Reflections on life, times and travel with Ellsworth Culver - five years later

August 16, 2010

Share this story:
  • linkedin
  <span class="field-credit">
    Mercy Corps  </span>
    Ells Culver (left) and Dan O'Neill at the Al Jehad Medical Training Hospital in Afghanistan in 1992. Photo: Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Mercy Corps  </span>
    Dan O'Neill (left) and Ells Culver at Mesa Grande refugee camp for El Salvadorian refugees in Honduras. Photo: Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Mercy Corps  </span>
    Dan O'Neill and Ells Culver in 2004. Photo: Mercy Corps

Note: When I started Mercy Corps in July, 1981, I knew I needed to recruit a partner to help carry the load. Ellsworth Culver — then Vice President of Food for the Hungry — contacted me with a proposal to be a consultant in organizational and field program development. I said yes. Within a year, Ells was on staff and later became Mercy Corps President at my request. The rest is history. Tragically, Ells died suddenly and unexpectedly on August 15, 2005 in Portland, Oregon, following surgery. At this five-year anniversary, let us, together, reflect on his life of service to the world. Here is what I wrote back then...

August 16, 2005, was the longest and loneliest Seattle to Portland drive I have ever made. And there have been countless such trips since 1982 when Ells Culver and I teamed up to launch Mercy Corps.

Only hours earlier, I had received the midnight call from my partner and Mercy Corps CEO, Neal Keny-Guyer, that Ells had suddenly passed from our midst, leaving a gaping hole in thousands of hearts and scores of organizations. As I drove with a lump in my throat, my cell phone grew hot in my hand as the words of shock, consolation and promises of prayers flowed into me and the Mercy Corps family.

Here was a a rare soul of emotionally touching humanitarian sensibilities - a man of family, faith, compassion and diplomatic flair. Ells was a senior statesman to a turbulent, hurting world.

Our last personal encounter was a July 17 Seattle Mariners baseball game with friends and colleagues. He gently nudged me and whispered, "C'mon O"Neill, we need to put that "palm tree" date on the calendar this summer!"

Palm tree dates were a solid tradition between us dating back to 1982. They started when we stopped for a couple of rest days in Puerta Vallarta after an exhausting trip to Honduras, where we laid foundations for development programs that continue to grow throughout the region today.

Our palm tree sessions were simply this: take a rest stop in a quiet place off the beaten track and daydream about what could be. We would "blue sky" and "brainstorm" with no limits and no apologies. The subjects were always families, friends, faith and Mercy Corps.

Ells would lean back, put up his shoeless feet, press a pencil to his lips and fill the pages of yellow legal pads with wild ideas and idealistic daydreams. "How do we pay for all this?" I would always ask with feckless faithlessness in our ability to fund our fantasies.

"Where God guides, he provides!" came Ells' predictable answer.

In the early days of our travels we shared cheap hotel rooms and late night talk about our kids and just how big the universe is. We shared bad water, cheap beers, boiled Bedouin coffee, tea from China and a host of remote village brews and concoctions. On a couple of occasions, our careless consumption of local food fare cramped our guts with crippling runs and we carried each other through airports and beat up taxis filled with the stench of a million cigarettes.

Though tired and road-weary, Ells always appeared at meetings with a suave air of relaxed cool and every hair in place. He would always continue to look for any and all possibilities to fulfill the mission at hand. He gave everyone a chance to tell their story and looked down upon no one.

Always a faith-filled positive thinker, he faced personal and organizational challenges with extraordinary aplomb and resilience. My job was to worry, his was to reassure. Lesser adversities have crushed many men, but Ells would always bounce back with a new plan and boundless inner enthusiasm.

On a number of occasions we found ourselves falling perilously close to harm's way. On one trip to the Middle East we intemperately boasted of being bombed in Beirut, gassed in Gaza and blasted in Jersalem only later to be caught up in the massacres of Lebanon's Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps. During those troubled times, we decided that some of the horrors we witnessed should not be discussed with others, but should remain our own personal nightmares, burning holes in our souls which would become the emotional "fuel" for our own radical commitment to the mission. Perhaps, we speculated, this is the redemptive use of suffering and emotional pain for a higher cause.

While many in Ells Culver's age group sought air-conditioned domestic command posts, Ells stepped up to establish our presence and programs in severe scenarios. He was never beyond earning his stripes by working on the edge.

Up until the end, Ells continued to open doors once judged locked. He was was full of wild hope, and personally invested in endless possibilities. He was a man of consummate vision. He had ears to hear and eyes to see. His legacy will have no end.

Yes, it was a long, hard, lonely, three-hour drive from Seattle to Portland on that sad day. There was moisture in my eyes. But prayerful thoughts, memories of the man I called "the silver fox" and Jackson Browne's Looking East CD somehow helped me make it down the I-5 corridor.