Personal

Mt. Baker from southern approaches in August.
Climb to the mountains and get their good tidings.  John Muir

Gordon was born in Chicago, IL. and raised in Everett, WA.  Let’s avoid 3rd person for the remainder, eh?  I graduated from Everett High School before moving on to the University of Washington for a BS degree and then to UC Berkeley for MS and PhD degrees. Before saying more about myself, I need to say a bit about Mt. Baker, since its images are all over this website.

The above ‘angle’ on Mt. Baker is from the southern peak approaches, nearing the tree-line.  The South view shows the volcanic, levelled mountain top more clearly than views from the North or West.  Everett is 55 miles south, where the flat top of Baker is even more dramatically observed.  What a sight in winter!  I’ve seen Mt. Fuji from close-up and farther away, but it is not nearly as inspiring to me.

Seattle is much farther from Mt. Baker (and closer to Mt. Rainier) than is Everett, and the Pacific Northwest broadcasts and posts far more images of Rainier.  Granted, Rainier is 3,000 ft higher than Baker.  But Baker has, to my eye, a more dramatic and visually appealing nature.

The bottom right image from Everett, shows the dramatic crispness of Baker’s flat mountain-top, along with the brightness of the sun on the snow against a deep blue northern  sky.  To me, Baker’s beauty is even greater than that of the High Sierras, where I backpacked in my 20’s.  In those days you could simply walk through pathless meadows and over sunny pine ridges without ever even seeing a trail.  Alas, now hikers are required to stay on designated trails.  Mt. Baker is a major reason for my embracing the High Sierras, John Muir and Ansel Adams and, in a funny way, one of the biggest constants in my life. In fact, it is the most enduring source of inspiration in my life.  Besides being a metaphor for “Life is a mountain, not a beach”, Baker is an enduring image that reminds me of the preciousness of time in the human experience.  There is not a moment to waste.

The ‘name the mountain’ game:  Lieutenant Baker served under Captain George Vancouver on the HMS Discovery in the late 1790’s, during Vancouver’s explorations which were hoped to reveal the Northwest Passage.  Simultaneously, Vancouver was also engaged in mapping.  His expedition mapped ‘Puget’ Sound northward about as far North of the Straights of Juan DeFuca as ‘Puget’ Sound goes south of it.  Puget was another Lieutenant on Captain Vancouver’s voyage.  In contrast to Lt Baker’s namesake, the Fraser River’s Salish People have called Mt. Baker, Kulshan (or Kwelxá:lxw in their language – “The Shining One”) for thousands of years.  And Mt. Baker truly does glisten.

Vancouver BC is not quite as close to Baker as the photographer was when he caught the image that is shown on the Welcome page, but it is much closer than is Everett.  Of course, Vancouver has been richly rewarding for most of my adult life or I would not have stayed for five decades.  Vancouver is on the edge of an entire mountain range that starts North of Baker and the Fraser River.  Vancouver is the Rio De Janiero of North America.  Magnificent setting.  My children learned to ski on a local 4,000 foot mountain top that was only 15 minutes from our home.  Amazing!  The best skiing that I have found in the West is at Whistler-Blackcomb, which is only an hour and a half from home.  Luckily, both my daughters now have children and live quite near.  I think they love this area of the world as much as I do.

Why is Mt. Baker used as an image for a key identity metaphor of my website? Quite simply, because it evokes awe in me.  In general, mountain beauty does also.  When John Muir found the Sierra Nevada mountains he was captivated for decades.  Baker’s beauty is like stars in a desert’s night sky.  Some might see such images as evocative of cold, impenetrability, brooding, malevolence or even the futility of the Sisyphus Myth.  But I am confident that no back-packer or skier would ever do that!  For us, the pure joyousness of being closer to and even part of mountain awesomeness is indescribable.  That’s why there are now human traffic jams on Everest these days and Whistler-Blackcomb charges 17 times as much for a lift ticket than it did in the late 70’s.  It’s worth it to feel part of a place like Everest or Whistler, even if one does not reach the top of Everest or ski like the photos in ski magazines.  For me, personally, Mt. Baker was an unconscious part of my quest for an awesome life and it remains a metaphorical invitation to quest.  In that sense, life truly is a journey and not a destination.

