Last month, I saw something extraordinary. There are a handful of moments in your life you will remember forever, and on a crisp September morning in Waterloo, Ont., an old friend literally walked his way into that special place.
His name is Dave Dame. He completed the five-kilometre Terry Fox Run, raising nearly $30,000 for cancer research. He has cerebral palsy but — to borrow a quote from Dave — "It doesn’t have him."
I met Dave in high school. He was a sarcastic teenager, perhaps a little funnier than most, and a bit of a punk. He tooled around in a wheelchair but, other than that, was no different than most of my friends. He threw good parties and had a cool trailer by the creek behind his parents’ house where we hung out on occasion.
One night, he phoned me up and said, "Listen to this." I heard the perfectly played opening of Howard Jones’ song "No One is to Blame." (Hey, it was the ‘80s.) He then proceeded to tell me it was him playing it on his new synthesizer. I didn’t buy it — it was clearly the instrumental portion on the CD. Like I said, he was a punk — and was trying to punk me. (He was the original Ashton Kutcher.)
I didn’t believe it was him twinkling the ivories, not for one second. Perhaps I should have.
Until the Terry Fox Run, I’d barely seen Dave walk more than five feet. Five kilometres? You might as well ask me to flap my wings and fly. It’s not that I didn’t think he could do it, but part of me thought it literally wasn’t possible.
After all, this is a guy who, when he stayed over at my house, couldn’t even get into bed properly. That was really more my fault than his because I was helping him and Dave — because he’s Dave — was being a character and cracking me up. It’s hard to lift somebody when you’re laughing. I left him teetering on the edge of that pull-out couch. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised he never came over again.
But leave it to Dave to break the laws of physics.
I didn’t see him on the walk until the final turn towards the finish line. (Long story, but my friends and I ended up at the wrong race — in Kitchener instead of the neighbouring community of Waterloo. You have to love that contrast: Dave walks five kilometres and raises tens of thousands of dollars, we can’t even find the proper race location.)
Wearing a black T-shirt with the image of his hero Terry Fox on it, and sporting a yellow cap, he made the last steps of his journey with a determination rarely seen. It was a breathtaking moment, and it’s a rare type of perseverance. If you want a sample of that spirit, just watch a video of Terry Fox on his journey — those two are cut from the same cloth.
When the race was over, I asked him how he was doing.
"I’m tired," he said, in one of the great understatements.
And yet he still had plenty of time for the people who walked with him, who helped him along the way, and the well-wishers who lined up to praise him for his accomplishment. He thanked every single one of them, and was genuinely humbled by the displays of admiration.
Like he says — he has cerebral palsy but it doesn’t have him. Dave could have chosen to put all this time and effort and fundraising toward CP. But, instead, he set his sights on cancer — a disease that has affected people in his life. He’s selfless like that.
After the walk, Dave posted a video to his website — www.daviddame.com.
"People always ask me or tell me maybe I set unrealistic goals for myself," he said. "But you know what? It’s an unrealistic world. So if I don’t set unrealistic goals, I won’t make it in this world. I like to push things in all aspects of my life… it feels awesome, I’m exhausted and I’m just touched. Let’s keep pushing ourselves. What I did was nothing special, everybody’s got it in themselves. Now, I gotta think about the new goal."
There is an HR lesson in this remarkable journey, and it’s one that has been preached many times in the pages of Canadian HR Reporter. A few years ago, we conducted an exclusive interview with Jack Welch, the legendary former CEO of General Electric, where we asked him about the importance of senior leaders talking to the HR department. His response:
"If you were running a sports team, who would you want to be talking to every day — the team accountant or the head of player personnel? The head of player personnel because you want to win. What’s different about that in business? Money is a product of a team’s success. If you have great success with your people, you make a lot of money."
That philosophy can be boiled down to the HR cliché: "Your most valuable assets walk out the door at the end of every day."
But it’s a true cliché. People are what drive business and people have the capability to be remarkable. Dave is an extraordinary example of that possibility.
I will never forget his final steps on Sunday as he crossed that line. The next time I’m faced with what seems like an insurmountable obstacle, I’ll ask myself: "What would that once punky teenager with the black T-shirt and yellow hat do in this situation?"
I know I’ll find the perfect answer.