A Eulogy for My Friend and Mentor, Mervyn Hackney

Eulogies are not meant to read; they are meant to be heard. The cadence, the prose, and punctuation that follows are not how I would have written this sentiment, but it was constructed to be read aloud. I'm probably being a bit neurotic but 'tis the burden and prerogative of a writer to do so. By the way, "Bob" referenced in the eulogy is not me, but Merv's lifelong friend. The eulogy was delivered as follows:

I am not a preacher, Bob is an ordained minister, my three bothers are preachers, but fair warning, I am not a preacher.

I thought it was fitting that Merv would ask me to do this, he seemed to have a knack for putting me into positions I’m not qualified for.

I should explain for those who don’t know why I am up here, who I am. I was one of Merv’s first employees over 25 years ago. For the last 15 years, along with Larry Sharp, I ran his company. He was a father figure to me and my mentor.

The poet John O'Donoghue says there is a reduction of identity to biography …. it’s the eulogist's job to fight against reductionism and attempt to share, out of his poverty of language, the breadth and width of a life fully lived, like the life Merv had.

Merv was born in 1933. He was born into a depression era family. World War II would begin and would continue until Merv was twelve. These times would cast a long shadow over his childhood and teenage years, a testament to just how positive Merv could be in the face of adversity.

He lived 84 years. We are all tempted to think that we know someone so well but even when I worked with Merv closely for 25 years it would be presumptuous to think that I really knew him, fact is, I only knew Merv 30% of the time that he was alive, that means for 70% of his life, a full life, I did not know him.

I bring this up because the writer Richard Ford uses a phrase called “the permanent period” to describe that period in your life that, when you die, people will most remember you for. Tragically, for many elderly, that is our most recent memories and often these are the most difficult times, as it was with Merv, with sickness, stress, and the tensions that inevitably exist when someone goes through the last season of their life.

We forget who they were 20-30 years ago which is the obvious reason for memorial service.

Merv’s life was much richer than the personal memories we each ascribe to him.

So this reflection of mine today, is just mine, from my limited perspective.

For me, my perspective, I had the privilege of watching Merv and Koleata Jane build a company, and I was privileged to build it with them.

I enjoyed watching them interact with our clients. He was jovial and disarming; she was elegant and attentive. Both of them helpful and magnanimous personalities. They exemplified what it was to be Oklahomans, they were from hardy soil, strong, but full of grace. And they were charming. If you had ever seen them dance together, you witnessed our version of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

And may I say, to honor Koleata (as Merv would like for us to do here today), they were an incredible partnership.  

In business, he was the gregarious, friendly salesman, she was the meticulous and ordered detailist. What many do not know is that our business requires a surprising amount of exactitude, there are a myriad of details to get right, a job that requires obsessive attention and if anyone could be obsessive, it was our Koleata Jane. Robyn still use procedures and principles that she and Merv instilled in the business over 20 years ago. You wouldn’t know it but those two opposite poles of personality comprised an imperfect but important business partnership. The would grow that business to be among the top 5% in a $23 billion dollar industry.

As I mentioned, Merv was my mentor. Now, when I use the word mentor I'm not speaking of that synthetic, disingenuous concept, the watered down idea of some wizened old man meeting the young pup weekly for coffee, who shares life lessons from a distance. I’m talking about the iron sharpening iron type of mentoring, which is up close and personal. Have you ever seen iron sharpen iron? It’s brutal, messy, hard, but honest work. And Merv would be painfully honest with me. 

As a mentor, he left me with so many lessons; I thought I would share just a few of those here with you today (as a reminder, this is just my perspective, I’m sure that if you were to deliver this eulogy, you would share different things he taught you):

Life Lesson #1: Espirit de Corps - as a former military man, espirit de corp, the spirit of the troops was vitally important to Merv. Keep in mind, this was long before the word “culture” became common coinage in the halls of corporate America. Raising the spirit of the troops was a critical principal that he instilled in me. 30% of your workforce can be going through a difficult moment at any time -illness, divorce, death of a loved one- Merv knew this, and he was so conscientious of our lives outside of work. Espirit De Corp: always raise the spirit of the troops.

