I’m always interested in the guy-behind-the-guy. Despite our tendency to lionize the individuals who do great things in this world, often those who reach great heights are propelled in part by some interesting people who stay behind the curtains. Sometimes these people are spouses with great support, ideas, or encouragement. Sometimes they are mentors who have seen their day come and go and later find their greatest fulfillment in pressing a new hero into service or greater heights. Sometimes the ‘man behind the curtain’ is a benefactor.
Dr. Paul Farmer is a truly great man. Even among those who have a life’s ambition to help the poor or serve the vulnerable, Dr. Farmer sets a high bar. His work, now known as Partners in Health, embodies the essence of transformational service and is rooted in a service to some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on Earth, in rural Haiti. Much has been written about the greatness of Paul Farmer, most notably in the incredibly well reviewed book “Mountains beyond Mountains” by Tracy Kidder. This work and others attest to the great story of how a kid from Florida who was about to start at Harvard Medical School begged, borrowed, and stole whatever he could to help a people who the rest of the world seemed to have forgotten about. He built clinics, brought resources, directed the attention of institutions (the World Health Organization and Harvard Medical School among others), and changed the way modern medicine was delivered to those he served. By learning about the people he served and the lives they lived, not just their medical problems, Dr. Farmer achieved incredible results and changed medicine.
However, to me a layer beyond the Paul Farmer story is the story of a friendship and a man behind the curtain who in no small part made it all possible. Tom White was an exceptional man in just how unexceptionally he saw the world. Yet it was his humble vision and vigorous benefaction that made the Paul Farmer story possible. He seemed to have a simple way of approaching life, focused on core values of integrity and honest work, but embodied in exceptional generosity of heart and money. He was a successful businessman in his family’s construction business (J.F. White), but saw his role in this world as much more than just to be in business. In a moving eulogy reflecting on the life of his friend and chief benefactor, Paul Farmer noted that Tom saw a world in need and responded with generosity, compassion, and service. He did not accept simple answers to tough problems, and saw the needs of the poor as urgent rather than just a long-term problem. He focused on building an ‘inclusive world’ recognizing that the basic humanity of all people is the same. He rejected the idea that the poor had made bad choices, arguing that a great deal of each person’s life is determined by the circumstances into which they are born. This, in part, motivated a profound urgency to act to bring the hope of prosperity and health to those who deserved it but had little access to it. The depth of Tom’s compassion drove him to give away nearly all of his wealth toward these goals, with the Boston Globe joking that Tom White’s bumper sticker should read: “He who gives it all away wins.”
By most accounts, Tom White seemed to shy away from individual acclaim, despite his immense generosity. He preferred to be the embodied example of the man from the Wizard of Oz, who despite controlling all of the sparkle and power of the emerald city, declared, “please pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”
I wonder who else is back there, behind all those curtains.