Sunday, August 29, 2004
From the pen of Shayne E. Thomas:
I don't expect this to be a regular feature here at CT.com; however, I did think that I would pipe in for the benefit of the 300+ classmates that I have from the Graduate School of Banking. First, a little about the program for those who are not familiar with the concept. For the past 60 years bankers who are well respected within their organization are selected to attend a two week rigorous training program at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The composition is overwhelmingly community bankers- predominantly from the Midwest. It is the most highly regarded program in the country and the typical person who comes from beyond the Midwest area does so based on the reputation of it being a very rigorous course. The program covers three years- each year has four intercession projects that require approximately 40 hours each to complete. The final year is capped off with a comprehensive bank simulation.
My first year was remarkable for a lot of reasons. First, I was in absolute awe by the caliber of individuals in my class. Each and every one was a dynamic, accomplished banker or regulator. All were people who had achievement on many different levels personal, professional, and spiritual. I certainly was unworthy of associating myself with the group. The second thing that I realized is how soft I had become. I found it difficult to be away from my family and impossible to sleep in the dorms. For me the highlight of the two weeks back in 2001 was the few days that Angela and the girls (then just 2 and 4 years old) came to Wisconsin to see me (and I got to sleep in a hotel with them for a few days). The greatest take away from the first year was this dude I met across the hall (Eric - known to the sweet CT.com followers as "Christi's Webmaster"). He had a nasty habit of waking me up at 6AM to run. (This was great except on the mornings after I had spent the evening at the Nitty Gritty -a local watering hole).
The faculty at GSB take great pride in testing using Myers-Briggs personality tests to show us how certain personality types gravitate toward banking. Ironically, I ended up in category of my very own "Enfj" (with great emphasis on the E, which stands for "extrovert"). I found Eric to compliment my personality type well. As we left GSB that year there was a sense of renewal as well as dedication to the intercession projects, but mostly an urgency to get home to my family.
Over the course of the year everyone ground through the intercession projects. Class members sent email reminders to one another about pending due dates. Inside jokes lay dormant waiting to have new life breathed into them upon our return to Madison. (read MONKEY). As August approached in 2002, communication heated up and it became obvious that there would be very little attrition within the class.
Several important activities had been planned. One was my annual cruise around Madison on "Move Out Day" with Jim and Mike. Every year in August the most bizarre thing happens in Madison. All leases come due on the very same day, consequently everyone changes apartments. In the process, the curbs become littered with heavily used mattresses, abandon couches, assorted tables and chairs, and the standard pile of pizza boxes and beer cans. It is quite an experience to drive around town and see the rubbish. After the move, it is not uncommon to find the students kicked back on a couch next to the curb drinking an adult beverage. Needless to say, the whole scene makes for great entertainment.
Another planned event was with the fellow "Cork Dorks". Several of us had conspired to bring wine from our home state. The "cheeseheads" would provide the great Wisconsin cheese; this is where I learned the finer points of Cheese Curd "Squeak". Gwen, from Hawaii, provided the most unusual wine; I think it was squeezed from passion fruit or something. For my part, I took a sampling of wines from the great Lake Erie: Mon Ami, Heinemans, and Lonze from Catawba, Put in Bay, and Kelley's Island all lovely places located not too far from home.
I spent a great deal of time with the Michagan Bankers. Eric and I hung out and appreciated one another's juvenile humor and love for outdoor athletic activities. Other great Michigan bankers that I enjoyed were: Damian and all of his "accomplishments" as well as Heather, Sheila, Julie, and Bryan. Frank, although not a banker, was a constant companion and I frequently shared class with him. Eric and I decided to rent kayaks one Saturday to kayak the entire lake Monona. While that is a short story in itself let's just say that we got an in an excellent workout and that it was very generous of Chris to show up at the Brew Pub and drive us home.
Since the bank funded my schooling I should mention that I learned a tremendous amount of great stuff. In bankspeak we learned about the equity multiplier, guerilla pricing techniques, management styles, bond portfolio management, Loan Administration and so on and so on. Several, classes seemed absolutely bewildering. I spent two days in Lyle Sussman's class and the possibly the only thing that I took away was his one simple motto. I never knew then how true it would prove to be.
The one thing that punctured the joy of all the activity and the rich intellectual stimulation was the haunting feeling I had because I was not going to be home to see Christi's very first day of school. She was so excited to go; it was like she had lived her entire five years on the planet and talking about nothing other than going to school!! We had spent an enormous amount of time wrestling with her education decision. She is profoundly gifted-her IQ is statistically more rare than a perfect SAT score and just one out of 20,000 to 30,000 have her IQ. We had to make some extremely tough choices to make and we consulted with many educational experts and gifted ed. Experts to determine the best course of action to help this very unique child. Now I was in Madison missing her first day of school and it hurt me terribly. Well, Christi called me from Angela's cell phone as the two of them walked out of the building following her very first day of school. I was at the familiar break between afternoon sessions with all my fellow classmates. Shortly after I returned home and after she attended just 11 days of school my precious little Christi was diagnosed with stage IV Neuroblastoma. I was devastated and guilt ridden and now I painfully understood Sussman's simple mantra "Life's a Trick". (I've used it many times since.)