Unlike my brother Baker is not a hero (see next).  But Baker, Shasta and mountains in general continue to be inspiring to me.  From my home, I can be up to the top of two 4000 foot mountains in 15 minutes and gaze down at Vancouver, the sea, the Gulf Islands and the mountains on Vancouver Island.  Amazing!  Note:  Vancouver Island is larger than Massachusetts, more than twice the size of Connecticut and ten times the size of Rhode Island or Long Island NY. The engineer in me still likes measurements rather than vague generalizations.

My biggest hero was my brother, Monroe. I am now almost twice as old as he ever reached.  All losses of loved ones are painful beyond expressing, much less explaining.  My brother earned a PhD in solid state physics at Northwestern U while raising 3 children and leading a research group for Argonne National Laboratory (now FermiLab).  That research centre is a part of the U of Chicago and is the current evolutionary extension of the Manhattan Project.  At the time of Monroe’s death, his kids were closing in on adulthood and he had 100 PhD’s and 3 nuclear reactors under him.  He regularly had enough fissionable material in a container on his desk to make an atomic bomb.  He did all this and spent one week out of three in Washington DC at Atomic Energy Commission hearings.  Why?    Simultaneously he was President of the American Nuclear Society and he specialized in nuclear reactor safety.  His philosophy was simply “Work hard play hard.”  He loved to ski at Sun Valley and his son Scott was really something to see, pounding down Limelight.

However, Monroe died young.  Surprisingly to some, his death had nothing to do with nuclear science or radioactivity.  He died in a car accident one mile from his house, in a 25,000 population town, going 25 miles an hour.  Tragic irony for me, family and many others.  Note: There were over 40,000 traffic deaths in the US in 2018 (about 110 per day – 4.6 per day in Canada [46 if population were the same as the US]). That is how the vast majority of healthy people die in both countries. The amazing thing is that the news never communicates these simple everyday realities beyond occasional local single events.  Monroe was almost 39 at that point in his life.  What energy and spirit of achievement!

The embracing science and questing for a career:  So Monroe was both my career guide and inspiration.  At the U of Washington, I found that I loved quantum physics and it ended up being integral to my MS Thesis and my Electron Microscopy work on super-alloys at Boeing.  Following the BS degree, I went to Graduate School at U Cal Berkeley for a Masters in solid state physics.  My professors there were giants of Materials Science (metallurgy and ceramics).

In grad school, I learned that I wanted to teach rather than be an engineer or physical science researcher and to be at a first-class University to do that.  Unfortunately, Engineering departments at such institutions were not hiring at that point.  But Business schools were hiring, because they were upgrading from the old business opinion/expertise staffing model to becoming more scientific research focused.  Finance was using advanced mathematics and computer analyses that Economics had been developing.  Management Science was using math and computer modelling developed by places like Rand Corporation during the Cold War to address a host of resource optimization and other challenges (e.g., logistics and competitive strategy).  Management was starting to leave “paternalism” behind and turning to the social sciences (especially psychology and economics) to generate focused and relevant applied scientific knowledge.  New journals like Administrative Science Quarterly, founded by Nobel Prize winning economist Herbert Simon, were popping up.  I had faith in the scientific approach to knowledge and so made the switch from physical to social sciences.  Fortunately, I could emphasize various specific departments and especially social psychology because of the Business School’s flexible way of utilizing multiple stellar Berkeley departments. It was an amazing place.  When I was there Berkeley had more Nobel Prize winners on Faculty that ALL other US Universities combined.  Almost impossible to imagine if you weren’t there.

I got admitted to the Business School’s PhD program somehow, while finishing the MS Thesis.  Remarkably, I also survived the 85% ‘flunk-out’ rate in the Doctoral program.  Then again, grad school took me 5 years and 4 summers of nearly living on bread and water.  Getting what you want sometimes requires sacrifice.  Cultivating the ability to sacrifice (just like deferring gratification) is part of maturing.  Skiing at Whistler, when it is below zero Fahrenheit and the wind is blowing 20 mph or so, is a sacrifice especially on a slow chairlift heading into the wind.  Freezing!  Perhaps making the switch to social science was part of my maturing but it is more likely that it was simple desperation.  I knew what I did not want.  I thank my parents for the determination to do what needed to be done but it was a tough slog.  That was the greatest generation.

