Eyes of Promise

Joe DoughertyWhen I was a young entrepreneur still trying to make my first sale in the Computer Based Training industry, I happened to meet Joe Dougherty, the CEO of Course Technology in Boston. Course Technology was an early pioneer in computer-based learning content and was a very successful subsidiary of the Thomson Learning group. Joe was as gracious as could be with me, considering that I was totally inexperienced and had very little to offer him. At the time I remembered thinking Joe reflected the company and the industry in the mid 90’s: young, energetic and full of promise.

Joe passed away last night, finally succumbing to brain cancer that he has struggled with for well over two years now. He was 47 years old.

Over the years I became good friends with Joe. But, true to his nature, I suspect many people felt they were good friends with Joe. His warm, engaging style just had a way of drawing you in. I never worked for him, but it was clear that he was a natural leader, a trait that led him to be promoted to President of Thomson NETg, one of the largest, most prestigious learning brands at the time. A few years ago NETg made one of the splashier acquisitions in the industry now called eLearning, acquiring KnowledgeNet based in Phoenix. Eventually NETg moved their headquarters from Naperville, IL to Phoenix and Joe, a Boston area resident, commuted each week from Massachusetts to Arizona.

The morning of November 29, 2005 I was talking to Joe on the phone from his Phoenix office. He was the same as always. Later that day he collapsed at his desk, blacking out completely and hitting his head very hard. When he awoke, he was at the Mayo Clinic, and they had discovered the growth which ultimately resulted in Joe’s death.

Along the way there was hope. Joe had surgeries and was on medication that seemed to help, and hinted at light at the end of the tunnel. I had breakfast with Joe in the quaint New England town he lived in a while ago. It seemed like he was getting better. He was as vibrant and engaging as ever (although a little annoyed because he was unable to drive himself at the time).

The poise and dignity with which he carried himself throughout this ordeal was amazing, and he and his wife Judy stayed connected to Joe’s fan club via blogging on a website. From many pictures on the site I pulled one for this blog that always stuck with me. It was post diagnosis and I’m sure Joe didn’t love the shaved head or the scruffy beard look. What I love are the eyes. Same as the first time I met him: full of wit, passion and promise.

Sensing the end was near, a little over a month ago Joe wrote a captivating article which was published in the New York Sun (see http://www.nysun.com/opinion/the-fda-and-the-tumor/79976/). It described his ordeal with the exact same brain cancer that Ted Kennedy is now suffering from, and his frustration with the FDA who Joe felt were preventing him from getting medications that held promise of a cure. Reading it the first time, I felt some of the same frustration as Joe. Rereading it this morning brought a tear to my eye.

I have met a lot of people during my career and will meet many more. Joe was special. The joy of meeting someone like Joe is that the memory of him will always be there to draw upon. No matter how bad things might seem at any given time, I can always remember those eyes of promise.

Kevin Oakes
Kevin is the CEO and co-founder of i4cp. He is a world-recognized thought leader on the topics of corporate culture, the future of work, and learning, and is the author of the bestselling book Culture Renovation: 18 Leadership Actions to Build an Unshakeable Company.