If you are reading this then you know most of what happened next. We end up in Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. One late night during my faltering effort to set up a web sight to keep family and friends abreast of Christi's progress and to keep our time spent with Christi instead of on the telephone, I email Eric aka "Computer Geek" for advice on the site I was attempting to create. Well, by morning www.ChristiThomas.com was born. (Thank you, Eric!) Everyone should know I never asked Eric to do this thing for us. He had the presence of mind combined with enormous compassion to take this task on and make it something special. None of us expected this to be a two year battle, yet he has never wavered in his dedication to the site and we will forever be grateful for this love, support, friendship and commitment to helping with Christi's crusade.
Well, I did my best to stay employed. The Old Fort Bank was very understanding about my distraction and gave me all the help and support they could muster. I knew immediately that I would not be returning to my Senior year at the University of Wisconsin. It seemed so unimportant now. Something began to happen though that I did not immediately sense. Warm letters came to us at the hospital from GSB classmates. Emails would pop into my inbox when I needed it most. "Hey Shayne-Just thinking about and praying for you". Packages came for the girls from strange places like Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Hawaii and Wisconsin. Angela would just say something like "Bank School?" and I would nod with my eyes filling with tears.
Christi's medical condition did not improve like we had hoped and prayed so we had to move into one room in a Ronald McDonald House in New York City and later to one in Philadelphia. We were of course simply going where the treatments were available. I was in Manhattan when GSB 2003 rolled around. I spoke to Eric several times over the two weeks. All he really said is, "Shayne, you can't believe how much everyone is thinking of you." Little did I know what was really going on. For those of you who were not there, it is worth letting you in on this wonderful surprise. Cheryl Scott along with Eric and Gwen and countless others put together a fundraiser for Christi's medical expenses. They raised a significant sum of money for our family's bills. I was very touched that they had embraced us so tightly. If you can imagine this they even made a likeness of me and my bald head and stuck it on a broom which traveled to the class functions as a part of the fundraiser. Cheryl made a video documenting all of this for me which included incredible touching personal messages from many in the class like Peter, Fred, Bob, and many other kind individuals. Imagine my surprise when Eric met us up on lake Erie when the girls were sound asleep and we sat down and described this whole scenario out for us complete with the video. Quite frankly, I bawled like a baby. I was speechless.
January and February of 2004 finally brought some normalcy to our lives. Christi was in school full time and thanks be to God we were treating her with some drugs that could be administered at home. I had been working part time back at the bank, however, I did not quite feel the same mental sharpness that I had worked with before. On a whim I had a conversation with GSB's Ann Kleist about what it would take to begin some projects for school. She said, "Shayne, just do them we will work with you". That was about all it took. As I started working on the projects, I began to notice some of my old focus coming back. They gave me the momentum I needed to get back to work full time and that was crucial to resurrecting some measure of mental sharpness. I soon plunged back into work and school.
Unfortunately, Christi's disease progressed. One oncologist thought perhaps she had just 6 months left to live. My projects were done and now I would simply have to wait and see if things with Christi were well enough in August to attend and graduate from GSB or if I would still even desire to go. Angela keep pushing me reminding me of how much work I had done for so long and that it would be foolish not to finish up and graduate regardless of what the situation with Christi may be come August. Through the guidance of the talented Dr. Maris at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia we were able to enroll Christi on the experimental phase one clinical trial of a new drug known as ABT 751. It reversed the disease progression, improved her quality of life, and has to date kept the disease stable. Since things were going well at home, I finally felt as though I actually may make it to Madison.
August arrived and I went to Madison with great trepidation. There are several things that happen to you when you have a child with a life threatening illness. Studying anything that is not oncology research oriented seems frivolous. Just recently I had attended the nueroblastoma conference-that subject mattered to me I was not quite sure if I could muster the same passion for the GSB subject matter. The second thing that occurs when you have a child with a terminal cancer is the profound guilt you have each and every time you truly enjoy yourself. A close friend of mine asked me one time if I felt embarrassed to be happy in public. This is a difficult question because of course sadness is a part of our daily life-I have a child with a terminal illness; however, I have not figured out how my dying helps Christi at all. (I would gladly make that deal if offered but so far "the big guy" refuses to bargain.) I drove out to Madison again this year. Driving allows me to take more stuff (like my bike). On the way I decided to listen to the book on tape entitled "Tuesdays with Morrie". My CEO had recommended it to me and now I had the time to listen. In the book, Morrie is dying and he dispenses his wisdom to one of his former students. One of these kernels goes something like this:"We all are going to die just like the rest of the creatures on this planet, the trade off is that if we love and are loved we get to live on." It took a few days for it to sink in, but the idea is to live and interact with people-don't die.