Life Lesson #2: He once told me that if you “take care of a soldiers family, you’ll earn yourself a soldier.” Merv was constantly helping our employees and the people around him. Paying for a flat tire, for an engine to get fixed. It was such an important principle, that as the years progressed and health care costs escalated into outrageous proportions, he insisted on paying for the vast majority of our employee's health care coverage. Sounds like such a small thing but it was so important for him to take care of a soldier's family.

Life lesson #3: Risk living generously.

Merv was a risk-taker.

No, not a financial risk taker, he was a risk taker in the issues of life that matter the most, he was a risk taker with people. He took risks on people when they were not worth taking risks on. He knew that investing in people is not a gamble but a long-term commitment.

- He risked being misunderstood for the sake of kindness.

- He risked being seen as a fool because he chose to live generously.

- He risked trusting people that the world deems untrustworthy because he believed in second and third chances.

- He taught me to see through the person now to the person they could be. 

- He risked loving people regardless of class, race, or social status and, by example, proved that our commonalities are stronger than our dissimilarities. To him, there was no hierarchy. There were no have and have-nots.

I can't tell you how many interviews I've had through the years with people.

Merv would call and say ”I want you to interview this person." 

And I would say, “But Merv we don't have any jobs.” “Find one,” he’d say.

This was Merv's greatest gift to us. His generosity of spirit. To treat others with compassion and kindness. And to laugh generously. They said at Express headquarters you could always tell when Merv was visiting because you could hear him and Bob cackling from down the hall.

You rarely left Merv’s presence without both you and him laughing.

He was incredibly positive. When I went to see Merv once in these latter days when he was in and out of delirium, he seized me by the arm and said, “this is a fantastic world.”

It’s ironic that he received so much criticism in his life for living so generously when that seems to be exactly what God requires of us.

The torch is being passed to us to risk ridicule for the sake of compassion. To laugh often, to love much. To risk being misunderstood for the sake of kindness.

His last lesson he gave me was a surprising one.

His lesson was: follow your heart.

Do you know how mortified Merv was of the nursing home? Of living his last days in a place where it seemed no one cared and where he couldn’t visit friends, freely. (Because we all know he couldn’t be still for very long).

Merv was rich in relationships, in friendships, but he was richest in love.

He not only had Koleata Jane in his life but he then met LeeAnn. And LeeAnn, I know you know this, but you were a beacon of hope for him at first, and then you became his friend, and then - his love. And I’m so thankful for you, and I’m thankful that his last lesson to me was to follow my heart.

He showed me what it meant to love.

I would like to end this eulogy with two passages, both Merv’s favorites.

Over twenty years ago, Merv walked back to the warehouse with his Bible in his hand, pointing to a passage and said to me, "Bob, I want this read at my funeral." (What’s astounding about that statement is that he knew I’d be hard to get rid of and would be standing here today).

This was the passage:

John 14:6, Jesus *said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”

The other passage I want to read might surprise some of you.

Merv was fond of citing poetry. He memorized "A Psalm of Life" by Longfellow and, “Thanatopsis” by Bryant, and Riley's “When the Frost is on the Pumpkin,” but the one that sticks out to me and is most relevant today is Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar.”

The metaphor of "crossing the bar" represents traveling serenely and securely from life through death. When a ship would leave the shallow waters and head into deeper waters, the hull of the ship would cross the sandbars, and when it did, it made a moaning sound, like grief. There’s an important part of this poem that Merv would love for us to consider. Twice in the poem Tennyson refers to “no moaning” “no crying” “no sadness of farewell.”

Of course, we will, grief is a bridge, we will travel back and forth on it, from joy to sadness, and back and forth again. But Merv would want us to stay on the joyful side of the bridge as much as we can.

