True Greatness: A Tribute to Peter Spokes

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!

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5 Responses to “True Greatness: A Tribute to Peter Spokes”

  1. Bill Barnum Says:

    Spending some “downtime” looking around the internet for old friends–and it dawned on me that I hadn’t talked to Peter for 10 or 15 years (I guess even longer, since he was still at General Mills last time we spoke). Peter and I were hich school classmates (I was a year behind him, and good friends with Barb). We were good friends, both soccer players, and during my senior year in high school, he had the Yale soccer coach recruiting me to come join him there. As it turnned out, I was bound for Stanford, and as luck would have it, we reunited when he cane out to Palo Alto for Business school while I was enrolled in the JD/MBA program at Stanford. We shared a number of dinners which Barb would make for us. Our paths didn’t cross much after that, but I always felt that we were kindred spirits in our commitment to family and community. I’m very sorry to hear of his untimely passing. Thanks you for your thoughts–it all rings so true of him.

  2. Patricia Plumb Says:

    What great ministries — Servant Christian Community Foundation and the National Center for Fathering! Bill, we are grateful for what you and your staff do for so many organizations. Thank you!

    Bill, I will always cherish and remember the starfish in the sand story you told at one of the SCCF banquests. Though we may not be able to rescue all, you reminded us of the powerful difference that we can make to those God has put into our lives that we can save.

    Bill, your tribute to Peter is a sweet memory of a great, humble, professional and compassionate man. His light shines on. We miss him.

  3. Mike Farrell Says:

    Bill, thanks so much for your tribute. I just found out today that Peter had gone on to be with our Heavenly Father. I sent him an email because tomorrow was his birthday. I got an email back from Steve Wilson at NCF. He told me that Peter passed last May. You can imagine my shock. Anyway, thanks for your kind remembrances of Peter. He was an inspiration to me at a time when I needed it most.

  4. Top 5 Blog Posts of 2010 « Live the Generous Life Says:

    […] 2. True Greatness: A Tribute to Peter Spokes. In 2010, a man who championed fathering and impacted many of us passed away. Here, Bill High relays how Peter’s life touched him personally. […]

  5. Most Popular Blog Posts of 2010 « Live the Generous Life Says:

    […] 2. True Greatness: A Tribute to Peter Spokes. In 2010, a man who championed fathering and impacted many of us passed away. Here, Bill High relays how Peter’s life touched him personally. […]


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