by Nancy McKinnis, Master Instructor, Leadership Education, Culver Academies
At this time, I find myself reflecting on the relationship between one elder, entrepreneur and humanitarian, and a wide-eyed teenage girl with a ready smile adorned in well-placed metal braces-Their paths crossed when they both quietly entered the Leadership Committee for Africa’s (LCA’s) nascent conversation about Africa in 2005.
Years apart, Claire and Dick shared an interest in learning about the world and in their own way showed a genuine desire to do what they could do to help the less fortunate, like women food growers in Africa. Dick shared his stories revealing his vision, breadth of knowledge, beloved people and the ancient grain amaranth, a suitable and durable crop for food growers and valuable nourishment for people in underdeveloped areas of the world. He inspired LCA’s collaborative action by offering hands on projects that opened the LCA girls’ eyes to real world problems and solutions. Claire quickly placed herself in the mix of this committee.
Dick Dugger was an accomplished man. After chaperoning a youth mission trip to Haiti in the 1970’s, Dick sold his company to address poverty and malnutrition concerns. He founded ECHO (Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization), “a non-profit Organization dedicated to reducing world Hunger through innovative ideas, seeds and agricultural training.” In my early conversations with Dick, he described that pivotal moment of deciding to sell his business in a way that made me believe it had just happened. Dick did not intend to sell the business before the trip. He went on the mission trip to experience it with his children. He confessed, “When I came back, I kept seeing the faces of the children in Haiti, suffering from malnutrition. I could not get them off my mind and I knew I had to do something.” As Dick told me his story, I was right there with him, in the moment, imagining the faces of suffering children. I felt an urgency to share his story with our students and I imagined the full happy faces of my own children. I felt the burden of what it might be like, but for the grace of God. This is where good stories often begin.
When I think about Dick’s legacy, I feel deep appreciation for the blessings of this great man. I can hear the giggle in his voice when together we would reflect on the magic of our work with LCA students, those unexpected ah ha moments happened when effort revealed an unanticipated connection, insight or result. On the other side, Claire and her LCA peers were eager to learn from Dick. Claire attentively listened to Dick’s stories about amaranth and participated in the process of growing and studying the ten varieties of the plant. She knew her work was part of something bigger. Dick had set it up so the seeds from the plants contributed to an amaranth cross-pollination study in a collaboration between Iowa State University and USDA Agricultural Research Centers.
As a teacher and lifetime advisor for the Leadership Committee for Africa (LCA), it was a profound privilege and blessing to work alongside Claire VanLandingham who in the beginning stages of LCA helped shape its foundation. After participating in the inaugural LCA mission trip to Christel House, South Africa (2006), and leading the Fundraising Committee for two years, Claire wrote, “The compilation of my experiences in LCA has made me passionate about helping the women and children in Africa.…I see this as our duty.” As I recall now, her words, “I see this as our duty” touch my core.
A beautiful person, pure of heart and grace, Claire was truly on a mission at Culver to become the best person she could be. She was already showing that she was the “commander” of her destiny as she made her way about campus freely giving and learning in many areas: dance, music, science, LCA and CGA. Claire’s compassion, intellectual curiosity and creativity balanced with her capacity to act with discipline and purpose made her an accountable participant and leader in local activities that benefited LCA’s global associates for the betterment of women and children and left a lasting impression on me. She soaked up every opportunity as if she were on a mission to accomplish something much greater.
The intersection of Dick’s life with LCA led to a host of learning opportunities. How rich the experience for our girls and poignant were his words that so often touched us. “You know Nancy, God has a way of bringing people together.” He never failed to remind us of this divine happening. He understood his role as an instrument of God’s work. I saw a man who truly walked the life of a servant leader. Dick followed the guide of a clear vision and understood his influence in helping associates become better people. (Greenleaf) Habitually, the harmony of his devoted expressions in word and good deed was nothing less than inspiring. On September 11, 2016, I can easily picture him nodding his head with a warm wise smile “liking with a heart” Claire VanLandingham’s post on Facebook. He passed a few days before on September 7, 2016.
Claire revised and posted the quote below. The original quote uses "tithe" instead of "volunteer".
"To [volunteer] is to tell the truth about who I am. If I did not [volunteer], it would say that I was a person who had nothing to give, a person who received nothing from life. A person who did not matter to the larger society or whose life's meaning was in providing for his needs alone. But in fact, who I am is the opposite of all of these things. I am a person who has something to give. I am a person who has received abundantly from life. I am a person whose presence matters in the world, and I am a person whose life has meaning because I am connected to and care about many things larger than myself. If I did not [volunteer] I would lose track of these truths about who I am." -Rev. Dr. Rebecca Ann Parker, quoting a member of her congregation on why he gives to the church.
It seems Claire shared the recipe for how to live a good life. Naturally, I value the privilege to have represented Culver at Claire’s memorial service in Lawrence, Kansas. I learned that the stories about Claire’s benevolent actions were abundant and congruent with my own memories of her as a student. It struck me, the irony that a few years ago; Claire led a “Take Back the Night” event at her university to raise awareness and support for victims of domestic violence. Some say Claire made this decision after the day she broke out of a jog to help women confronted with hostile hecklers blocking their way into an abortion clinic. Claire courageously escorted them safely inside.
I was surprised to hear that Claire successfully pursued various scholarships and joined the Navy to pay for her education given her privilege but it was not astonishing to learn that as a young Naval Dentist she had already made an immediate impression on her patients. We all seemed amused when a co-worker said Claire’s calendar was broken up into fifteen-minute increments so she could fit everything in her day. Yet, we sobered up quickly from the pervasive testimonial accounts that Claire was a person who made you feel like you were the center of her universe. Friends and family described her as carefree, playful, silly and goofy. She was happy! Everyone wanted to be Claire’s friend. Why did her young vibrant life of 27 years have to end?
We ask ourselves at Culver “What is success? What does it look like?” If one believes it is happiness and as Aristotle suggests found in the expression of virtue, it seems obvious these two role models show a lot about the journey of an aspired integrated life. Despite the generational distance and length of life, the habits Dick and Claire embodied of lifelong learning would leave one to believe they walked in similar shoes. Like Dick, Claire did not have to die for the many who knew her to realize how good and special she was.
In the aftermath of Claire’s tragic death, one poignant concise post emerged like a beacon light in a dark tunnel, #BeMoreLikeClaire. The testimonials quickly rattled across a vast social network of people Claire touched from sea to sea-endorsing it. Humbled to have worked with her, I pinch myself. I am truly the learner as I reflect on her many selfless contributions. With deep sorrow, I mourn Claire’s absence; I have so many questions I wish I could ask her! Yet the memory of how she consistently and authentically modeled a life of service worthy of emulation uplifts me. I see the answers to all that I need to know when I remember the way she lived her life.