Also, in the poem, the pilot was always on board, the ship was never without a pilot, it just seemed so at times. The ship sailed often in the dark, or at least dark enough that the pilot was obscure - we find this very same sentiment uttered beautifully by the apostle Paul when he says, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.”  Tennyson explained the pilot as "That Divine and Unseen, Who is always guiding us."

I was asked once to speak to a roomful of young people at a cancer camp; the chaplain asked me to tell my story and not to be shy about speaking to these kids with cancer on the subject of death.

Two of our own children had cancer. Up until that moment, I was just another counselor, none of the kids in the room knew my story. Among the kids, emotions were raw because there was a camper that was very special to everyone who passed away and did not make it to camp that year.

I was shaken by what I would say. I realized at the last minute that what they needed to hear, and what I needed to hear, and what Merv would want us to hear, is that there is only one way to honor those who have gone before us, and that is to not squander our lives in regret and resentment but to live our lives fully, on their behalf, for to do otherwise would be a dishonor to their memory.  

Wendell Berry wrote that “The best teachers teach more than they know. By their deaths, they teach most. They lead us beyond what we know, and what they knew .... the dead abide, as grief knows, we are what we have lost."  

I’ll read Tennyson’s poem that Merv memorized, in conclusion, and ask you to try and imagine with me, Merv, his voice, that deep baritone/bass, reading these words:

Crossing the Bar

Sunset and evening star,

     And one clear call for me!

And may there be no moaning of the bar,

     When I put out to sea,


  But such a tide as moving seems asleep,

     Too full for sound and foam,

When that which drew from out the boundless deep

     Turns again home.


  Twilight and evening bell,

     And after that the dark!

And may there be no sadness of farewell,

     When I embark;


  For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place

     The flood may bear me far,

I hope to see my Pilot face to face

     When I have crost the bar.

Arriving at Naipaul's Enigma

I lay on the floor beneath the glow of the cast iron stove. Burlap bag as blanket. Brown zafu as pillow. Angled above me, V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival. The fire in the metal box dances above the wood (rather than within it), making light shimmer against the yellowed pages. 

It is Sunday. Sunday nights have a separateness about them. It is a threshold night, a tipping point night. It is capstone and eve of beginnings.

I am reading Enigma because I heard Karl Ove Knausgaard read the first section on The New Yorker podcast. The stove near me, a Jøtul, is as Norwegian as Knausgård. Was this the reason I tipped Naipaul’s book from the shelf? The mind’s hazy remembrance of a reading by a Norwegian? 

The rain on the metal roof pelts the corrugated tin, a light but metallic ring. 

I read: “Jack lived among ruins, among superseded things.” 

I ask V. S. Naipaul, Why superseded? Why not supplanted

No reply. 

He continues: 

But that way of looking came to me later, has come to me with greater force now, with the writing. It wasn’t the idea that came to me when I first went out walking. 

It almost always comes later and most always with the writing. Distance fosters illumination. The mind’s bits of string strung together to make sense of randomness, of ruin.  
I am taken by Naipaul’s fragments, I try to string the random collection together:

  • … when the land had more meaning, when it absorbed more of my life …
  • …. If I say it was winter when I arrive at that house in the river valley, it is because I remember the mist, the four days of rain and mist that hid my surroundings from me and answered my anxiety at the time, anxiety about my work and this move to a new place … 
  • Snow dusted the lawn in front of my cottage; dusted the bare branches of the trees; outlined discarded things … 
  • After all my time in England I still had that nervousness in a new place, that rawness of response, still felt myself to be in another man’s country, felt my strangeness, my solitude.
  • ... the sense of space was overwhelming. 
  • It was possible on this stretch to hold onto the idea of emptiness. 
  • ... another carefully made thing abandoned; another piece of the past that no longer had a use but had not been thrown away. 
  • As though, in that little spot around the farm buildings and Jack’s cottage, time had stood still, and things were as they had been, for a little while. But the sheep-shearing was from the past. Like the old farm buildings. Like the caravan that wasn’t going to move again. Like the barn where grain was no longer stored. 

