My time with Ron…the humble giant of a man

I was enjoying a golf game with my father, Ron Cougler, in the late spring/early summer of 2005 when he casually mentioned he had dropped my name to our family friend, Ron Calhoun, regarding a “tech” project Ron was working on called Virtual Researcher On Call (VROC). At the time, my response was “hhmmm…I’m pretty busy wth my own tech company (Click) right now, so please tell Ron I just don’t have time for that right now”. After a few days went by, I thought about our conversation a bit more and decided it might be interesting to talk to Ron, as I had not done so in quite some time. So I called Dad up, asked for Ron’s phone number, called him, and we arranged to meet. I don’t know why I changed my mind that day but it has turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made. That meeting with Ron, and my years spent working with him, changed my life forever in so many ways.

My initial meeting was with Ron Calhoun (Ron would later receive an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from Western University) and Dr. Doug Jones, two individuals who would have a profound impact on my life in years to come. They explained what the Virtual Researcher On Call (VROC) program was and, as they continued to talk, I became extremely interested. You have to remember that, in 2005, the world was not communicating by video. Face Time and Skype had not been invented yet so, for those lucky enough to experience communicating by video, it meant they had to travel to a videoconferencing room/suite that contained hardware worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. These were mostly found at universities and Fortune 500 companies. I signed on immediately, or at least expressed my interest, and received a call from Ron the next day offering me the project. I was thrilled (and a bit nervous).

My first day was eye opening and enthralling. I listened to, and conversed with, Ron all day as he explained Partners In Research (PIR), its history, the importance of health research and the role PIR played in helping to support the cause. I listened to the origin story of PIR and learned of the history of the involvement of such Canadian icons as Pierre Berton, Margaret Atwood and Ben Wicks, which was captivating, to say the least. I knew the role Ron had played managing Terry Fox’s “Marathon of Hope”; the verbiage of which is…of course…Ron’s. I knew also that Ron had managed other health research fundraising campaigns; in particular, Jesse’s Journey. I realized then that the man I had known only as Mr. Calhoun when Ron ran as a candidate for the Liberal candidate in a federal election (my father was his campaign chairman), was much more than I knew him to be. I sensed I was in the presence of a great Canadian. I sensed I was about to embark on a journey…and I was definitely keen to be along for that ride.

Ron was the greatest leader I have ever known. Flat out. Period. End stop. He could also be extremely frustrating! I am often fond of saying that Ron would spend hours of time on the phone looking for the cheapest pencil. He was definitely, as they say, a frugal man. But to understand that we have to understand his origin. Ron grew up in the wake of the Great Depression. From an early age he learned what struggle was, how to work hard and how to save a buck. He was a product of his generation. And it served him well. So, while I would tease Ron mercilessly about being so cheap, he would just smile and laugh along with me. He was unapologetic and under no illusion about his frugalness and could laugh (Ron’s laugh could fill an amphitheatre!) at himself with ease. But this was a very small part of Ron. The man had a tremendous gift. He could lead others. And, he could get people to do things for him that they were dead set against doing before he arrived! Countless times Ron and I would be on the road together for one adventurous meeting or another and we would enter the meeting staring into the most unfriendly face you ever seen. No way were we getting any help from this person, I would think to myself. But Ron had what they call charisma. He showed me how to win a room and how to win someone over. In fact, I don’t think I can even recall one time when someone turned him down on a request. If they said no, Ron would just switch tactics and ask them for something he felt they might be able to say yes to…and they did! It was amazing.

