on the weekend. He wasn't a guy who bragged about his kids. He lived and breathed and shared about them because they were his life and breath. You only had to stop by his desk and see the range of pictures to know the source of that inner light. We saw those faces every day, through his affectionate eyes. And we knew Wayne to be the truest of friends, the guy who really cared whether his absence might make more work for you, who genuinely sought opinions and expertise of others, who found the gentlest ways of broaching difficult or uncomfortable conversations. 

Wayne and I shared a love of the outdoors. He loved to hunt and fish. Some of his fish stories established laughter that went on for weeks, as in the time he entered a charity fishing tournament, caught a big black drum that he thought would win the tournament, and then DID win the tournament...because there were no other entrants. Some guys would have been annoyed or been ruffled around about the ego. Not Wayne. He laughed and laughed, mostly because he'd almost - but not quite - taken himself too seriously. He loved to hunt in a Wildlife Management Area which is under the care of the Research Reserve at which I'm an active volunteer. At first he was, I think, careful about letting me know he was a hunter, perhaps uncertain whether I would understand or even be offended. Once he knew I'd grown up with the traditions of hundreds of years of local northeast Florida families, where venison is welcome at the table, he would tell me hunting stories. Most these were typically self-effacing and involved him standing in muddy semi-darkness, being attacked by mosquitos. But there was always a laugh and sometimes a wonder: something spotted in the wild, a moment of perfect stillness, some treasure or other that not everyone might understand. Here again, he might have talked of religion, but he never did. He just modeled it with kindness in every single exchange. One of my dear colleagues said to me recently, "I actually sometimes think to myself, before I say something possibly ill-advised, WWWPD?" And he meant no disrespect to people for whom the basis of that phrase means something different. He meant that you could always use Wayne as a yardstick - a guy who seemed so average - you could use him as a yardstick to figure out what was the balanced thing, what was the ethical thing, what was the RIGHT thing to do. I knew just what he meant.

On Monday, I was cleaning out some papers in the office. I found a nomination that had been written for Wayne and had come across my desk before I knew him but when I was serving as a champion on our team for Recognition. The nomination was two pages long, an accounting of what made Wayne so special to his team, why he was so valued. At the time, I'd had about 30 such nominations to read and rank, and I had put his nomination at the top of the list, because it made such an impression on me. It had been written in 2008. I took it over to his desk. He happened to be working from home, so I left it there for him to find. He will not find it now.

But he can see it, from his dwelling in the great wondrous universe. He made us better than we were without him. He will continue to make us better, because we are not the same as we were before he touched our lives. We will continue to be better than we were, in his memory: so say we all. You have, perhaps, your own Wayne Powells; indeed, I hope and pray that you do. These gentle marvels who light our way in dark places without our even knowing it, these guides we do not miss until they go ahead of us; I hope you have been blessed with someone like Wayne.

Look up at the sky tonight, my heroes, and think of this great-hearted, humble man, who made people different and BETTER through his simple and genuine presence in their lives. Know that this was a man who did not need to be told or taught to assume the most positive intent from everyone he met, for he was molded in that fashion. Perhaps the Citi where I work lost a star yesterday. But last night, the wondrous universe welcomed that star to the Heavens, there to shimmer down on us, his inner beauty wholly and finally visible. Look up at the sky. There is our star.


  1. Ang, what a beautiful post and truth of Wayne. He will be missed and I know he's looking down reading this and smiling (I can hear his distinct chuckle), reassured of the joy and grace he shared with others and what he meant to all of us. Thanks for sharing such an elegant and accurate portrait of this man's character. - Jan (Martin) Swain

  2. Jan, you dear: thank you. I really do believe that he changed us without realizing or even being remotely able to take credit. And I think he will continue to influence us both overtly and in more subtle ways we can't quite see yet. Thank you for your voice, helping us focus together on the light of a star far brighter than Wayne would have imagined. I hope you're well and happy - sending love and light,
    Love, Ang

  3. Oh dear Angie, I am so sorry for the loss of your friend and colleague. What a beautiful tribute you have bestowed upon him. You have made him real to those of us who would never have known of this special being. Thank you for your unique gift of portraying universal values of love and friendship so touchingly,,,love, Lorie

    1. My dear Lorie, thank you.
      He was such a dear man and we miss him every single day. I'm so glad some of his authenticity and kindness came through this small portrait. I do dearly hope that his wife and children and his parents will take some small comfort in knowing what a gentle but undeniably powerful influence for good he was - and will continue to be - on those of us who worked with him every day.
      Much love to you, my dear friend.


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