Mercy Corps celebrates the 100th birthday of Landrum Bolling

November 13, 2013

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Martin Pollack for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Landrum Bolling, philanthropist and great friend of Mercy Corps, celebrated his 100th birthday surrounded by friends, family and colleagues. Landrum joined Mercy Corps at age 82 as director at large. Photo: Martin Pollack for Mercy Corps

1913. Newly inaugurated, Woodrow Wilson gathered reporters for the first-ever presidential press conference. The IRS began to collect income taxes. The State of Oregon introduced the nation’s earliest minimum wage law.

What else was new that year? The drive-up gas station. The continuous moving assembly line. Grand Central Terminal. The first American show featuring Picasso, Matisse and Duchamp.

Still, it was the young end of the 20th century. World War I was a full year away.

Landrum Bolling was born on November 13 of that year. Today Mercy Corps honors the 100th birthday of this extraordinary man, our dear friend and revered guide.

He is a man of such tremendous accomplishment. A college graduate at just 19. A journalist who covered the liberation of Sarajevo after World War II and was one of the first to bring to light France’s atrocities in Algeria. Diplomat. College president.

At 82 — an age when most people are settling back in their rockers — Landrum joined Mercy Corps as director at large, using his expertise in foreign politics and conflict resolution to advise on policy, strategy and program development. But he went right out to the field to get involved directly. We dispatched him to Sarajevo. It was just a few months after the end of the Bosnian War. Landrum helped organize religious communities in support of the peace efforts then underway. This was a war-ravaged country, remember, where water and electricity were scarce. But there was Landrum, making peace. It has been his great passion. Thanks to his leadership, peace is at the forefront of Mercy Corps’ mission.

Landrum has received enough awards to decorate a Christmas tree, including 30 honorary doctorates. Still he’s a humble Quaker to his roots.

Here’s one story I love. The University of Tennessee decided to honor Landrum with its Distinguished Alumni award — as only the second recipient ever. The first was Tennessee Senator Howard Baker, whose “What did the president know and when did he know it?” became the iconic Watergate quote.

“Oh,” said Landrum, on hearing of the University’s choice, “they must be working their way through the Bs.”

To this day one of my great joys is getting a phone call from Landrum. “Hey Neal,” he’d start. “You got a minute? I’ve got an idea…” I never knew what would come next!

Just a month ago I got one of those calls from then-99-year-old Landrum. “Hey Neal,” he said. “I know my family will kill me, but I think I have one more trip to the Middle East in me…”

That’s how I think of Landrum. He’s unstoppable. He showed through his own life that a single individual can make such a powerful difference. He will always have that one more idea, that one more effort, that gets ordinary citizens to believe they can build a better world — and to jump in and make it happen.