Ron was a bulldog when it came to grammar. This was very evident when I presented what I thought was my best work on a grant proposal and the copy (printed of course because he was a computer neophyte) would come back full of red lines and hacks! He taught me that words are important, how you write them is important, and the impression you give the reader…is important. Often, the three of us would share documents together: Ron, Doug and myself. Doug and I would use the Track Changes feature in Microsoft Word, and then I would have to sit and scribe for Ron on a computer because he really couldn’t type, let alone use the Track Changes feature! So the edits on the document would appear as if they were from me, from Doug, and then from me again. As the document circulated between all three parties I would find myself thinking that it would never be finished. Doug was also an excellent writer and communicator so between the two of them, I had a fast education in terms of writing! But it was a great education and I am so grateful for it today (even though I may not have always shown my appreciation back then).

Ron’s greatest gift as a leader was to let people fail and learn from their mistakes. I started working with Ron at the age of 35 and, as an entrepreneur, I had been around the block a few times before. I had never had a boss that just let me run with something the way Ron did though. He tossed the Virtual Researcher On Call (VROC) project at me and basically said “run with it”. He was there to support and to bounce ideas off of but, at the end of the day, most decisions were mine. I flourished in this environment. And it was a new environment for me to understand. As a leader in for profit companies I was always being held accountable by our customers. In return, I held my employees accountable – not always in a good way. But the way Ron showed me how to trust and nurture someone who worked for you was simply so generous, so important, and so appreciated. I am sure I failed many times in those first few years on that project but, at the end of the day, the project was successful. I learned quickly from my mistakes but also learned to trust that the people you hire are typically great people who are deserving of your trust and your support. There was NEVER a time when I did not feel supported by Ron. Never.

Ron would lead by example. Whether it was doing the dishes, vacuuming the office, licking hundreds of envelopes or making thousands of phone calls to look for donations, Ron was never above any task. So when Ron asked you to do something, you just did it. Because he would…and did. And there was never any thank you that went unthanked. No matter what the dollar amount. I remember one time when I was having lunch with Ron after he had retired and I had just been hired as the new Executive Director. Lunches were always great with Ron but this time he looked me squarely in the eye and said in his Ron voice “Kev (he always called me Kev), we need to talk about something”. His eyes were hard and his voice was super serious and very steady. He looked at me like I had forgotten to file our charitable status return to the government and we were going to lose it! Nervously, while trying not to sound nervous, I said “of course Ron, what is it?”. He then proceeded to tell me that he and a friend had made $25 donations to the organization in memory of someone who had passed away and they had not yet received his thank you letter (it was definitely the practice at PIR that you thanked someone before you banked the donation. An excellent practice and I was always on board with it but didn’t watch it too closely). Obviously we had simply missed it this time. Mistakes sometimes happen. I was about to comment that it was only $25 but fortunately I caught myself as I looked into his eyes which told me he would have NONE of that excuse. He was not kidding around. My only response was that it would be taken care of immediately and steps would be taken to make sure it did not happen again. And I did. And we did. I don’t know if we had a perfect record going forward but I do know that Ron once again reminded me of something that was just, something that was right, and he was right. Lesson learned (again).

Being with Ron was infectious. The endless stories of his life experiences were captivating. From his time having tea with Her Majesty the Queen of England to meeting Pierre Trudeau (twice) to the stories of his time with Terry Fox and John Davidson, he was one heck of a storyteller. But there was always something to be learned from one of Ron’s stories. There was always a message and an opportunity to have that story impact your own life (if you were quick enough to catch it). One of the greatest Ron lessons for me was simply to do things for others…and that you can never do enough for others. Ron certainly lived his life by this creed. It was during my time with Ron that I learned the value of working at a not for profit, of volunteering, and of simply just trying to do your best at everything you do. It is a lesson I am trying to pass along to my own son. I hope I am doing a good job.

Ron was more than a mentor to me. He was more than a friend. He was a second father. He not only shared life lessons of a professional nature, he shared his personal life with me. His triumphs, his sorrows. When Ron was presented with an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Western University he invited members of his family…and me. I would not be who I am today without the kindness of guidance of that gentle man. That giant of a man. That most humble man.

Thank you Ron.

Respectfully Submitted by Kevin Cougler, Executive Director, 2011-2014