By Arthur Lightbourn
Gratitude is like a beautifully wrapped gift sitting in your closet, but it doesn’t do anybody any good unless it’s given.
At least, that’s how Rancho Santa Fe resident Walter Green sees it and why he spent a year traveling throughout the U.S. and abroad on a personal “journey of gratitude” to tell 44 people he has known over the years how important they have been in his life and how deeply he appreciates them.
For Green, a “rags-to-riches” entrepreneur and philanthropist, the extraordinary journey was akin to giving a gift that had to be given.
Green is the former chairman and CEO of Harrison Conference Centers, headquartered in Glen Cove, New York, and specializing in executive meetings for management, sales and training.
What started out as a very private and personal journey evolved into a book written by Green that admittedly took him out of his comfort zone but that he hopes will inspire others to make their own personal journeys of gratitude.
“The purpose of the journey was all about me,” he said, “and the pleasure I would get in giving these extraordinary gifts. The purpose of the book is all about helping others.”
The book, “This is the Moment,” was released in the U.S. on Oct. 15 by Hay House, Inc., the Carlsbad-based international publisher of inspirational and transformational books and is available just about everywhere books are sold.
“What I tried to do in the book is to help set the table for everybody else, not that they should be impressed by or put off by my own journey to think, ‘Well, yeah, if I had that much time and resources, I could do it too. That’s not the deal. The deal is: ‘Is there some one person in your life, and it’s likely that person is within five miles of your home, that if something happened to you or to them tomorrow, would there be things left unsaid?’”
For him, personally, he said, the journey resulted in peace of mind.
“One thing I did learn from this journey: I’m not self-made. I did start selling rags when I was 21 years old and I ended up with a successful company in what one might say is a ‘rags to riches’ story, but the truth is I’ve been really made by the people along the way.”
The gratitude journey began in December, 2008, with visits to six of his 44 “special people” who lived in Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina, and would take him over the following 11 months to other states throughout the country, as well as to Mexico and Africa.
Included on his list were his wife of 47 years, Lola, their twin sons, Johathan and Jason, and his older brother, Ray, in addition to close friends, business associates, medical, health and financial advisers, mentors, mentees, and colleagues in the nonprofit world.
They ranged in age from 28 to 87 and were from diverse backgrounds. “Some had very simple lifestyles, two were billionaires, and there was everything in between,” he relates in his book.
With their permission, he audio-recorded their conversations, which he produced on individual CDs and presented to each participant, along with a framed photograph of the event, as a memento.
We interviewed Green mid-morning recently in his home in Rancho Santa Fe after he had risen at 5:30 a.m. to do five telephone interviews with radio stations back East.
Green prefers not to mention his age, but, let’s just say, he exhibits the energy and vitality of a man much younger. On escalators, he admits, he never just stands there. “I don’t run, but I keep moving,” he said.
“You know some people walk stairs for exercise. Some people use escalators because they’re easier. My life has basically been a fast-walk on an escalator.”
Initially, he referred to his journey as something like Michael Jordan’s appreciative and celebratory “victory lap” visits to all the arenas he had played in during his basketball career as a thank you gesture to his fans.
Then he realized the idea for his journey stemmed in part from a deep-down sense of regret he had for not telling his parents while they were alive how much they meant to him.
In his book, he includes what he wished he would have said to his parents before they passed.
Green was born in Mt. Vernon, New York. His father was an immigrant from Austria who owned and operated a meat-packing business before investing his savings in a dude ranch in the Adirondacks, a business venture that ended in bankruptcy and forced the family to move every few years around New York and New Jersey as Green’s father sought new business opportunities.
His mother, a college graduate and a school teacher, contracted breast cancer when Green was 9 and his father suffered a near fatal heart attack when Green was 11.
As a young boy in elementary and high school, Green, worried that he might lose one or both of his parents any day. He began working diligently after school to earn and save money so he could manage if, God forbid, his father died.
“Simply put,” he wrote, “I grew up fast.”
The family moved to Florida in hopes that the milder climate would improve his father’s health.
“I have been influenced through my whole life first by my dad’s death. That was a defining moment when I got a call as a freshman at the University of Michigan, ‘Come home, your dad has died.’ It was stunning to me. Although he’d had a heart attack eight years before, I just never thought I would be dealing with that.”
His father was 53 when he died. “That was the first kind of a wake up call to me that said, ‘Walter, you may not make it after 53 and, if so, whatever you think you want to do, you’d better get done.’”
More recently, books that influenced Green’s thinking were: Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays with Morrie,” Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture” and Eugene O’Kelly’s “Chasing Daylight.”
“There’s a message here. It seems to me when time gets short, people reach out to be authentic, to leave a message for those that they care about, and to connect in ways that they haven’t. If it’s important to do then, why not now? And that gave birth to me doing this journey.”
His first job after earning his bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Michigan was selling rags — euphemistically called “industrial textiles” for a firm in Jacksonville, Florida, owned by one of the fraternity brothers.
The job didn’t pan out, so Green joined a chartered public accounting firm in Cambridge, Mass. To earn extra money, he sold mutual funds in the evening, and invested $500 for an inventory of NutriBio green and yellow vitamin supplement pills in a pyramid sales venture touted by Hollywood movie star and health food advocate Robert Cummings.
Unfortunately for Green, the venture lasted only a few weeks before the FDA shut down the pyramid company for making unsubstantiated claims about its pills.
The bad part was Green lost his $500 investment. The good part was the first and only person he had hired as a salesperson, Lola, later became his wife. “Without a doubt,” he says in his book, “it was the best decision I ever made.”
Several years later, after working in public accounting (earning his CPA) and in the restaurant and hotel fields, he again followed in his father’s entrepreneurial footsteps and invested his savings in the start-up Harrison Conference Centers in Long Island.
Harrison grew into a network of nine centers in the eastern half of the U.S. with 1,400 employees hosting some 6,000 business meetings annually.
Green sold the company in 1998, moved to San Diego, and has devoted much of his time to educational philanthropy. He has lectured at the Wharton Graduate School of Business Administration, Long Island University and Hofstra University.
He is the past president of the Desert 49’ers, the graduate group of the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO) and their spouses in Palm Desert, Calif.
As for the future, he hopes his book will create “a new dimension to gratitude.”
“I’ve always framed my future in terms of ideal outcomes,” he writes in the afterword of his book, “so one ideal outcome for me would be if this ultimately becomes a transformational action plan in the tradition of the ‘pay it forward’ movement…It would be a real game-changer.”
Quick Facts about Walter Green
- Distinction: Successful entrepreneur Walter Green recently completed a year-long journey to express his gratitude and appreciation to 44 people who positively impacted his life. His book, “This is the Moment,” describes the experience and the “peace of mind” it brought to him.
- Born: Mt. Vernon, New York
- Resident of: Rancho Santa Fe and Palm Desert
- Education: Bachelor of Business Administration, 1960, University of Michigan.
- Family: He and his wife, Lola, and have two adult twin sons, Jonathan and Jason.
- Interests: Travel, golf and classical music
- Favorite Travel Sites: Kenya, New Zealand, Italy
- Recent Reading: “Creating the Good Life: Applying Aristotle’s Wisdom to Find Meaning and Happiness,” by James O’Toole
- Physical Regimen: Works out daily in his home exercise room or at a local gym.
- Philosophy: “It’s all about relationships, integrity, meaning, intentionality and compassion.”