People who have not understood Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics using Calculus have missed appreciating the amazing genius of people like Bohr, Schroedinger, Plank, Fermi and Einstein.  Fermi left Italy for the US in the mid 30’s in a clever way.  Italy would not let his Jewish wife out of Italy.  However during his attending Sweden to accept the Nobel prize in Physics.  He rapidly became the key scientist on the Manhattan project, under Oppenheimer.  Oppenheimer had previously been the head of Physics at Berkeley but he was not a genius like the above 20th Century greats.  Fermi ultimately became the father of the Hydrogen bomb.  But such specifics are not the point.

The tight ways the physical universe obeys crisp, mathematically causal laws and relationships is almost a spiritual thing.  For me, the social sciences are not as satisfying as the physical sciences because there are no real laws like, say, The Second Law of Thermodynamics.  For example:  Quantum ‘Theory’ is not speculation or a mere theory.  Nothing in the history of physical science has been tested (experiments designed and conducted to disprove the causality of quantum forces leading to observable, measurable, tangible, significant effects).  No ‘theory’ makes predictions so acutely accurate as quantum mechanics.  How accurate?  The accuracy is like measuring the distance from New York to Los Angeles with a precision of plus or minus the width of a human hair.  Quantum Theory is not merely theory.  It is scientific knowledge.  Relativity Theory is even more strange than Quantum mechanics.  For example, what does ‘bending space’ or ‘spacetime’ even mean?   It took 20 years of empirical effort to test Relativity sufficiently to make it accepted.  Much more has been done since then to test it further and raise it to the level of knowledge.

In social science, the complexity, multiplicity, and indeterminateness of causal paths and imprecision of measurement prevents developing a calculus, algebra or geometry for human behaviour.  So social science does not achieve the same level of trustworthiness as physical science.  But the social sciences are capable of applying rigorous scientific disciplines in data gathering and analysis, so the social sciences are more than a pseudo-science.  And trying to disprove assertions is central to social science.  It is far better to measure as best we can and use appropriate mathematics where it fits than what went before.

“Knowledge” is immeasurably better than mere opinion.  Why can that be said in a democracy where people vote with little more than opinion and ingrained ideologies?  Opinions are dear to individuals who hold them, but they are like belly buttons.  Exchanging opinions in debates leaves one to flounder in a sea of ideological contamination and manipulative moves.  Letting the loudest or the smoothest talker create a dominant opinion leads nowhere or worse.  Information is better than opinion, of course.  But even ‘factual’ information is not as solid, clear or useful as it was 50 years ago, because things are far more complex than they were then.  Wisdom, of course, is best but it is very difficult discover and is in very short supply.  Rising complexity is putting a blur on a lot that used to be simple and burying wisdom under explosive increases in noise.

Back to simply living.  In the 1970’s, after taking a faculty job in the Business School at UBC in Vancouver, I raced sailboats on Vancouver’s English Bay.  I also built a house. which my wife designed.  Between wives I also got to be a pretty good skier.  Fun decade, except for Monroe’s death and a divorce.

Most people I knew in Vancouver tended to assume that sailing was the reason for the ‘Skip’ nickname.  So, the Cal name stuck.  Virtually all people at UBC knew me as Skip Walter and I think that was helpful in my efforts to have informal and less distant relations with students.  UBC friends and some others still call me Skip and I like it when they do.

UBC was founded by five Cambridge ‘Dons’ who set the tone for it, with an aspiration of it becoming “Cambridge West”.  They succeeded in that UBC has stayed aspiration-ally true to the Cambridge culture instilled during its founders.  UBC was and is a fine place to be a scholar and I am proud of its commitment to quality research.  It is Canada’s most consistently ranked within the top 100 Universities in the world.  U of Toronto is its only Canadian equal and also often in the top 100 rankings.

