Today while doing some mindless Googling I learned about the passing of one of my college roommates. Having lost contact with him twenty years ago, it took some additional searches to fill in the blanks. I hope you’ll bear with me as I briefly summarize his story.
Bill Rodgers was a small fellow, and you could immediately tell he was a man of the earth… with some of those characteristics leading to his nickname of "Wild Bill." An exceptionally kind and gentle person, he befriended everyone. The students on our dorm floor spent many late nights listening to his stories of nature, and Bill and I had many long conversations… a few of them while actually sober. Several people have since written about how they could literally feel his power and presence, and I know exactly what they mean… which is why I feel compelled to tell his story.
I lost contact with Bill when I graduated and started my manufacturing career, but I had heard that he had moved to Prescott, Arizona. This is where today’s research picks up the story. In Prescott he became a key member of the radical environmental activist and anarchist community, affiliated with groups such as Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), where he assumed the name "Avalon". He allegedly was involved with several "eco-terrorist" (or "eco-liberation" depending on your viewpoint) operations for the next several years. After a while he started a small business in Prescott selling books and other materials on environmental activism, called the Catalyst Infoshop.
In 1998 he was the leader of the ELF group that set fire to several buildings at the Vail ski resort in Colorado, causing over $12 million in damage. After a long hunt he was arrested by the FBI on December 7th, 2005 as part of Operation Backfire. Later that month he committed suicide in his jail cell. He has since become something of a martyr for the environmental activist community, with a large number of memoriams and actions in his honor. And he has his own page on Wikipedia and a story in Rolling Stone.
My old roommate was responsible for the costliest act of eco-terrorism in U.S. history.
I am not going to debate the politics and ethics of his actions. I may disagree with a lot of what he believed in, I may find his methods an affront to civil society, but I can’t help but admire the passion and conviction he had in what he believed.
I have one more story to tell before I make my point. A story of a different college roommate, Sean O’Sullivan. He was an eclectic type, one of those quiet geniuses that infuriated the rest of us that had to pound the books hard to just barely make it. We shared a common bond of being so cash-poor one week that we ate nothing but spoonfuls of peanut butter from a huge "value tub". Unlike Bill, Sean and I have kept in touch, albeit rarely and only every few years.
After graduating Sean co-founded MapInfo, which became a very successful intelligence mapping software company. He served as chairman for seven years before leaving in 1993 to start a rock band called Janet Speaks French. The band released two CDs, and Sean branched out to co-found Sonic Recording Studios in Philadelphia, which has been used by major recording artists including Sheryl Crow, Bon Jovi, and Boyz II Men.
In 1995, Sean started NetCentric, which developed software for more efficient Web communications. After growing rapidly, it eventually became a “dot-bomb,” so he decided to enter the film school at University of Southern California to focus on documentary filmmaking. He received his masters of fine arts, and his first documentary project took him to Iraq in the early days of the war.
Making a documentary while the Saddam Hussein regime was still in power proved difficult, but Sean found work as a freelance journalist in the country. While there he conceived the idea that helping people become self-sufficient is the long-term solution to global political and economic instability, and he was convinced he could rebuild Iraq more efficiently than the U.S. government or military. He founded Jumpstart International, which now employs several thousand Iraqis who are demolishing and cleaning up bombed-out buildings. It hasn’t been easy… his partner, who was to be best man at his upcoming wedding, was assassinated. Sean has returned, and recently created the "Change the World Challenge" at Rensselaer with $1 million in seed money.
Once again, passion and conviction. To the point of putting his life in danger many times.
Neither Bill or Sean had to go this far… Bill could have lived comfortably in Prescott and after selling MapInfo Sean could have lived comfortably anywhere. But they were driven to make a difference and to put it all on the line.
Like many of us, I am driven by a passion for manufacturing and a conviction that there are ways to create hypercompetitive enterprises in North America without following the outsourcing lemmings. But the effort I put behind my passion and conviction pales when compared to that of Bill and Sean. Blogging? Creating a resource website? Some consulting and company turnaround activities? I still come home each night to a glass of wine and a comfortable bed.
Bill and Sean, I may not agree with all you’ve done, but your passion and conviction continue to inspire me to set my goals higher and to work harder.