It’s odd—life’s twists and turns. I write this piece while sitting on an airplane bound for Denver. It was nearly six months ago that I was wandering through the Denver airport—bound for Kansas City—when a voice called out: “hey Bill! What are you doing?”
It was Peter Spokes. Like me, he was headed home on one of those evening Southwest flights. We were a both road weary. His trip had taken him through Minneapolis, and mine was a series of flights. He’d snagged boarding group A, but he promised me he’d save me a seat.
Honestly, I hoped for a seat by myself. It was late, and I just needed a nap. Quiet. No conversation. On a crowded flight, it meant I was going to end up in a middle seat. But sure enough, there was Peter defending a seat for me with his coat and briefcase, and a weary smile.
There on the plane—somewhere at 30,000 feet—we caught up. We shared the news on our respective works. He told me of all the exciting things with the National Center for Fathering and the momentum they were gaining. He asked my advice for some of the plans they were laying. He pulled out their “dream sheet”—their visions and goals. He asked about our work, the Servant Foundation and the advances we were making there.
It was a fun conversation—meaningful. But in every conversation like that one on the plane, there’s a moment where the mood changes. It is that moment where we take a risk, and the door swings inward to the heart. That evening on a crowded Southwest flight in the middle and window seat, the door swung inward.
Peter confided about how in the days preceding that flight the Center’s board had pushed the CEO on the plans for successorship. Peter told me that he sat quietly hoping that the Board’s conversation would not turn to him with the question: “Peter, who will your successor be?”
It was a question he’d been thinking about. He knew it needed to be done. He shared with me how he needed to look for a successor. He wanted someone young, with energy so he could download all that knowledge “stuck inside his head.” And he had other dreams still yet to pursue. Peter asked me to help him find that successor.
A quiet moment. A pause. We shared the bond of two men, two peers engaged in the same cause: the good of the Kingdom. It was a good, deep rich feeling to be in battle together. And yet, we both knew our frailty—our inability to get it all done. So we smiled, laughed even.
The plane landed, and we said goodbye in the chill December night. It was just two weeks later that Peter called and told me about the “diagnosis.” Like everything, he approached it with his incredible optimism. The blood disorder would keep him out 6 months, and so he renewed his plea to help him find that successor.
In the succeeding weeks, we traded emails and a phone call or two, and in the latter stages I kept in touch by the reports of others. While on vacation, I got the news that the tide had turned, and Peter was going home for hospice care.
In the black and white of these letters, it is difficult to convey and communicate the bevy of emotions that those words convey. There’s much protest, and claims of justice. There’s also submission under the sovereign hand of God. And it helps to understand that Peter understood the rightness of God’s sovereignty. I don’t want to be too convenient here. It’s not all that easy.
In the days since learning his death, I’ve had this question filtering through my mind. It’s been a question that haunts me, perhaps romanticizes me. It’s a question that seems to float upon the skies like clouds you can never really grasp. The question? What is true greatness?
I think all of us want something lasting. A legacy is what some call it. David, the Psalmist, wrote of it—rather cried out for it: “establish the work of our hands with permanence!”
But the sands of time filter through the hour glass thousands upon thousands. So many have gone before us and now forgotten in the annals of time. For a moment we pass through the narrow funnel and perhaps in that moment the light catches and reflects upon our grain of sand and gives light to the world.
I sigh. And the question: what is true greatness?
In the early days of starting our ministry of the Servant Foundation, Peter was one of the first people we met with along with Ken Canfield. I don’t think Ken was too impressed but Peter stuck. He knew that I didn’t have a clue of what I was doing, but for some reason he believed in me. It gave me the confidence to keep on.
Funny thing. Each year, we’ve put on a big banquet. Peter attended the first year, and he saw our stumbles. Before the second year, Peter sent me a tape of a message with a little note: “I thought you might be able to use some of the ideas here.” And I did. It was a great little message all about living at “ground zero.”
That was Peter’s way: quiet, unassuming yet inspiring confidence in others. I think there are few things more meaningful than to have someone believe in you. I suppose I could talk about his strategy, his intellectual prowess, and his ability to get things done, but you know, I guess I’m not sure how much that matters.
And it strikes me that perhaps that’s it: true greatness. True greatness comes from that very brief moment that we pass through this hourglass that we reflect the light. That’s it. The light of Christ is so very simple. Jesus says, “I love you. I believe in you. Accept my love.”
Peter Spokes. Yale. Stanford. Corporate leader. Husband. Father to six. Ministry leader. Defender of the fatherless. Reflecter of the light. True greatness.
The greatness of Peter continues on in the life of his wife Barbara, their children and the ministry of National Center for Fathering. Go Peter!