In 1986, I was enticed to create a course for UCLA’s Anderson School’s MBAs entitled “Mergers, Acquisitions and Corporate Reorganization”.  ‘LA IS Great’ but so too is Vancouver.   And it’s a better place to raise children, in my opinion.  The mother of my children couldn’t get out of LA fast enough.  Luckily, she waited for me to go back to Vancouver.

In the late 80’s through the early 90’s, I conducted monthly all day Managerial Development meetings for 13 company presidents and also served as a sounding board and ‘advisor’ for two hours/month in each of their offices.  I learned more from ‘my’ presidents than they did from me, especially about leadership.  Great guys who carry unimaginable responsibility and deeply feel an impressive amount of caring for their employees.   Most people might not believe or even imagine this point.  These are skeptical and even cynical times.

Simultaneously with the ‘presidents’, my professional business activities began to emphasize Corporate Reorganization and more general Strategy Implementation consulting – instead of organizational development, managerial coaching, and facilitating groups in leading strategy retreats.  The old ‘Skip’ nickname seemed a bit too informal by the 90’s but still was ok for TEC.  Of course, I was creeping up on fifty also.  So on to ‘Gordon’.  Perhaps back-to-the-future would be closer to reality.  Some people today also call me Gordie (mostly from school and undergraduate days) and Gord.

What’s in a name for me?  First, there are far more Gordons in Canada than in the US.  It turns out that, in the 1800s, the majority of Scots went to Canada and the majority of Irish went to the US and Australia.  Gordon and Monroe are Scottish names.  Monroe is the last name of my grandfather.   My great grandfather hailed from the Finger Lakes region of New York State where there are many Monroes.  Canada knows lots of Gordons.  So I’m not called Gary, Garvin, George or Greg in Canada. That’s nice.  I am also grateful for the outstanding Gordie Howe, the long-term star of the Detroit Redwings.  I can’t remember a US star baseball, basketball or football player named Gordon.  Canada gave me a more ‘integrated’ feeling in that regard than did the US.  It seems odd that it might matter to me, when I think about.  Finally, nicknames of 4 letters and one syllable may be my destiny. (Both Skip and Gord). Not only cats have ‘9’ lives!

Not much more to say except that my children have been the greatest joy and satisfaction in my life and it was wonderful to raise them in Vancouver.  Family life was great as are my two daughters.  When all goes pretty well, it is hard to think of moments better than that whole 20+ years of family life.  Deep gratitude as well as joy and satisfaction.  That part of life may be all that really matters and when it goes well, happiness.  Lucky me.  With my daughters living close and bringing three grandchildren into the world thus far, I am again experiencing the joys of family.  Quite different from parenthood but a truly wonderful thing.  I think that another new chapter in my life is opening.  I am changing again, this time to be the grandfather that is really part of it all.  In the final analysis, “love makes the little thickness of the coin” ee cummings.

Friends from Everett, UW days, Northern and Southern California, UBC and the broader Canadian business and local communities have also enriched my life beyond words.  I am grateful and honoured to have their companionship.  And then there is boating on fabulous local waters, skiing at Whistler and the gentle Pacific Northwest weather.  “When the sun shines, if the sun shines,” as a San Francisco friend used to say, “there is no more beautiful place in the world.”  The mountains and the sea feed some of my deepest human needs.  But they also remind me that, in the journey of life as well as that of professionals, “The obstacle is the path”, ala Nietzsche.  Simultaneously, a more recent formulation of that wisdom (although less directly analogous to a formidable mountain) is, “That which you most need to find will be found where you least want to look.”  Carl Jung.  Best wishes to each and every one of you in your quest towards your ‘mountain top’!

 

If I am the Gordon (Skip) Walter you once knew, I would be pleased to ‘catch-up’ on your life. All others too, of course.
Skip/Gord (aka) Gordon, Gordie, Dad, Grandpa

Accept – Adapt – Advance

​Mt Baker from the foothills

Mt Baker from Everett (courtesy of Seattle Times)

Going to the mountains is going home. John Muir

gordonskipwalter@gmail.com | 1-604-790-1804 | gw@gordonwalter.me