I hear coyotes all around. Two or three packs yelping a heinous chorus. Last week, the lake lay frozen. They stalked the ducks toward the center, remnants of feathers the remaining remark.

Last night, a fox attempted to make off with one of the chickens. A chunk of the chicken’s back was gone. Coyotes disembowel their prey on site; foxes retreat with their meal back to their den. I must have startled the fox when I walked outside, robbing him of his fresh dinner.

The rain has slowed to a resonant tapping. The fire glows embers. I read one more section before heading to the house and to bed:

That idea of ruin and dereliction, of out-of-placeness, was something I felt about myself, attached to myself: a man from another hemisphere, another background, coming to rest in middle life in the cottage of a half-neglected estate, an estate full of reminders of its Edwardian past, with few connections with the present. An oddity among the estates and big houses of the valley, and I a further oddity in its grounds. I felt unanchored and stranged. Everything I saw in those early days, as I took my surroundings in, everything I saw on my daily walk, beside the windbreak or along the wide grassy way, made that feeling more acute. I felt that my presence in that old valley was part of something like an upheaval, a change in the course of the history of the country. 




What no one tells you when you are young is that your life’s work will take its shape through a slow simmer of self-realization. One’s purpose is rarely revealed in a flash of insight or a single cathartic event; rather, it’s a successive shaping by tiny moments, like waves that form the contour of a shoreline. 

Since my early twenties, I have taken countless career assessments and read troves of books and articles on vocational advice. No matter what new resource I discovered, whether a test, a book, or a seminar, they all directed me toward creative pursuits. 

So, throughout my career, I would, quite naturally, seek opportunities to flex this creative muscle. If an opportunity for speaking or writing presented itself, I would take it. At first, I did so with a mixture of motives, but as I matured, I discovered real pleasure in doing the work. It was the creative work itself that fascinated me (not the recognition nor public posturing). For some, work such as gardening or cooking affords this pleasure, for me, it is creativity in most any form (but primarily, writing). 

Following Fascination

Joseph Campbell’s truncated statement 'follow your bliss' has mutated into a job-seeking truism. As a maxim for one’s career choice, I find it suspect. The realistic side of me (the one who has a mortgage to pay and mouths to feed), repulses at career advice that encourages me to 'follow my bliss.' It is the word bliss that confounds me; I can't equate vocation with Nirvana.

Just a few months ago, I listened to Joseph Campbell’s lectures again. He stated the same sentiment (follow your bliss) but used different words; this time, the words became a lens, a statement through which I could see: 

'The way to build your mission is to follow your fascinations.'     

There. That was it. The missing link between career-as-nirvana and career-as-adventure. Follow my bliss? Ludicrous. Follow my fascinations? That’s a path I can tread … 

  • I'm fascinated by the intersection of creativity and commerce, the synthesis of work and art, what Wallace Stevens called the ‘interdependence of imagination and reality as equals.’
  • I'm fascinated by the ‘armory of language and what you can do with it.’ (Luc Sante)
  • I'm fascinated by shared learning which is ‘not a form of polemics ... or magisterial dogmatism, but of shared investigation.’ (Jorge Luis Borges)
  • I'm fascinated by technology that enlarges (rather than reduces) the human experience. (This past week, I facilitated a live, virtual storytelling workshop with my friends at MarketingProfs: it was fascinating work). 
  • I'm fascinated by artistic work that makes me vulnerable (for it is at the edge of vulnerability that I experience transformation; the poet David Whyte calls this type of work 'robust vulnerability.')

Through the years, as a professional, I gravitated toward whatever was necessary to run the business. If we needed a customer service department, we built it. If we needed support, we created it. As one of the first employees, I grew up with the business: warehouse, admin, sales support, customer service, sales, management, and finally CEO. It was an enlarging experience and provided opportunities to experiment and explore. (We forget that the large work of discovering what we will do with our lives is an evolution, one that is discerned primarily through doing. 'Figure it out for yourself,' says the ancient minstrel, ‘There are no shortcuts.’)

