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The Briefing will return in two weeks. This story first appeared on Sunday night, December 23, 2012.
It was the last workday before the holidays. The office Christmas gathering was doubling as his retirement party. He hated it. He would have much rather been calling donors to say thanks or attending to the rush of last-minute work that always came up at this time of year.
But those duties had been gradually parceled out to others on the development team over the past few weeks. Today his only tasks were to pack a few boxes, hug a lot of well-wishers and keep a brave smile on his face.
At 5:30 he packed away the last bit of stuff and looked around. He would come back tomorrow to take the boxes home and leave his keys. It would be too hard today.
His #2 walked into the office with two beers. This would soon be her office, something he was very pleased about. "Got time for one last PBR?" she asked. He nodded, and grinned. He couldn't remember when he had proclaimed Pabst Blue Ribbon the Official Beer of their development office but it was one of those silly things that over the years had made the team a family.
She looked around. "You're all packed up!'' Now it was her turn to wear a brave smile. "Yeah," he said, "All set. It's time. I'm very proud of you. You’re going to do a better job here than I ever could." She had to turn away so he couldn't see her misty eyes.
"Hey," she said, "You forgot this."
There was something left hanging on the wall. A cheap 9x12 black plastic frame. She went over and squinted. "Funny," she said, "I've never really noticed what's in this. Is it a keepsake? Why are you leaving it?"
"I'm leaving it for you," he said. "It's a memento of the greatest gift I ever received. I want you to have it."
"Why? Are you sure you don't want to take it home?"
"It has to stay here," he said. "There's a story behind it that's important."
"Well," she smiled as she sat down, "We have two beers to finish. Tell me the story."
So he did.
"Have you ever heard of George Neting? He died about ten years ago, before you got here. Holy smokes, he was a tough guy! Working with him, whenever it was, you had to be at the top of your game all the time. He was a real pain, but later you realized how much better a development officer he made you."
"I remember," she said. "I mean, I don't remember him, but I know about the Neting Scholarship Endowment. It's huge. That was him?"
"Yep. In that frame are a couple reminders of the gifts he made to us." She stood up, walked over and peered as closely as she could. The sun through the windows had faded things over the years but she could still make out a letter and over it, what looked like a copy of a $1 million check. "I can tell that he made a big gift, but what was the letter about?" she asked as she sat back down.
He continued the story. "George Neting lived in Upper Michigan and owned an enormous tract of land. His business was Christmas trees. Every Thanksgiving his workers would harvest the trees and truck them to the big cities to sell. That's the only job he had but he did very well for himself. Everybody called him 'Red', never George."
"One summer he was bored and he invented the contraption that wraps the tree in red netting so it will be easier to get home. Every tree-grower in the North Woods wanted one. He made a fortune on the thing," he grinned.
"That's when folks started calling him Red, after the red netting. His last name was originally pronounced with a long E, but after Red invented that dumb machine he changed the pronunciation to ‘Netting.’ He really got a kick out of being called Red Neting, after his invention."
Her old boss was in his element now. She could tell he held a great affection for this donor.
"Okay, but what about his gift?"
"Well, he gave us three gifts. One was by far the greatest of them all. I'd been visiting Red every summer for about five years and I finally worked up the courage to ask him to consider endowing a scholarship.
“He had been giving $1,000 for years to financial aid. Red had no kids and was never married. Somehow I had the nerve to ask if he would consider donating the remainder interest in his property to the school to create a scholarship in his name.
"He told me, 'Kid, I admire your brass.' I was 40 when I met him and he never called me anything but Kid. Red was silent for a long minute and told me, 'Let me think about it. I'll tell you the next time you're back here. Come for the harvest. I'll make you break a sweat.'
"I could tell Red got a huge kick imagining me wrestling Christmas trees from the field onto the trucks. He was chuckling to himself as he waved goodbye.
“I went back three months later and he told me no. 'Kid, I'm not ready to let go. I don't know when, or if I ever want to. But you can have this to start that scholarship fund.' And he gave me a check for $1 million. That’s a copy of the check you see there."
She was waiting for him to get to the point. "So that was the greatest gift? It had to be."
"Not even close. The $1 million started the fund, and we had the first recipient of the Neting Family Scholarship send him a note. The next time I went up Red was waiting for me on his porch and handed me a letter. 'Kid, I was thinking about that young lady who got my scholarship. Her letter meant an awful lot to me. Here, I had my lawyers draw this up for you.'
“It was the remainder interest commitment to his home and land. He would continue to live there as long as he wished and on his death, the ownership passed to us. The school sold it to a developer for vacation homes. The Neting Endowment is now worth about $18 million."
Her eyes were wide. "I never heard that story before! So, that had to be his greatest gift."
"Nope. It wasn't. I know you would think so, but not even close."
His successor was exasperated now. "Then tell me! What was it?"
"I'd go visit Red every year. I'd spend a day or two with him. Over the years we became very close friends. The year before he died we were together having lunch and he said to me, 'Hey, Kid, you seem pretty down in the dumps. What is it?'
“I told him it was a really hard time for us in the office, fundraising-wise. There was a recession at the time, two of our major gifts people had left, our direct mail program was doing lousy; nothing was looking up for us. I really was having my doubts whether to stay at the school, and if I even wanted to stay in this work.
"My friend Red didn't hesitate. He pulled his chair close to mine, looked me straight in the eye and said, 'Kid, listen to me. Okay? Really listen to me now.
"'I'm in the Christmas business. Have been my whole life. Don't know anything else and I've been pretty lucky. Once a year I get to play Santa a little bit, haul these trees down to the city and bring the Christmas spirit to a whole bunch of families. You hear what I'm telling you?'
“I nodded. He went on, 'But what you do for that school. You're asking for gifts all the time, but what you're really doing is giving a gift to every person who makes a contribution. You make them feel better about themselves.
"'That's very hard to do these days, Kid. I'll tell you, when I get that letter each fall from the student who is my scholar for the year it makes me feel on top of the world. And you get to do that every day. You give a gift every day, to your donors.
“'Kid, you're in the Christmas business. You're Santa.'
“By now he had his hand on my shoulder and a tear in his eye. 'Kid, promise me you'll always remember what I just told you. You are the luckiest son-of-a-gun I know. I envy you.'
"He was right, of course. He was absolutely right. I never forgot what Red taught me, how lucky we are to do this work, to serve our organizations and to give that gift to our donors. We get to be Santa all year. I've never said it to you in just that way, but I always tried my best to show you."
She made no effort to hide her tears. "Trust me, you did. I - all of us – will be forever be grateful to you for that."
"So that's why the frame has to stay here," he said. "It needs to remind you and your team about Red and the gift he gave us."
She raised her beer in a toast. "Here's to Red," she grinned, and their bottles clinked. "You got it," he nodded. "Here's to Red."
One last swig. One last hug. They walked out of the office and he switched off the light.
He was gone. But the memory of Red Neting's greatest gift would remain.
Merry Christmas and Season’s Greetings, my friends.
Rob Cummings coaches gift officers, consults on capital campaigns and helps nonprofit organizations build strong, sustainable fundraising programs. You can reach him at email@example.com