Fred Sears and John Taylor led us

Sam Waltz, Founding Publisher
Sam Waltz, Founding Publisher

Two of the longest-tenured members of Delaware’s business elite come to mind this week.

One, John H. Taylor Jr., we just buried much too young at 71, a victim of a cancer that had once been beaten into remission only to return and take a fine man.

The other, Fred Sears, still healthy and with us, thank God, just announced the unthinkable, his retirement at year’s end.

The digital age has reminded us that most communities really are many communities, some inclusive, some exclusive, all of them overlapping at some point, with many shared interests.

Their nature makes change difficult, a slogging through what seems an often amorphous mess, a pile of stuff.

Each of us has a responsibility to God, country, family, and community. People who have thrived, who have enjoyed success and done well, have even a greater responsibility to “give back.”

Many do give back, and some succeed beyond any reasonable expectation. Doing so, in my view, requires what I’ve always called “the alchemy of leadership.”

Alchemy, of course, is that medieval myth about the power to turn base metals like lead into gold.

As a conscience of his community, as the editorial editor of the News Journal paper for decades, John Taylor was an alchemist of leadership on the issues that mattered most to us as Delawareans. Like the “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen” TV commercial of years back, when John Taylor wrote, people read and listened.

John would have demurred a bit on that. “I don’t know that they listen,” he would have said. “Some of them might notice, and only a few will pay any attention.”
I always gave John credit, too, for changing my life, since it was John who brought me to Delaware 40 years ago this month as a young reporter for the News Journal.

Over the years I came to appreciate more and more that bit of providential fortune.

John’s virtues are too long to recite, but, after his retirement from the News Journal, he went on to a prestigious post at the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce as the director of its Public Policy Institute.

It was Feb. 20, 2014, when, sensing the fragile nature of John’s health, I brought him to the podium of our Rotary Club of Wilmington to talk about the issues facing the City of Wilmington today. His wife, Maria, and son John joined us at the head table for what became almost a valedictory reflection on his life and career, tracing some of the roots of the problems Wilmington faces today from what he saw a half century ago.

Rotarians, who rarely hear from their own members like John, responded as they do to few speakers, with one of the most loving standing ovations any of us could recall. John Sweeney, John Taylor’s successor on NJ’s editorial page, even ran his remarks intact as an op-ed.

Fred Sears likes to joke that he’s worked at every bank in town, and, when he ran out of banks, he joined the Delaware Community Foundation (DCF) as its president about 15 years ago.

Truth is, Fred never was “just a banker.” Like John Taylor, Fred has spent a lifetime dedicated and in service to his hometown and to his state.

Fred excelled in banking, and even briefly held elective office, but it was his work in leading the DCF through some of the most profound possible changes to become a real force in Delaware that added a big exclamation point to his career. And, along with that, he’s served as a financial adviser to a succession of the city’s elected and appointed executives.

Little known to most people, community foundations do the “heavy lifting” of creating an environment for philanthropy around community needs and causes.

The interesting thing about the areas where both John and Fred have triumphed is that success often requires subordinating self to a higher need, a higher purpose, and that requires a measure of humility that can be tough to find among community elites. Each of them carried it off well.

RIP, John, and best wishes to you, Fred, in your retirement. ♦

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