So with renewed gusto, I delved back into my final year at GSB. OK more bank speak- I luckily got placed in a great bank simulation group. They tolerated me and my gusto. Initially, they thought that I would be a good facilitator for the group so they named me CEO. Later they wondered where I would lead them when the bank was named "The Heineken National Bank". Scott, Kirk, Maria, Dave, and I gelled quickly into a formidable team. We united behind our strategy and were unwavering. The plan was to be the biggest, best capitalized, business bank in the entire class. We had a second week strategy to ratchet up earnings and grow stock momentum. The first week was all about growth and capital. We were the first bank in the history of BankSim to hit a billion dollars in assets the first week! Furthermore, we were the first bank to have 2 million shares outstanding. Another first was that we were the first bank to project negative earnings per share. This was caused by the Cease and Desist that caused us to make a supplemental provision expense of $3.5 million dollars b\not because of losses, but because of the enormous loan growth. Our size earned us the nickname "The Big Heiney". We liked it, so we kept it.
The second week we did what we had planned. We began to buy back our stock and increase our dividends. Our earning increased nicely and we beat our forecasted earnings per share each day. Market capitalization ended at about $130Million so we were pleased. Clearly, no one was going to buy the Big Heiney. The problem was that no one was going to sell to us either. There were some intense rivalries in community A. It looked liked we were going to the dance alone when a very interesting proposition was floated. How about a merger with a bank in another community? A $950 million dollar bank in community B had made itself available to us. Combined we would have $2 billion in assets and we had a name B A Heiney. So I ended a very educational and fascinating banksim as CEO of B A Heiney - waiting on regulatory approval to merge across communities. Our shareholder meeting was a gas! We included Heineken commercials in our power point. My guess is our shareholders would continue to hold our stock if for no other reason then for the entertainment value.
Dress at GSB is very casual. Sometimes as bankers we feel compelled to always dress as though we may being going to a country club. I resisted trying to look like I could even get into a country club! Two humorous stories follow: Randy was our banksim regulator- which he does in real life as well. Randy is mostly a no nonsense guy, but a lot of fun nonetheless. One day when our bank stock finally started to take off I decided to punctuate the moment by wearing a Superman tee-shirt to that session. As I was walking down the hall to look at the stock charts Randy said to me, "Shayne what are you looking for?...... A phone booth?" Another time I had just finished a bike ride at lunch and went directly to my elective class. Consequently, I had my "dew rag" on over my long hair and with my three day beard growth I looked like anything but a banker. When the instructor went around the room to find out what everybody did and where they were from I promptly told him that I had found this badge now around my neck on State Street and that I thought I would come in to see what they were learning here. To which he responded, "Do you know you get free lunches in the cafeteria with that badge?"
I sported my yellow "dew rag" off and on all week. Truth is that this was my own quiet tribute to little Alex Scott. You see Alex died of nueroblastoma the week before GSB. She and her family are true American heroes - raising money for pediatric cancer research through their lemonade stands. My Christi adored Alex and attended her wake. Alex Scott loved and was loved and therefore she lives on and my yellow bandana is a small symbol of my love for her.
Initially, I tried to convince my "new" classmates that I was simply a slow learner and I had to repeat a year of GSB which is why I was now in their class. Eventually though people figured out my real story. I was touched as word got around that I was that guy with the "sick kid". The compassion shown by so many of my classmates was moving as was the gift of airline tickets for Angela and the girls from a sweet family in northwestern Ohio so that they could attend our graduation ceremony. And we were completely stunned during graduation when the class presented me with a generous gift to help with Christi's continual medical expenses. (A standing ovation broke out in the auditorium, yet Angela reported that Christi was glued to her seat happily playing her Gameboy totally clueless about what was happening around her.) It is humbling to accept gifts that I do not deserve. God's people are good and there are many good souls that graduated from GSB this year; I thank them for their generosity and especially for making me a part of the class.
For me, the most moving part of the ceremony was the moment after receiving my diploma when Kirby stepped forward to congratulate me on the stage. It is difficult to explain the kindred feeling between two fathers that have seen their child endure a life threatening illness; it is mostly unspoken - yet it is deep and rich.
After graduation, it was off to the Wisconsin Dell's with the Cooks. We enjoyed Friday night, all day Saturday and most of Sunday zipping down water slides of Christi's choosing. Christi feared nothing! On the final day, she even endeavored on a solo trip down a slide known as the Kamakazi. We made one stop to buy some cheese before we left Wisconsin and we arrived home safely early Monday morning - once again filled with tremendous blessings, rich gratitude to all for their help and with memories that will forever be treasured. Thank you, everyone!!
Christi's quote: I said "Christi, thank you for coming to my graduation; it meant a lot to me" and her reply came with a teasing smile, "did I have a choice?"
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