Sunday, September 7, 2008


I spoke to my good friend Howard last week. At the end of June we had breakfast with him outside Washington on our drive up to Connecticut from Florida. Although we had not seen him for several years, probably since I left my job some eight years ago, we wanted to visit and lend our emotional support to what he was facing: lung cancer.

He had had successful surgery to remove a tumor sometime last year, but in a routine follow-up, they found a spot on his other lung, one that would be best treated with a combination of radiation and chemotherapy. When we saw him he was completing radiation and was beginning the chemo. Although he had lost weight, he said if it were not for the diagnosis, he felt completely fine. That he wouldn’t even know he was battling cancer and undergoing radiation. He was hopeful – and so were his physicians – that this would go into remission.

I’ve known Howard since 1976. We were both in our early 30’s, working in publishing, he at a company that bought the company I worked for.

Howard and I learned we were very much alike: compulsive workers, driven to build our businesses. Initially I suppose we viewed each other with some suspicion; unconsciously playing a workplace version of the childhood game, steal the bacon. But over time we became collaborators, particularly as Howard had migrated to the role of corporate development, so we were sort of symbiotically attached. We worked on acquiring and developing product, my making the basic argument and Howard putting the right corporate spin on things in terms of format and presentation, particularly after after a large foreign publishing firm acquired our companies.

Interestingly, Howard did not come from a business background. He was trained as a graphic artist and he was a very good one. He made the creative demands of that endeavor transferable to his corporate role. A perfectionist, he was not satisfied unless the documents he produced were done so with clarity and conviction.

Simply put, he made me look good. I remember in particular a proposal to greatly expand our reference book program. This entailed abrupt shifts in both product and market. I supplied the basic information and projections and he pulled it together into a cogent, persuasive proposal.

We shared similar working habits. He was the only person I could call if I got into the office at 6.30 am and find him at his desk. We got into the routine of checking on each other when we got in, not only a game of one-upsmanship, but a way of connecting personally. It was also a venue for reciprocal corporate insight – we seeing our parent company from two different perspectives and trying to divine logic and motives.

He was married when he was young too and his wife coincidentally was born on the same month, day and year as me. His artistic training was also being put to good use as his avocation, carving wildlife figures from balsa wood, and painting them to life-like perfection. I was touched when he gave us two of his works, the only ones he said he had ever parted with from his personal collection, a Manatee and a Koala bear. They proudly hang on the walls of our home in Florida.

When I retired and began consulting, Howard did as well. We joked about maybe collaborating as consultants calling the company the “Two Steins,” as both of our last names end in “stein.” Given his corporate development skills Howard had to turn away work, and since has had the luxury of picking and choosing the work he wants to do.

There was tragedy in his life though. His beloved wife developed MS and Howard made the decision to care for her at home himself. This was no easy task, emotionally and physically, as her health steadily deteriorated. Several years ago she passed away. My admiration of how he and his son faced this tragedy knows no bounds.

I was shocked when he told me that he was going to undergo a radical operation to remove a portion of his lung which proved to be cancerous. He faced this challenge with his usual fortitude and optimism, putting his trust in some of the best surgeons in the Washington area, convinced that he will beat this and recover.

The operation turned out to be more challenging than he imagined and he confided that he could never go through it again. But the operation was successful and they said he would only need a six month follow-up Cat scan.

But the scan revealed there was a new growth on his other lung, something surgery could not deal with; instead, radiation and chemotherapy was the recommended course of action. This brings me back to our brief visit with him on our way up from Florida.

About a month ago, only a few weeks after seeing him, I was stunned by a call from his son to tell me that he was back in the hospital and they had to discontinue the chemotherapy as it so seriously weakened him. Since then he’s lost the use of his legs and he is still in the hospital. The hope is a rehabilitation program might be feasible or he might have to go to a nursing home.

Howard said on the phone, “We've known each other too long for me to sugar coat this. My life is over as I’ve known it.” I anxiously await some good news.