Remembering Harry Weller: 5 Years
Five years ago today I was sitting in the dining hall of Schwarzman College in Beijing and my phone buzzed in my pocket. It was Amit Mukherjee, my NEA partner, texting me a cryptic “Can you talk?” I rang him immediately. He picked up and said “I have rough news. Harry passed away.”
I remember exactly where I was sitting, I remember everything around me disappearing, and I remember a near-photographic image of the wood grain of the table in front of me—it’s all my brain could interpret through the tunnel vision. The first coherent thoughts that passed into my consciousness were “Is this real? How could this be possible… again?”
I received a similar call 5 years before. That time, I was at the Community Rec Center at Cornell when I picked up an incoming call from my mom. All she said was “Can you be a stand for me?” I had no idea what that meant. It was a strange thing to say and she could barely articulate a sentence. I became even more confused when my hometown Rabbi’s voice came on the line; “Andrew, your father passed away this morning.” Same tunnel vision, same photographic recollection of the pattern in the carpet beneath my feet and of the subsequent large rock I sat down on outside the rec center.
The news of Harry’s passing hit me hard. Harry was someone I wanted to be when I grew up. He was a — actually the — central father figure and role model in my life at that point in time. He was a beacon for everything I wanted my life to be and my life’s work to represent: opportunity, greatness, energy, fun, and success, paired with perspective, acceptance, generosity, hard work and a uniquely authentic light-hearted kindness.
I retreated from the Schwarzman College dining hall to my room and called my mom. Her advice was “write.” I didn’t want to write. It felt like writing down my thoughts was too much to ask and too much to muster at that moment. But she said, “sit down and start moving your hands over the keyboard and you will eventually get into the flow. What you write will be only for you, not for anyone else, and it will help you process.” So I did, and here’s what came out:
Harry Weller was my friend, mentor, boss, teacher, and once again, friend. He was an amazing innovator, visionary, inspirer of others, and father figure.
I cannot believe I’m writing this. Harry was in his 40s. He ran all the time. Biked to work. Wearing hilarious high-tech biking outfits. He was so full of life and excitement. More alive than anyone else I know. It is very difficult to process that he is gone.
On at least a weekly basis, he’d get so excited about some idea that he’d call me, unable to contain his enthusiasm, to talk through his thoughts.
In no small part thanks to Harry, I’m currently living and studying in Beijing as a Schwarzman Scholar. Moments after submitting my letter of recommendation for this scholarship, Harry got so excited that he called me, bursting with energy. He bragged about how amazing his letter was, how amazing he thinks I am. He ended up reading me the entire letter. And then, after reading it once, he went through it again, line by line, highlighting what he thought were the best parts. Explaining why he said the things he did. Why he phrased it in certain ways. The strategy behind what he was saying, how much thought he put into it, and how knew they’d accept me for sure.
That was one type of Harry call. The type where he was so excited about something cool that he just had to share it. Those calls happened all the time. He was so energetic, so full of optimism, passion and color, bubbling over with enthusiasm, that he just had to call someone and share. It was infectious.
But there was another type of phone call that I’d get from Harry. On much rarer occasion. Maybe only two or three times. It was this other type of call that taught me who Harry truly was and how much he cared. This is the story of one of those calls:
It was after this year’s NEA awards banquet. Three of Harry’s companies had received awards, meaning Harry was on stage basically non-stop. Two of Harry’s portfolio company founders teared up while speaking, and so did Harry at a few points. Harry had believed in his founders so much. He had seen something in them that no one else had. Something that maybe only truly existed in the liminal space intersecting Harry’s perception and actual reality. He saw a spark not of something that objectively *was*, but of something great that *could be*. Some potential to be uncovered, coaxed out and developed. And Harry wasn’t just the guy to see that greatness in each of us, he had the magical gift to help us see it in ourselves as well. To help pull it out of us. To help us be the best version of ourselves.
Late that night after the ceremony, I got a phone call from Harry. Not strategizing some exciting new idea or cooking up some new theory. This phone call was more basic and more tender. He wanted to know what I saw in him. He was worried that he had gotten too emotional during the speeches. That he had choked up in front of the whole firm during his entrepreneurs’ stories. That he had been too soft and hadn’t been able to deliver his messages the way he wanted. And he was worried of what people might think. Harry Weller, the man who sees the spark in others — who helps uncover and nurture that spark — was afraid of what we would see in him.
That phone call meant so much to me. We talked for what seemed like hours, both walking around outside the same hotel (probably just a few hundred yards apart, but still talking on the phone because that was Harry’s way). We talked about his role in the world, his role in the firm, and his role as a mentor. We talked about how others see him and whether or not he had been strong enough. Whether he was being a good role model.
Harry always had his reasons, was always ten steps ahead, and that tender phone call was no exception. He knew that I would learn something from it.
Harry wasn’t just a mad genius going around telling everyone that they’re great, that they’re special, that they have something valuable to offer the world, that they’re wanted and needed. Well, ok, he was that and he did do those things. But he was also a genuine, deep, beautiful, emotional, generous, insecure, caring, thoughtful human being. Human, just like the rest of us. And he knew that by being real in that moment, by exposing his insecurities, he would teach an important lesson. He knew it would make his amazing generosity, success, courage, energy and thoughtfulness more human. More real. More attainable. That it would motivate me to strive even harder to be a better person. Because it shows that greatness is not this godlike, unattainable, special thing that only the lucky few among us will ever achieve. Greatness is something that truly exists in all of us. That’s who Harry was and that’s what he taught many of us.
I fear that with Harry’s passing not just one light went out, but the lights that he saw in so many of us — the potential special brightness that we could bring to the world — may have gone out too.
The best thing we can do to honor Harry’s memory, to acknowledge who he was, to make him proud, is to keep our lights burning bright. To continue believing in ourselves. To continue striving to be the best versions of ourselves we can. Even more, we can spread the goodness that Harry brought to the world by following in his footsteps. By seeing the greatness in others, even when they can’t. By accepting others for who they are. And by doing our best to help everyone see that they have something special to contribute — something that’s needed, wanted, and valued.
My mom was right — writing helped me to begin processing what had happened. It also helped me synthesize and memorialize Harry’s lessons and legacy. In the spirit of his memory, the learnings he imparted, and the call-to-action I feel when thinking of how to best honor him, I’ve lit a yahrzeit candle every year for Harry for the last five years. Below is a picture of tonight’s candle. It’s from Björn’s Colorado Honey. Their name is an homage to Beorn, the beekeeping shapeshifter from Tolkein’s middle-earth. Tonight’s candle burns in a cabin in Breckenridge, where Chi-Chi and I are surrounded by several of our closest friends who also happen to be entrepreneurs building companies focused on positive social & environmental impact. I think Harry would approve.