Thirty-five years ago, at the highly impressionable age of 16 and a sophomore in high school, I boarded my first-ever flight on a journey to the Hugh O’Brian Youth Foundation’s (HOBY) International Leadership Seminar (ILS) in Dallas as one of two Ambassadors from Rhode Island. Little did I know then how profoundly that week in Dallas would impact my life or how the lessons Hugh O’Brian shared remain with me even now.
Launched by Hugh in 1958, the Foundation’s genesis spawned from conversations he had over nine-days volunteering at an African hospital built by noted physician, philosopher, and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Albert Schweitzer. Poignant and eye-opening, the conversations with Schweitzer uncorked something in O’Brian that transformed his life and unalterably affected his outlook. “What are you going to do with all this?” Schweitzer asked as O’Brian was preparing to return to the United States. His bold and enduring answer – to start and run the Hugh O’Brian Youth Foundation – would ultimately seal Hugh’s legacy as one of the world’s finest humanists of the last century.
By the time I arrived in Dallas, O’Brian had already staged hundreds of state seminars from which were plucked current and potential student leaders and dozens of international gatherings for those showing the greatest promise. The HOBY juggernaut was in full swing, its momentum undeniable in America and quickly budding in foreign countries. At the Dallas ILS in 1981, Hugh and the Foundation exposed my hundred-plus fellow delegates and me to leaders from all walks of life. There, I dined next to snack food titan, Herman Lay, laughed with irreverent CNN and Braves owner, Ted Turner, stared in awe of Cowboy’s quarterback, Roger Staubach, and marveled at how seemingly genuine Coke CEO, Donald Keogh, was.
In intimate sessions with these leaders, we grappled with the definition of leadership, the significance of determination, the value of curiosity, the windfalls of courage, the benefits of free enterprise, and the utter importance of education and lifelong learning. We engaged in truly meaningful, heady dialogues that ultimately transformed how I thought, approached obstacles, and believed my life could unfold given the right focus and energy. With certainty, I would bet Wyatt Earp’s ranch that every other HOBY Ambassador, from any year, would express similar metamorphoses. Only the coldest of cold souls ladled with heaps of cynicism atop mounds of misanthropes could cruise through the experience without being forever impacted. It was that powerful. The lessons from Schweitzer’s West African village coursed through the veins of each of us, delivered via the vessel that was Hugh O’Brian.
Conceived no doubt by Hugh, HOBY’s logo back then displayed a rider on horseback carrying a flag, in an apparent homage to Don Quixote’s “tilting at windmills” approach to life. Perhaps nudged on by Schweitzer’s unyielding energy and commitment to the service of others, O’Brian’s singular focus to inspire others to accomplish the impossible seemed, quite frankly, entirely possible. What we heard echo through the week was that “impossible” was a state of mind to which leaders give no harbor and seek no solace. It was as if Hugh was telling us “the laws of leadership physics” do not apply to us unless we acquiesce and embrace whatever arbitrary limits others have previously set. Having just watched athlete after athlete destroy world record after world record at the Olympics, I am reminded of Hugh’s boundary-busting philosophy. Limits are arbitrary. Go beyond.
Appropriately, in what can only be described as an out-of-body experience, the ILS Ambassadors mastered the singing of “The Impossible Dream” that underscored our collective desire to challenge the status quo, to never settle, to push boundaries and to take risks. The song remains today, at least for me, as integral to Hugh’s personal brand as his role as Wyatt Earp. Hugh also loved Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech, a powerful cry to engage the great challenges of our time so that your “place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” I memorized the speech on the plane ride home. Today, a plaque of it sits prominently in my office. Meaningful, memorable and mightily powerful, it became a prism through which I approached life.
Hugh was fond of nicknames and he bequeathed on me that of “Superman,” ostensibly because I looked eerily similar to Christopher Reeves’ version of Clark Kent, big thick dark glasses and all. On talent show night – with zero talent to display and too young to imbibe liquid courage – I delivered instead an oration about the importance of leadership while slowly stripping off my three-piece suit to reveal an uncomfortably tight, hastily concocted Superman outfit. My cape was a table cloth. The underlying message: everyone has a little superhero in them. Along with thunderous catcalls and laughter as each piece of clothing hit the floor, I saw Hugh smiling off to the side, seemingly proud that one of his disciples had clearly been infused with the lessons Schweitzer taught him. After the speech, Hugh came up to me, plunked his big paws on my shoulders and smiled silently before hugging me and whispering in my ear his trademark, “Outstanding.” Message received, Hugh, message received.
Because of Hugh’s commitment to bringing young leaders together, I became friends with some of the best people on the planet. Though the ensuing years have seen us marching down different paths, many of us connect via social media, celebrate still at weddings, recognize births and cheer significant business accomplishments. One delegate from Virginia, Demetrio Cuzzocrea, and I co-founded a business in 2006.
The impact of that one week with Hugh reverberates still. More than any other influence aside from my family, Hugh and the Foundation impacted my choice of college (Princeton), choice of major (Politics), selection of career (marketing and communications), doggedness to write a book (Richard Nixon: A Psychobiography), and an incurable desire to explore the world (32 countries and counting). I would be shocked if other State and International HOBY Ambassadors wouldn’t say the same about the paths they chose.
Fortunately, my story is just one of many hundreds of thousands, each of which likely offers similar perspectives on the inspiration that Hugh exuded. When weaved together, these stories comprise a central part of the legacy of one man who touched so many. The world may best remember Hugh for the star he wore on his vest while playing Wyatt Earp, but I will choose to remember him for a different kind of star, that from his favorite song:
“And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star”
While Hugh’s light flickers into darkness, his star will shine on in the thousands upon thousands of us he inspired. Indeed, the world will be better for this.
To that end, I challenge all other HOBY Ambassadors to tell their stories about Hugh and share them with the world.
Hugh O’Brian Youth Foundation
International Leadership Seminar Ambassador