A Tribute to my friend and mentor, Burt Baptiste
It’s been my experience that when you meet someone who is going to change your life, you almost never know it as it’s happening. When I met Burt Baptiste it was no different. In fact, it was pretty much the complete opposite. I was a fresh college grad who had just moved from small town Oregon to Boston to start my career at a large national staffing firm, in a beat up car with next to nothing in my pocket. Burt on the other hand, had just relocated from leading one of the top-performing offices in Florida. Charged with running the high potential, yet significantly underperforming group of offices in Boston, he inherited me as part of the deal.
To say that I was a blip on his radar would be an understatement.
The first day we met in person, I asked Burt if we could grab lunch, since we didn’t have a chance to formally interview together before he took on this new role. Even though I already had the job, I wanted to build a relationship with my new boss. He agreed—and then didn’t speak to me again until two days later at 11:59am, just before our scheduled appointment. He had me drive, which I think was sort of a test in itself. My clothes were still in the back seat and evidence from a recent hit and run still visible in the crunched metal on the passenger’s side of my ‘88 Acura. I was embarrassed and anxious. He was bold and self-assured.
Burt made it clear on the drive to the cafeteria that “keeping my car packed” would be in my best interest—since he didn’t hire me and would have no problem sending me home if I couldn’t cut it. The lunch didn’t go much better.
Tough love was sort of Burt’s thing.
It wasn’t until a bunch of guys from the office were out watching college football a couple months later that an opportunity came my way. As guys do, we were debating (a.k.a. arguing) about who was the best athlete among our group. Sport by sport, we “crowned” winners based on previous athletic accomplishments, but the one sport we couldn’t determine the clear cut winner was football. So after hours at the bar, we decided to settle the score on the football field. Burt and I were on opposing teams, and both of us are competitive as hell. Respect was born in that moment—a respect that became the basis for a friendship that would last almost fifteen years.
Even though Burt was seven or eight years older than me, we both were strangers in a new town, so he took me under his wing. I’d pack a bag on Friday morning and head straight to his place after work. Friday’s were mostly reserved for California Pizza Kitchen, his famous Trinidad rum and cokes, and NCAA Football on Playstation. Saturday’s were for going out on the town. Growing up in Corvallis, Oregon, I was unaccustomed to clubs with hip-hop music and bottle service, so when I would show up to Burt’s place in Adidas sneakers and Gap jeans, a wardrobe change was inevitable. Eventually, I caught on.
But at the office, in large part because of our growing friendship outside of work, he made it a point to challenge me more, push me harder and hold me to a higher standard than anyone else. He was relentless. Burt saw my potential and wouldn’t accept anything less than what he truly believed I was capable of achieving. For him, conflict, being willing to really go there with someone, was the finest way to demonstrate love. Because he lived and breathed the same set of values he enforced for me, I couldn’t let him down.
The thing about Burt Baptiste is that he had this magnetic personality. He was born in Trinidad, so had a unique accent, which was endearing in itself. But more than that he would take care of people, from his best friends and family to total strangers that he’d never see again. You could not say “no” to him, and those who had the chance to spend even one night out with him would talk about it forever. Not only because he played just as hard as he worked, but because he took a genuine interest in the people around him—in their stories, background and where they were going. He wanted to build people up, like he knew that everyone he met was part of what would ultimately define him. It was a beautiful thing to witness.
Over the years, many of Burt’s pupils were promoted to run their own offices. Brian Walsh took Boston South. Chris De Angelis was promoted to run the Charlotte office. I landed sunny San Diego and the list went on. Over that stretch, he started dating and soon married Danielle, an exec at IBM, and they went on to have two beautiful daughters, Milla and Emme. Danielle was about the only person on earth who could match his strength and personality and is one of the most amazing people I know. So when Burt was awarded the responsibility of running the Asia Pacific office in Hong Kong, together they jumped at the opportunity and moved their family overseas.
Despite the distance, Burt would call me often to see how I was doing. He wanted to talk about what I was working on, what was new in my life and what my plans were to keep pushing the envelope personally and professionally. They say that great friends are the family that you choose, and our friendship transcended into brotherhood.
A few years later, I was lucky enough to visit Burt, D and the girls in Hong Kong. Incredible hosts, they showed me around the city, and then Burt and I flew off to Thailand for a few days of beach, elephant riding and adventure. We had the most incredible time, laughing, joking and reminiscing, just like the old days in Boston. Burt would say, “You only get one life, but if you live it like I do, once is enough.” He showed me that life was there for the taking—as usual, Burt had been right all along.
That was the last time I saw him.
Coming to terms with the fact that he is gone hasn’t been easy. I’ve never seen someone have such a wide reach, yet such a deep reach at the same time. Everyone who crossed paths with Burt felt so profoundly impacted. But our relationship was special. It was unique, and plain and simple, he changed my life.
Because of Burt, I’ve experienced my own life in a much different way. He shifted my perspective from a small town Oregon boy to something bigger. He was always pushing life to the max with everything he did, saying “I believe in you. You can do more.” And because of him, I have done more than I thought possible. To this day, there are times when I accidentally hit his number, just at the time when I would have called him anyway. I still feel him around me, giving me advice and direction, and encouraging me.
After someone you love passes away, you analyze every last interaction to find meaning in the last moments or last words. I had recently started dating Molly, my soon-to-be wife, and Burt and Molly had just been introduced over the phone. Before we hung up, Burt told me how proud he was of me and agreed that I had found the one. The last words I said to him were, “I love you.”
Molly and I asked his daughter’s, Milla and Emme, to be the flower girls in our wedding to acknowledge the role the Baptiste family has played in my life. If things had been different, Burt would have been there standing beside me, and now Milla and Emme will walk down the aisle in his honor.
I miss him all the time. But I am forever grateful for the life changing experience of knowing Burt Baptiste.
I’m just working on paying it forward.