Neal Thorpe

As both CEO and lifetime Trustee of the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, based in Vancouver, Washington, Neal Thorpe became a colleague shortly after I joined Rasmuson Foundation as its first part-time staff member.  In a very short time he became a mentor and friend.

Neal had all of the attributes that make someone great in this field of work, rather than good.  He possessed an extraordinarily generous spirit that guided his work; soon after I met him he told me that he started each meeting of the Trust with a piece of scripture selected to inspire the Trustees to tune into their own generosity.  He was very, very funny—in a very, very dry way.  He had uncommon humility.  He had a brilliant mind.  He was a pilot and a writer, a leader and a teacher.

Prior to joining the Foundation full-time in 2001, I spent most of my time consulting with a variety of organizations.  Neal hired me to do what was probably my best ever consulting gig.  My job was to spend a week at the Murdock Trust teaching the Trustees and staff about Alaska.  Each morning we covered a variety of topics and I fielded dozens of questions.  Each afternoon I got on the phone calling colleagues in Alaska to get responses to questions I couldn’t answer.  I learned so much about Alaska that week, I should have paid Neal, not the other way around.

Years later, working with Cook Inlet Region, Inc. Native corporation, I was helping to raise funds for and start up the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage.  Neal invited us to see some Murdock-funded cultural facilities in their region.  Our whirlwind tour included dinner with the Trustees, and visits with the Umatilla Tribe, Warm Springs Museum, High Desert Museum and the Oregon Coast Aquarium.  Neal and his wonderful wife Kay led our tour.  He wanted us to learn from the experiences of Murdock grantees and we did.

Several of us began full-time work with Rasmuson Foundation in October of 2001.  A month earlier, our new staff, and our entire board, headed south to Vancouver.  Neal had invited Ed Rasmuson to bring the whole crew for a couple of days to see how they did business.  We covered everything from how they answered phones to how they invested their money.  What a gift.

Extraordinary?  Absolutely. But that was Neal.  Always generous.  Always teaching.  Always helping.

The Yiddish language has a word that has no English equivalent—“mensch”.  Neal was a mensch.  Some of the definitions found on the Internet are:

  • a decent responsible person with admirable characteristics
  • someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character. The key to being “a real mensch” is nothing less than character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous
  • “a nice guy”
  • a particularly good person, like “a stand-up guy,” a person with the qualities one would hope for in a dear friend or trusted colleague
  • a person of integrity and honor 

In his book “The Joys of Yiddish”, author Leo Rosten explains how you become a mensch.  It’s Neal to the core.

  1. Help people who cannot help you. A mensch helps people who cannot ever return the favor. He doesn’t care if the recipient is rich, famous, or powerful. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t help rich, famous, or powerful people (indeed, they may need the most help), but you shouldn’t help only rich, famous, and powerful people.
  2. Help without the expectation of return. A mensch helps people without the expectation of return–at least in this life. What’s the payoff? Not that there has to be a payoff, but the payoff is the pure satisfaction of helping others. Nothing more, nothing less.
  3. Help many people. Menschdom is a numbers game: you should help many people, so you don’t hide your generosity under a bushel
  4. Do the right thing the right way. A mensch always does the right thing the right way.  (S)he would never cop an attitude like, “We’re not as bad as Enron.” There is a bright, clear line between right and wrong, and a mensch never crosses that line.
  5. Pay back society. A mensch realizes that he’s blessed. …The baseline is that we owe something to society–we’re not a doing a favor by paying back society.  

I think Neal read the book.  Rest in peace, Neal.

(Neal Thorpe passed away on March 3, 2010.  He’ll be remembered at a memorial service in Vancouver, Washington, on March 13th.  Read a Philanthropy Northwest tribute to Neal here.)