The dining room of the Vintners Golf Club in the beautiful Napa Valley was full and abuzz. A hush fell over the room as a man maneuvered his motorized wheelchair into the center of the room. As the guests parted to let him move more freely the entire room burst into applause and cheers. Doug Ernst had arrived. Thus began a heartfelt celebration of the life of a wonderful, giving man; a man who has been a part of our circle for five years.
Doug was diagnosed with ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease) several months ago and is declining quite rapidly. The disease has ravaged his body dramatically but certainly not his spirit. His wicked sense of humor, his sly sarcastic smile and his passion for making the world a better place remain. Doug has brought so much to so many.
Doug has been a powerful, positive force in his beloved greater Napa Valley for decades. As the editor of The Napa Valley Register and its subsidiary papers he successfully walked the tightrope of political neutrality (most of the time) and created many valuable friendships and acquaintances. His popularity in the valley is a function of his social and political skills and his commitment to making a difference.
The Napa Valley is special to those of us who live here, and Doug is a special part of our lives because of his commitment to and love for the valley. He is not just a member of my men’s team, Team Source, he is a real and true friend. Our friendship is deep and meaningful and reaches the rare stratosphere of ruthless compassion balanced with friendship that is often difficult to achieve.
We in MDI (Mentor, Discover, Inspire, an international men’s organization), sometimes talk about “selling men out” because of the friendships that develop on a team. For Doug, the truth always meant more than anything as he brought his investigative reporting skills into play with his men. It was as if he felt the need to take on a context of having to report to a higher authority in his search for the truth. Nothing less than giving and receiving the unbridled truth was good enough for our trusted comrade.
This was a celebration of a life very well lived. His beautiful wife Carolyn let us know that “love at first sight” truly exists. The story she told was that as a young woman, she walked up to him while he was playing the drums at an event, and kissed him on the back of the neck. In the true spirit of Rock ‘n’ Roll, they went home together, they woke up together the next morning and have done so ever since.
Theirs is a story of true love at first sight. Together, they created four beautiful daughters each of whom married good men and, between them, have brought eight grandchildren into the world, with “more to come.” Doug and Carolyn have a wonderful family, a family that is there to support both of them in this unfortunate but inevitably unchangeable journey.
It is an honor for the men on my team to be there to support Doug and Carolyn and their extended family through this journey. Beyond that, there is a valley full of people who love this man and, more importantly, respect him deeply. A potential client of mine who is a political force in the Napa Valley said to me recently, “We certainly did not agree on a lot of things. He’d piss me off no end at times but I love him and respect him.”
What more could a man ask for?
Carolyn showed her mettle and bravery by delivering a beautiful speech about her life with Doug. Each of his daughters delivered, from their differing perspectives and through tears, laughter and plenty of Kleenex, their love, respect and admiration for their dad. Men and women from his business life, from his college days and friends from childhood delivered hilarious anecdotes and deep, moving expressions of love and respect for Doug.
I had the privilege of speaking to his involvement in MDI and the impact he has had on me and so many men in the last five years as he participated with commitment and good humor. If Doug tossed a question at you in a meeting you knew you were busted — but in a good way. He was mining the truth.
We discover so much about a deceased friend or relative after they have passed as we hear eulogies. Often, at funerals, we find ourselves wishing that the deceased could have heard what friends and loved ones had to say about them, which might have made their passing more meaningful to them. This was different.
Doug had the opportunity to experience the magnificent expressions of appreciation and love offered that day. This was truly all about Doug and no one who spoke held back. What a gift it is to face one’s mortality and to come face to face with those whose lives you have impacted and to leave this world knowing what that impact has been, assured that you are “leaving the world a better place than you found it?”
This world and, in particular, the privileged people (privileged in knowing Doug) of the Napa Valley are better for him having lived here for so many years. Whether or not we agree with him, whether we battle and fight him or simply read his skillful columns in the Register and the St. Helena Star, we are all the privileged recipients of Doug’s commitment to the betterment of this world. Doug’s legacy will run deep and wide here in the Napa Valley and beyond.
My sons, who attended the event, are the inheritors of the better world Doug will leave behind and I’m so grateful for that.
What an honor and a privilege it is to have had him in my life over these years. What an honor it is to be considered family by Doug, Carolyn, the kids and grandchildren. And what an honor it is to be there with and for them during this time of sadness, joy and transition.
Doug’s powerful legacy will rest in a book he has written about his father, who courageously escaped from the Buchenwald concentration camp, literally circumnavigated the globe in search of what’s right and joined Patton’s army, and was gifted with being ordered to personally open the gates of Buchenwald and liberate his fellow internees. As with Doug, you couldn’t make this stuff up.
Doug cannot physically attend our recent team meeting but he will still be a strong presence in our thoughts and words. Let’s take the lessons from this glorious experience and celebrate the lives of those we love before we lose them. Let them feel the impact they have had on those they leave behind. If we are not afraid of each others’ truth, like Doug, we can all leave this world a better place than we found it.