No single text could sum up my father. But one of our last conversations was about the increasing difficulty of communication, and what he said was this: “Try. Let’s try.” So I will.
Chris Meyer tried. At everything. For the most part, he succeeded, but the point is not success or failure; it’s that he wanted to try. Anything he thought was worth doing was worth doing not only well, but to the highest possible level—or at least better than anyone else. The principle applied to everything from choosing a bathrobe to designing a high-stakes conference. Whether leisure or work, if he was going to do it, he was going to do it up right. To quote one of his most beloved songs, Stephen Sondheim’s “Children and Art,” “It’s not so much do what you like as it is that you like what you do.”
At work, this principle meant that the work should be substantive and good for something; that everyone involved should have a good time doing it; that they should learn from the process. The same went for life, and he lived his with integrity in the truest sense of the word. He was as committed to the work of his life as he was to his life at work. He looked for lessons and learning everywhere, and regarded everyone he met, from hairdressers to luminaries, as potential teammates. In his own words: “It’s been my luck to find that every kind of relationship has the potential for people to share an aspiration and enjoy working toward it together, whether founding a business, designing a conference, crafting a table of contents or putting a beautiful dinner on the table.”
For those of us lucky to count him as family, his commitment to living well could occasionally be frustrating. I keenly remember spending three hours on foot looking for a restaurant that would meet his standards when I was about fourteen; dinner reached the table at 11pm that night. But it was one of his great gifts to regard his own quirks as virtues and lean into them, hard. The same high standards and determination made him an unfailing supporter and teacher to me, and a devoted partner and companion to my mother Mary. As she often says, we benefited endlessly from his drive to go where he’d never been and to wring the best possible experience out of it when he got there.
His extended family similarly benefited from Chris’s exploratory zeal. His niece Rachel observes that “his deep well of curiosity was also a font of generosity”: when he found something great, his first instinct was to share it. That generous curiosity enriched and enlivened countless wine-soaked dinners with his brother John and trips with his sister Priscilla, brother-in-law Bill, and Rachel and her husband Nick. But places can be invented as well as visited, and Chris was an essential part of creating the familial space in which we could each—and all—be intensely ourselves. As Priscilla told him, “Talking to you sets all the fun free associative analogy-making energy in motion; making you laugh with some untoward pairing of your world and mine is one of my great pleasures. Much of that doesn’t come into play with anyone else, is invisible. I can forget that it’s there in blander environments, which is all of them.”
His commitment to whatever he was doing at the moment—and to whomever he was doing it with—also meant a kind of steadfastness that made him an ideal person to help work through quandaries. Steadfastness can suggest slowness or stillness, but his was of a different kind. He was quick, agile, sometimes restless; his athletic talents (MVP, he would want me to note, of Brandeis University’s baseball team) matched his mental acrobatics. “Steadfastness” in his case was the result of channeling his inventive, at times chaotic nature through a drive for rigor. (He did set the bathroom he shared with Priscilla mildly on fire at twelve years old, but only in an effort to streamline his small business selling firecrackers to his classmates.) It meant that you could count on him, without question, to keep you moving—whether you thought you needed it or not.
In recent weeks, Mom and I have received dozens of remembrances from Dad’s friends and colleagues testifying to these qualities in him. Just as his principles extended equally to professional and personal life, his relationships wove the two together. He drew colleagues and mentees close as friends, and invited friends to become colleagues. He was an ingenious convener of thinkers for the same reason he was a consummate party host: he wanted everyone to leave smarter and better than they arrived. Many of the same people turned up to both kinds of gatherings.
There are far too many testimonials from this wide pool of people who loved him to include here, but the remembrance of a life built around connection would be incomplete without the voices of others. In the spirit of “let’s try,” here is a brief attempt at synthesis.
Chris drove people to try harder and think sharper, but always collaboratively; he had, as one put it, “the ability to think alongside you.” More than this, he could think alongside several people—even groups—at once. He was, as a result, a brilliant assembler of teams and networks: “It is a tribute to Chris that 25-30+ years after people left the team, they still seek to get together regularly. I’ve never seen anything like this elsewhere.” Such loyalties resulted from his equally intense drive to make the work meaningful and enjoyable. “I found him always a welcome intellectual dance/sparring partner, keenly aware of the drama of everyday life and ready to laugh on a moment’s notice.” Many credit him with helping them find their paths. “He is the person who set me up to be successful in this world with an incredible mix of intellectual curiosity, warm hearted caring, appreciation of beauty and excellence in the world and in people, and in me.”
A few speak directly to his legacy, and it is with the question of legacy that I want to close. Legacy too often means big, tangible things: monuments, names on buildings, or a fortune. But “Children and Art” places legacy in the quiet, personal transmission of a life’s work, and the word comes down (as Dad would doubtless note himself) from a Latin one meaning “an appointed representative.” Chris’s legacy is in the people he influenced and in the ideas he leaves behind that will continue to do so. As his delegates, then, we are left with the task of continuing the relay: to try, as best we can, to be steadfastly committed in that agile, joyful, productive motion. It’s therefore profoundly comforting to see that this is already understood:
“The incredibly broad legacy he will leave—his big and crisp ideas in print, and all these people he has shown how to welcome the fun work of thinking, and to enjoy living—has to be some consolation. He has created so many memorable moments with all of us, he’ll live on as a teacher. How to learn, how to think, how to sample, how to laugh. “
“I try to manage with the same openness, fairness, and concern for our people's growth that you showed me. It is astonishing what loyalty and great work your approach to management has created. There are dozens of people here—including a few babies—whose lives depend on your approach to leadership.”
“I think about how to help people in the world, and make it a better place, with greater insight and urgency because of Chris, and I know others do as well. He brings out the best in people, and that is an incredible accomplishment. It is a life well lived.”
“You are the rare good man, ethical, hard-working, and caring. You are a good mentor to many and a friend to hundreds more. Your gifts to us will ripple through time and space.”
Communication may have become difficult by the end, but what these statements show is that Chris had already shared what he wanted to say. In reflecting on his life, he repeatedly stressed that he considered people he had never met to be his collaborators—readers of his books, adopters of his ideas, and the thinkers and artists who influenced him in turn were all his partners, met or unmet. However you knew or knew of him, his message to you, in his own words, was: “I didn’t want to leave without saying thank you, and goodbye.”
He loved to make a graceful exit, and to him that meant a departure that was equally gracious to everyone present. There are hundreds present, if not more; no obituary could live up to his standard for grace, but that standard can be honored. He would want you to have a good time at any event he hosted, and this is one. Enjoy the memory of him, and put the work he leaves behind to good use. All he would ask in return is your best.
The family requests that memorial contributions be directed in either of the following ways:
1.Two years ago Chris created the Priscilla Meyer Fund at Wesleyan University to support undergraduate education abroad in Russia, in honor of his sister’s long career as a Russian educator. In recognition of his devotion to family, his creativity in enabling the growth of others, and the wide, spreading ripple of his influence, contributions may be made online, by check, or through a donor advised fund, noting “in memory of Christopher Meyer for the Priscilla Meyer Fund” and sent care of Jennifer Opalacz, Office of Advancement, 291 Main Street, Middletown, CT 06457.
2.In honor of the characteristic clarity and intention with which he approached his death as well as his life, and the important role this organization played in realizing that intent: memorial contributions may be made to Care Dimensions Hospice, 75 Sylvan St, Suite B-102, Danvers, MA 01923, CareDimensions.org.
October 25, 2020