Robert Lusch (1949-2017)
March 3, 2017: My name is Dave Schmidtz. When Virginia asked me to offer the eulogy, there was one right answer: Yes, of course. The wrong answer would be “why me?” but I do have a theory about that. It is like asking, why is Ottawa the capital of Canada? Answer: if you pick Toronto, Montreal says why not me? If you pick Montreal, Toronto says why not me? But if you pick Ottawa, then Toronto and Montreal both say, “what’s Ottawa?” Many of you have known Bob far longer than I have. We all realize that, compared to many of you, I’m kinda Ottawa.
I’m a Professor of Philosophy at the U of A. Most recently I was appointed to the McGuire Center as Eller Chair of Service-Dominant Logic. The name refers to one of 21st century marketing theory’s most important ideas, developed by Bob and Steve Vargo, but which Bob credits to 19th century philosopher Frederic Bastiat. It is the perfect title for the Chair, first, because it points to a real historical connection between the fields of marketing and philosophy; second, because when I’m introduced to Philosophy audiences, people will ask me to explain what that title means. Then I get to tell people who Bob Lusch was. So, I intend to get a lot of practice at this.
But today I’m afraid any words that I could use to describe Bob sound too common to convey what an uncommon human being Bob was. A few work highlights speak for themselves. Bob became Dean at Oklahoma School of Business in 1987. 30 years ago. He also served as Dean of the Business School at Texas Christian. He was Editor of Journal of Marketing. He chaired the American Marketing Association. And the Marketing Department here at U of A. He was Executive Director of the McGuire Center.
I probably shouldn’t even start listing all the times Bob repeatedly earned national awards for educator of year, or had the most cited article of the year. One story. True story: I was at a gathering this past November in Fontainebleau, south of Paris. A guy walks up to me, a philosopher who teaches business ethics. He looks at my Arizona name tag, does a double-take, looks up at me with transparent admiration in his eyes, and says, “Wow. Arizona. So do you know Robert Lusch?” If you’re like me, well, no matter how much you love the guy, you feel a little pang. What’s almost shocking is how Bob himself seemingly never felt even a twinge of jealousy, and never seemed to feel any need to draw attention to himself. Virginia, was he like that all the time? I can’t imagine. I don’t think I’ll ever understand what it would be like to be that good, be perfectly aware you’re that good, and not need to blow your own horn at all.
And to be clear, Bob liked the attention. He appreciated it. He was pleased and proud and grateful, partly because sharing it all with Virginia was what made him tick. But he wasn’t driven to seek fame. He just let it come. Thinking about it now, after meeting many of you, meeting family members, I think, on the one hand, that Bob should have been more forthcoming. You knew Uncle Bob was famous for something, but you wanted to hear about what he was doing. He should have told you. On the other hand, I can see it from Bob’s perspective too. He didn’t want his whole life to be a press conference. In a way, he was respecting his own privacy. He didn’t need another fan club. He cherished being Uncle Bob. He loved being your brother. He loved being your Dad. Period.
I met Bob in 2011 when he asked permission to attend my course in Ethical Entrepreneurship. He brought along Dan Dhaliwal, Head of Accounting at the time. So, there I was, teaching these twin towers. They kept a low profile, and dutifully gathered into their small student discussion groups like everyone else. Other students would come up to me afterwards and say, whatever you had to do to get those guys to come to class, thank you. There has never been a class like this. One student said, it’s like taking physics and finding out your classmate is Galileo.
Sometimes Bob and Dan would invite me to join them for a cup of coffee on Saturday morning. And they’d want to talk about ethics. Bob would say, every marketing decision is an ethical decision. You miss that, you miss everything. If the truth isn’t enough to sell your service, then you need a better service. Dan would say, accounting is the same. It’s impossible to tell the whole truth. So you have to tell the truth that won’t mislead. What I wouldn’t give for one more cup of coffee...
Looking back through my correspondence with Bob (2366 emails just on the one account that I checked) I’m amazed that we became friends so quickly. We were planning trips and weekends together within 2 weeks of meeting. Within a month, Cate and Bob and I were talking about a vision for outreach education that eventually would turn into a textbook, team-teaching, and a new course on Ethics, Economy, and Entrepreneurship.
He had such a shy smile. His eyes had such a twinkle. You know how piercing his eyes could be, but usually his eyes were twinkling, because thinking made Bob happy, and he was always thinking. What Steve said last night: “If I could help one student the way that Dad helped a hundred…” You know what Steve was saying. You were one of the hundred. We all were. But the thing is, when Bob was helping you, you weren’t one of a hundred. You were the one.
When Bob was with you, he was all in. Maybe the best listener I ever met. Bob told you what made you interesting. Then he told you what would make you more interesting. And in the moment when you saw what he was getting at, life felt like a Corvette on an open highway.
What Bob accomplished in his life was jaw-dropping. But there was something Buddha-like about him too. There was something peaceful. He knew he didn’t have time to be in a rush. I could spend an hour with him on his patio without either one of us needing to say much. Then the four of us would have dinner. And now it kills me to be saying something this important in such trite words, but you all know this needs to be said whether or not I have the words. Bob’s co-pilot Virginia. Sometimes his co-author, sometimes his business manager. Life manager really. Always a confidante, always his best and most trusted advisor, and always the one who made him whole. And guys, let’s just be honest. See it from Bob’s perspective. When Miss Oklahoma decides you are her hero, you gotta step up. Bob wasn’t stupid. He stepped up. So, we get it, Virginia: we came here to celebrate who you are, not only who Bob was.
Virginia made her choice. She made it part of her mission to be what Bob needed her to be, and to be a woman of consummate grace. She made a point of not drawing a lot of attention, but Bob knew. He knew.
On Feb 28, 2014, Bob sent Cate and me an email saying he found out earlier that day that he had a tumor on his bladder. We met him downtown the next morning for breakfast. Virginia was coming back from a trip to India. Cate could read Bob’s body language. I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, emotionally, but even I could see the sorrow on Bob’s face as he imagined what he was about to put Virginia through. All the years, all those “best years yet to be,” all of a sudden years that might never be. But Bob changed the topic. He wanted to talk about our next project. He cheered us up, all the while thanking us for cheering him up.
That was Bob for another 3 years. He fought to live, as people do, but beyond that, he fought to his last breath to be a decent human being. He fought for his dignity, for Virginia’s dignity, as best he could. For a chance to make one more contribution. Every day, he fought to give the people around him one more reason to celebrate that he walked this earth. He was here too briefly, but boy, was he ever here.
He was a giant. He was a friend.