Assistant Director of Development, Myah Blazar, sat down to lunch with Past President and Board Alum, Gary Wool, and Immediate Past President and Current Board Member, Tom Field at the Standard Club on Wednesday, July 23, 2014.
Myah Blazar: Hi Gary and Tom, thank you for joining me today. I look forward to learning about your individual JCYS experiences. Let’s start with how you both were first introduced to the agency.
Gary Wool: I was introduced to the agency by Milt and Steve Podolsky. At the time, I had just started my new career in commercial real estate in Chicago. Coming from Waukegan I knew little about the greater Jewish community, boards, or leadership development. Steve Podolsky’s father who I now consider my true mentor, told me at the time “You need to get involved in some organizations. Look into Young Men’s Jewish Council, this is where you’re going to learn and you will develop into a leader.” That’s how I was first introduced.
Tom Field: How I got into the agency? I knew my Dad was on the board in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The irony is that I was looking for Young Men’s Jewish Council and I couldn’t find it [The agency underwent a name change in 1989]. A buddy of mine and I were talking one night and he mentioned to me that he was on the board of JCYS and it sounded just a little bit too familiar. We put two and two together and he invited me to a Board meeting and that was it.
MB: Share with me your Board experiences.
GW: At a very young age, I was involved in personnel decisions, budgeting, fundraising, the acquisition of facilities that I would have not otherwise been given that exposure. We all just figured it out together. There were so many experiences. Looking back I now realize that the more involved one got the greater opportunities there were for growth and development.
TF: The business exposure that you get by being on the Board is tremendous.
MB: Were those experiences that you both had prior to your time on the JCYS Board?
TF: Definitely not. And I may never have some of them again. But, the likelihood is that I will have experiences in the future similar in some respects and the breadth of knowledge and process and consensus reaching and building I learned during my board tenure was tremendous and priceless. And the relationships that you develop along the way are unquestionably lifelong relationships.
I’ve got another 30 days or so to be the Immediate Past President. There’s a laundry list of takeaways. Some of the people who I have mentored on the Board, I have pushed really hard to do things that may be outside of their comfort zones and I think that’s sort of key: to take on things that you’re not comfortable with. Despite my MBA, being on the finance committee and sitting through budget hearings was a little bit outside my comfort zone as I am not required to do that in my law practice. But after some time you get used to it and you learn how to ask the right questions and that translates into real life very easily.
Tom Field, Immediate Past President & Current Board Member
Gary Wool, Past President & Board Alum
I think about the year of my presidency and all of the different major undertakings of that year: we acquired a new piece of property on North Ave., where we will be building the new Michael R. Lutz Center, we had a tremendous Gala honoring Jon Vegosen, which was our second most profitable ever, we had the most profitable Golf & Tennis Outing that year, and we initiated an agency leadership change which was all consuming.
GW: I can look at a three or four year window, before and after my presidency and say we acquired the former Kennedy School, now the Lutz Family Center in Highland Park. We also acquired the land in Buffalo Grove that is now the home of the Buffalo Grove Family Center. That Kennedy school was the first major acquisition the board had made on behalf of the agency in years. It was unique at the time because we needed to raise a million dollars because the agency didn’t have the money.
TF: You guys had to go before the planning commission.
GW: Yes. The property was controlled by both the City of Highland park and the Park District. There were neighbors concerned about the future development of the site. I remember Lee Gordon and I coming to agreement with one of the most active neighbors that we would not sell a portion of the site to a residential builder who wanted to build homes on part of the land. I remember it well when we asked Michael Lutz and his mother for the fundraising gap to close on the facility. I remember how nervous we were to make that request. Steve Topel, Lee Gordon, Dan Kaufman and I planned it out- who was going to say what, what we were going to do. Steve stuttered as he asked for the first contribution in honor of Michael’s father. I remember it like yesterday. I am so proud to have shared in that moment with those guys.
MB: And Tom, you were just in that situation.
TF: Yes, I was just the primary solicitor in a substantial ask we are making for the new project. Took point on that. I don’t think I stuttered but it was certainly nerve racking and now being in the wait-and-see phase is equally nerve racking. But that to me was such a great opportunity.
MB: Where do you see JCYS going in the future?
TF: Here is where I think we will have some different perspectives.
GW: It’s hard because I’m no longer involved in the Board.
TF: I have a big advantage.
GW: Correct. I truly believe what is wonderful about this agency is that it’s independent and that the Board members are the leaders who help direct where the agency goes. This is something that is very unique that very few organizations made up of young board members have. Because I’m removed, I’m not sure where that direction is going to go. The experience that Tom and his fellow leaders went through with the leadership change is a tremendous experience. When Board members called me to give me a heads up and let me know what they were doing, I respected their decision and appreciated their call. I didn’t second guess their decision. In terms of the future, what I hope happens is that this agency continues to remain independent. That’s what my hope for the future is. I think the independence is what makes it so unique.
