Trust me was written all over his face. “I’m a circuit rider,” he said. He was telling me, not asking me. He wasn’t asking me for a job either. He was telling me the future. That was Rob. It was November 1995.
To be honest, I wasn’t too sure why he had come down from New York. An affiliation with the name “Rockefeller” had opened my door. I thought we were going to talk about the “Circuit Rider” project TCN had just completed for the W.A. Jones Foundation. In reality, he was there to shape much of the next few years of my life.
We were across from one another in TCN’s crowded conference room — a room of too many tables and printers and chairs and easels and TV stands. Given the crowding, we were forced onto the corner of one of the larger tables. Sitting there, this 30-some young pup with a winning smile and a twinkle in his eyes proceeds to tell me how we were going to change the world. “I’m a circuit rider,” he said. “I want to take circuit riding to the world. What do I need to know?”
Circuit rider he was — in the true sense. I had (immodestly) defined “circuit riding” as not about the technology, but about the issue. It was about the heart, the soul, and the mission; about doing the god-dammed-right-thing. But, let’s be clear, it was about doing it better by bending the tech to that job of saving the world. Rob got that. Rob was that. Rob was a tireless evangelist of the right thing, and of technology, championing its transformative effects on nonprofit organizations.
He took my then half-baked ideas and mumbled numbers, bits and pieces of research, surveys and experiences working with some 4,000 nonprofits, and combined it with the wit and tenacity of a (self-described) lobbyist. He transformed a sector, started a movement. He made it real, he gathered the troops from far and wide, bringing it all together and giving it purpose and vision and community.
That was just the beginning, for he was to become my friend, to become a constant source of ideas (both brilliant and harebrained) and energy. He’s the only person I know that loved gadgets more than I do and could always — and I mean always — one-up me with some new gadget. And, then, typically, he would ask me how to make it work.
That meeting was the start of nearly twenty years of friendship with Rob Stuart, countless hours, countless meetings, circuit rider round ups, projects, initiatives, and phone calls. We were friends.
Even after I had moved away from the hubbub of DC, he learned my routine, knowing my hour commute (and being one of the rare people that knew my cell number) he’d call precisely as I hit the highway and we’d conspire on this or that until some Amtrak tunnel interrupted his commute and would clip the conversation. I often thought he rather enjoyed testing the quality of the Verizon signal as he sped through the New Jersey or Maryland countryside, bound for either New York or DC.
Sometimes he’d drive me nuts — that’s the sign of a true friendship after all. Sometimes I’d question his sanity — I was never to hip on the hydrogen plans, though I agreed with the premise. Energy is at the root of the world’s problems. But, somehow the idea of making highly flammable gasses in my garage didn’t strike me as wise.
Nevertheless, through thick and thin, Rob fought for the good, the right, for Sammy the Salmon, for Bicycle trails, for open government, replaceable iPod batteries, the rights of the poor, and against all the senseless and stupid things in the world.
Simultaneously, he shepherded the annual “Circuit Rider Roundup” — personally pulling the original gang of 25 or so to Chicago, and then metaphorically twisting my arm to host and sponsor the second Roundup in Flint Michigan. Far past the dime, we were in for more than a dollar, with Rob pouring in his own money, and raising more from a half dozen prominent foundations, east to west and throughout the middle. The Roundups grew, the myriad of geeks working for the good flocked to an identity, a community. Soon the 25 were 40, and then a 100, and then 300. The Roundups ended, and the NTEN “NTC” began, with more than 600 in Philly, March 2004.
The NSNT, after agitating and contemplating for a couple of years, begat NTEN – the then named “Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network” — a huge and unwieldy handle for a gang of geeks for good, technology evangelists, and IT champions who operated in and around nonprofits worldwide. It was Rob’s brainchild. I was a skeptic. He proved me wrong.
Human beings often forget their predecessors, forgotten in the rush to conquer the world. Nevertheless, across the years, Rob was there. Rob made it happen.
If the measure of a man is embodied in the works he leaves behind, Rob leaves us so much the richer. If a man’s legacy is embodied in his family — both real and metaphorical — Rob’s double-helix is intertwined across every Circuit Rider and eRider worldwide, across all the many participants in the Roundups, the NSNT, NTEN, the NTC, and across thousands of nerds and geeks for good, organizers and advocates, funders and social workers, and even a few lawyers.
Rob was my friend. I shall miss him. I shall miss him at the conferences and meetings, where we’d walk the halls together, never quite making it to a session (unless one of us happened to be on the actual panel).
I shall miss the ring of my cell phone, in the early morn, and hearing: “Gavin, it’s Rob. How are you? I’ve got an idea.” So, feel free to call, Rob. You know the number. Oh, and say hi to Janelle, would you? Thanks. Thanks for it all.