I failed at many things and succeeded at some, but I learned more about myself, discovering along the way that my fascinations tended toward the creative rather than the logistical. I found passion and purpose in my creative pursuits (writing, speaking, photography) but they were always relegated to 'side gigs.' I always felt I could give a lot more to my work if I had even greater opportunity to flex that creative muscle.

Genius Loci


A few months ago, my friends Mark and Catherine Graham at commonsku extended an offer I couldn’t resist, an opportunity that perfectly encapsulated my passion for creative communication and a chance to follow my fascinations. Starting January 1, I will embark on a new journey as commonsku’s Chief Content Officer. 

I have spent considerable time around Mark and Catherine. Mark and I go back a few years. We’re close (we insult and inspire each other often). I’ve introduced him to mechanical bulls in Dallas, Texas (a ride he excelled at); he introduced me to Parkdale in Toronto (an equally wild ride). We’ve hung out at art museums, taken road trips, and traded enough email barbs to write a short novel. We share a curiosity about the intersection of work-life and art-life, how we can enrich our lives and the lives of others by building something beautiful and inspiring into our ordinary experiences. ('Epic cool shit' is how I think he would phrase it). And Catherine is the engine, a super-sharp mind of systems and efficiencies; both are passionate about empowering entrepreneurs. More details are forthcoming about our new adventure, but, even now, as we work through the upcoming year’s plan, the possibilities are tremendous. I see, on the horizon ahead, a lot of 'epic cool shit.'

I have also spent time with many of the professionals in the commonsku community. commonsku is a network of maverick entrepreneurs who, dissatisfied with the status quo, thrive at building distinct brands with unique voices (yet find unity in their diversity). 

There is this ancient idea, a Roman idea, of genius loci, which means the protective spirit of place. Genius loci has become modern parlance for a protective location or environment that allows one to flourish. By this definition, even a work culture can be a genius loci. It’s not a perfect place, in fact, it’s fraught with risk, but it demands your greatest work. It’s aspirational, to be sure, but it’s something for those of us who build businesses to be cognizant of, to develop a distinctive enclave that fosters exceptional craftsmanship.

I see the company commonsku, and the community commonsku as a genius loci, a place where one can do great (and fascinating) work. I'm honored that I have the opportunity, to not only distil 25 years of experience to help encourage entrepreneurs, but also to grow alongside some of the most ingenious and independent spirits in the business. (Even if it means working with Mark).

A Lovely Ride


I have been incredibly fortunate. I have spent the past 25 years working for and with wonderful people. As any worthwhile work can be, it was often difficult, sometimes stressful, but, on the whole, it was rewarding. As I reflect upon years of work with one company and the various roles performed through the years, I think of the anecdote told by Herman Hesse, it's from a conversation between a river ferryman and his nobleman-passenger:

‘You have chosen a lovely life,’ said the passenger. 'It must be lovely to live by this water every day and to travel upon it.' 
Smiling, the rower rocked, ‘It is lovely, sit. It is as you say. But is not every life, is not every work lovely?’

'Lovely' might be too strong a word. I am sure if you were to ask the twenty-year-younger-me (the one busily hurling boxes or entering orders) if he was pursuing ‘lovely’ work, he would snark a retort unpublishable. 

But the author Paul Theroux, famous for a lifetime of travel writing, once quipped, ‘Travel is only glamorous in retrospect.’ We rarely appreciate the journey we are on at the moment; it is mainly in hindsight that we value its significance in our lives. 

Space nor time permit me to thank the many who have contributed to my growth while at Robyn, from clients, suppliers-partners, the community, and most certainly my colleagues, half of whom I have worked alongside for more than ten years. Most of all, to Merv Hackney who, much more than boss and mentor, has been a cherished friend and fearless leader, without whose influence I would have never had the courage nor the wisdom to follow my fascination. 

To my new colleagues, industry peers, and the commonsku community in which I now serve: thank you for the opportunity.

Let's build something fascinating.