TF: So, we don’t depart on that. The independence is huge. One of the things we initiated during my presidency was a long term plan. It hadn’t been done in a long time. When we talk about the future of the agency, one thing that is incredibly meaningful to me based on my 9-ish years of being on the Board, is the ability to become proactive. It’s a substantial challenge that we are endeavoring to tackle. I think becoming more proactive will allow the agency to thrive, remain independent, and perpetuate for future generations.
GW: I respect you and your fellow Board members because I actually think you’re proactive. When I look back at the last few years, I have attended many events including annual meetings, galas and golf outings. I would say you guys have been very proactive, you made some changes, personnel, budget, and acquired a building, I would say you’re pretty proactive which I respect. The legacy of what this organization does continues. Board members are having similar experiences and they’re learning from it and benefitting from it and they are helping the communities and families. This agency is always evolving.
TF: Absolutely. Yes.
GW: That’s what business is, that’s what life is.
TF: And it evolves in so many ways. It’s the staff, the programs, the facilities, it’s the Board composition. The Board composition when I came on was really top heavy. There were a lot of senior Board members who were hanging on to be around for the 100th Celebration. Right after that, we had nine Board members retire which was about one third of the Board at the time.
MB: I would like to discuss briefly a commonality that the two of you share. Tom, you are currently on the Board and your father was on the Board in the 70’s and 80’s. And you, Gary are a Past President and now your son Bryan is on the Board. It’s an interesting dynamic and I’d be curious to know, Gary, what are you hoping Bryan gets out of his JCYS experience?
GW: Ok, I need to think about this answer and I want to be sensitive. Obviously, I want him to have the experiences and grow and develop like I did. But I’m also sensitive that I want it to be what he wants. He has chosen this organization on his own after investigating other options in the Chicago area. I hope his experience with JCYS will be as satisfying as mine has been.
TF: For me, it’s always been about making my own way. So when I got to the agency, it was really about not being concerned with anything that had happened before me with my father. It was about figuring out how I could take advantage of an opportunity to be a leader. And that is one thing that I challenged myself with was growing up. I had been involved in a variety of different activities – be it sports or Model United Nations, or being in a leadership role in my fraternity in college. All along the way I had held leadership roles, but I had never held the president role in an organization.
GW: (nods in agreement)
TF: And there was a little bit of a void in me because I knew that I had leadership ability and skills but nobody had ever given me that opportunity. It was in part my own fault for not seeking it, but knowing that if I put my mind to it and expressed my opinions and acted like a leader that the opportunity might present itself. There was no guarantee. You can’t join the Board and just assume because you’re active that you will be President one day. Little known fact, when the opportunity came about, I actually screwed it up the first time. There were two people that were in consideration. I was at a place where I had a young child and had just made partner at my firm so I felt like I needed to spend my time at home and work. I hoped that I would have the opportunity the following year and it fortunately presented itself. There was no way I was backing down the second time. I went into it guns blazing. Gary, I don’t know how much you remember about the commitment. It was significant and more than anything I had ever imagined. It was about creating meetings and putting thought into agendas, worrying about small details- keeping alumni in the loop and maintaining strong relationships.
GW: I teared up a minute ago when you talked about your first opportunity to lead an organization and it was JCYS. I had the same experience where all of a sudden my peers elected me to help run the agency that was the first time I had ever done anything like that. It meant a lot to me. There are still days when I look back and say to myself “You know, I was President of that organization.” Sometimes when I have a challenge and I have to speak in front of large groups of people, I reach inside and I know I’ve done this before. I can get in front of all these people and I don’t need notecards to talk about how I feel. I learned these skills from the first Annual Meeting and the first gala that I spoke at. And I will say this, I was not as eloquent as I’ve heard Tom speak. I’ve heard you and I’ve told you that before.
I hope 20 years from now, Bryan Wool is sitting at the table talking to his peers and he’s had similar experiences but I can’t make that happen for him. He needs to blaze his own trail. I think he will because he likes the organization and he’s excited about it.
TF: Maybe I’ll be sitting where you’re sitting.
MB: Or Tom, maybe one of your kids?
TF: I can’t even imagine right now.
GW: I love this agency. I would say, I know this sounds cliché, but it changed my life – which is why I am forever grateful and dedicated. It’s an intangible, the experiences that I got. I have goose bumps as I’m telling you this. I didn’t know about organizations or giving back or leadership development and at a very young age, I got exposed to so many things and was given so many great opportunities that I wouldn’t have gotten.