I knew I wanted to meet Sue Dunne after I met her son, CJ.
His Dad and I had an interview scheduled in his office on a Saturday morning in mid-town Manhattan. Jimmy Dunne’s story is quite moving and inspiring. He has gotten a lot of attention for his handling of the reconstruction and phenomenal growth of Sandler O’Neill & Partners after 9/11 and the firm’s loss of 66 people that day in the South Tower. I told a small part of Jimmy’s story in a previous post. But, it was meeting CJ that showed me that this was a family story.
Sue and I met in the Dunne’s lovely home on the East River in Manhattan. She greeted me at the door with an enormous cup of coffee in her hands. A few seconds later, I had one in mine, too. (She offered me some coconut milk to go with it. Ordinarily, I would have said “no.” But, I thought, “What the heck,” and accepted. It was delicious. Try it if you get a chance. You’ll like it.)
The conversation naturally flowed while we settled into the living room. We turned the exchange to CJ and his Dad and the reason for my coming to see her. “Like his Dad, CJ has a lot of presence, especially for a 16 year old. There was something else that was there, too. He has an ease with adults that is refreshing and a sense of deep confidence. I liked him. He showed a genuine interest in the life of his Dad and a sense of grit and heart and desire for excellence that was striking for his age. He’s still young, but these are great signs for the future.”
I finished plugging in and turning on my computer to record our conversation as I continued,
“These are the same qualities I saw in his Dad, but with a different flavor. So, I figured the difference had to come from his Mom. I know that most stories of success are really family stories. So, seeing CJ and interviewing Jimmy, I knew I needed to speak to you to get a better picture of Jimmy and that time around 9/11.”
We jumped right into the deep end of our conversation talking about the days immediately after 9/11, when Jimmy, now the only surviving Principal of the three that directed the firm at Sandler O’Neill, had to come up with a way to support the families of those killed that day and, in parallel to this, rescue the firm from collapse.
Entire departments of the firm were depopulated. All of the records of their business dealings were gone. They had to reconstruct who their clients were and the contacts developed by now deceased colleagues, establish what the contractual arrangements were, rebuild their information technology support, find qualified replacements for those lost and a host of other crises, while also tending to the human calamity they faced and the unspeakable loss to the families of their loved ones.
Bereft families had to tend to immediate issues about insurance, house payments, what to do about kids in college and a thousand family issues couples struggle with together. Many families turned to Jimmy to help them figure these matters out. All the while, the steady cadence of memorial services and funerals continued for months along with the utterly exhausting shock of it all.
Sandler O’Neill decided to extend payment of salaries to the families of the deceased. A foundation was established to provide for the families’ health insurance and kids’ educations.
Sandler was the first firm on Wall Street to do this. The conventional wisdom at the time and the best advice of experts was that firms should not do this for the families. That it would undermine the capitalization of the firms, thereby weakening their business positions and their reputations for financial stability in the market. Jimmy, with absolutely no guarantee of success, did it anyway. Sandler O’Neill and Jimmy Dunne became the role models for the rest of Wall Street and earned the well-deserved esteem they wear today.
“I was trying to support my husband any way I could.” Sue began with a raw tenderness for old and dear friends who had passed away, some friends whom Jimmy had known since his teens. “Jimmy needed me. I needed to go out to our friends. My days were spent going to funerals.”
“It was a Wall of Black! 9/11 was just black. It was just the darkest of the dark.” Sue said of that time.
In that blackness, Sue described a surprising respite. It was what she felt while at the memorial services and funerals.
“The feeling was so peaceful. Going to those funerals with people feeling the same way. We were able to share their lives. You got to hear about their lives from people who really loved them. You never wanted to leave. It was safe in there. You heard so many wonderful things about people you loved very much.”
We talked about the challenges of raising kids through all of this. I recalled my experience in the Balkans during and after the war there. When given the chance, kids would want to draw a picture over and over of their experience of what happened. Of course, this is the effort of a child with limited language skills to try to understand what they had experienced. The issue becomes one of helping the child find words to not only describe what happened, but to have a way to give meaning to the loss in a way that frees up their motivation to build their future in a positive way and not paralyze them with fear or rage.
“I spent the first 3 months going to funerals. I wanted to get out there and let them know we were there for them. Trying to do what we could… We needed to get out and support them as much as we could.”
I thought, this was a real sign of who this woman is. She didn’t have to “get out and support them,” but she “needed to.” This is the heart of a leader, the heart of a caring friend.
“I was delighted I could go. It was a privilege. It was hard for me to stop. I loved being there supporting the families.”
I asked Sue about any lessons she picked up from those days. Was there a way to summarize what she learned for CJ or another teenager? What would she say?
“It sounds so simple, like such a cliche, but it’s important to live your life to the fullest all the time. Be there. Show up!”
“You don’t want to be in the position where you say to yourself ‘I really should have showed up more for this person.’ Or, sit there and blame others. Or, sit there and blame Muslims. It’s about helping other people. Getting going with your life.”
This is the mystery and the beauty that’s so often found after such a terrible event. Sue found a great comfort learning about and appreciating the humanity of those who were lost. These memorials were a straight path to the pure uncovered love that people felt for those lost. Being present for this kind of sharing exposed the link that connects us all, a link that is often hidden by the turmoil of our day. In a time of crisis, some people help us see that link by their care, their presence. Sue showed up not only for Jimmy and her kids, but very personally for scores of families. Sue remembers the love.
The next post explores getting clear on the Prize and the Price to, like Sue, make a choice from our Compassionate Identity.
A wonderful story from the Balkans: “Compassion, Fantastic Coffee and My Shock”
Sue’s husband, Jimmy, is talked about in this post: “Resilience and Leadership: Jimmy Dunne.”
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