My father turns 95 in June. From his teen years, he’s had an interest in journalism and current affairs. When he joined the Army during WWII, he trained as a navigator and flew night missions over Germany with the OSS, but he still found time to write for newspapers at the bases where he was stationed. It was in that capacity that he visited Dachau shortly after it was liberated and reported on the Malmedy Massacre war crimes trial, where it came to light that German soldiers had executed 84 American POWs. Having witnessed first-hand the worst of humanity, my dad developed a lifelong interest in social justice.
After the war, my father settled in Jacksonville, Florida to be with his parents. They had moved there from New York so my grandfather could run the city’s paper mill. The transition was a difficult one for Manhattan natives, but even though my grandfather had earned his degree from Columbia University, the paper industry was the only one hiring jewish engineers at the time.
There’s a saying in Florida that “the further north you go, the further south you get.” And in Florida, Jacksonville is as far north as you can go before you hit Georgia. In the 1950’s and 60’s local attitudes were not always aligned with progressive values. My father got involved in the desegregation movement back at a time when it wasn’t a very popular idea. At one point, the KKK threatened to burn a cross on his yard, but he never backed down from his involvement in civic affairs. I remember he had tacked above his desk the Oliver Wendell Holmes quote, “a man should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.”
My dad began tracking the flow of money related to city development projects and discovered that the same names kept popping up, winning multi-million dollar construction contracts and pushing for public projects that would enhance the value of their own real estate holdings. There was a bridge that went nowhere, but cost hundreds of millions of dollars. A monorail subsidized with federal transportation funds that went 9/10ths of a mile between two places nobody wanted to visit. A contract for a football stadium that the city refused to disclose. For years, my father wrote about corruption and sweetheart deals for a local paper and threatened to sue under the Freedom of Information Act. Ultimately, the City Ethics Commission presented him with their inaugural Award for Excellence in Ethics.
My parents always taught my brother, sister, and me to think for ourselves and do what we thought right, even if it meant going against the grain. In 1972 I wasn’t old enough to vote, but I followed the news. My moderate friends were backing Nixon. The conservatives were for George Wallace. I was working for George McGovern. In Jacksonville in 1972, there weren’t a lot of McGovern supporters. But my dad’s example was hard to ignore and made sitting idly by in the face of injustice impossible.
A few years ago, I got lucky. I left my job working for a newspaper to join an internet startup of fifty people founded by a couple of Stanford PhD dropouts. The company was Google and when they went public, I became financially independent. I had worked long hours that put stress on my family life and my state of mind, so I’d love to take credit for that success, but ultimately, it was a matter of luck. I was in the right place at the right time.
There is an attitude in Silicon Valley that is jaded about the political process. I talk to people worth tens of millions of dollars who believe that the best contribution they can make to society is to keep improving technology. They look at a company like Google and say that it has done more good for the world than any modern politician has.
These people aren’t greedy or selfish. They’re just trying to focus on things they can control. The political system is broken, and they don’t like to participate systems that they believe they can’t fix. It’s hard to convince them to support a candidate, or an organization, or to get involved in a political battle. It’s so much easier to deal with the consistency of code than with unpredictable human behavior.
But I talk to my father all the time. At 95, he’s still fighting pork barrel projects in Jacksonville, and writing columns for the weekly paper. And I know he will continue to do so as long as he can breathe, and write, and fight and think. I marvel at how much he has been able to accomplish without having the financial resources available to me. How much more of an obligation do I have, then, to ensure that others have access to the opportunities for success that I have enjoyed?
Being a member of the Patriotic Millionaires is one way for me acknowledge the debt I owe the society that provided me with public schooling, college loans, and the research that made the internet — and my career — possible. And to recognize the unbending moral compass of my dad, whose commitment to the public good inspires me still.