Lives Lived Well
John Weberg traveled to the Dominican Republic in the late 1980s to evaluate microenterprise development. When I joined Opportunity International a couple of years later, I noticed in our records that every month since then, John and Jacque had contributed $1,000 without fail. Periodically I’d call to thank them, and their response was always the same, “No, thank you. Opportunity is doing the hard part. We just write the checks.”
When I’d call to try to make arrangements to visit them in person, their response was equally predictable, “No, we don’t want you to waste money on travel that could be used by the poor.” On a few occasions, John would add, “I’ll see you when I’m ready to make more substantial contributions. For now, I’m building my business.”
A few years later, true to his word, John called and said they were ready to increase their giving and asked what we’d do with $100,000. I forget what project we selected, but that conversation repeated about four times a year for several years, each encounter followed by another gift in the same range. By then, John had welcomed my overture to come to see them, and we’d talk for a couple of hours about what he had accomplished, while also exploring possible future investments.
On the wall of his home office hung a large world map affixed to a bulletin board, about five feet wide. With each new project, John would stick in a bright red pin, visually reminding him where the latest young entrepreneurs lived – empowered to start small businesses and feed their children. Eventually, there were several dozen pins in John’s map, each representing a significant gift he and Jacque had made to Opportunity and a handful of other microfinance organizations.
Over time a strong friendship developed. I’d visit them several times a year, initially at their home in Colorado, and later in Phoenix, where they finally settled. Our visits quickly adopted a comfortable rhythm. I’d arrive in time for supper at the Horny Toad Restaurant, or a similar casual diner to keep with their simple lifestyle. After dinner, we’d head back to their two-bedroom home, where I’d spend the night. On the wall of my bedroom hung a plaque that embodied their worldview: “Mi casa es tu casa.”
We’d retire early because by six the next morning John and I would head out. For the next four or five miles, we’d walk and talk. About life, creation, environment, global poverty, God, family, and sundry important topics, but never politics. Sometimes we’d pray as we walked, but not often.
When we arrived home, we’d always be greeted with hot oatmeal, as Jacque had once noted I had ordered oats when we went out for breakfast. That and fresh coffee were accompanied by Winton Marsalis because, once again, Jacque recalled him being my favorite jazz trumpet player.
John and Jacque’s deepest expression of personal kindness was in extending their friendship to my wife. Lise and I spent a delightful weekend with them in their mountain cottage, where we’d lose ourselves for hours in the woods. I think John was surprised to find my tiny wife could keep up with him, regardless of the terrain or distance. She likes hiking as much as I do a jazz trumpet. And so our friendship grew.
John claimed not to be a Christian. I believe he was. “I’m simply a follower of Jesus of Nazareth,” he’d insist. For several years John had studied Greek. He once showed me his books, shelves of texts and journals, all with the purpose of studying the gospels in their original language. John knew Jesus well, loved creation, and worshiped God during his daily walks. He hadn’t attended church for decades, but that’s a story for another day.
During his sophomore year in college, John made a decision that radically altered his life direction. While in high school, John aspired to become a missionary doctor, live in some remote third-world village, and provide medical service to poor families who otherwise would have access to none. But John soon learned he could not handle the sight of blood. After several bouts of nausea and passing out in the chemistry lab, John changed his major from pre-med to business – the best thing that ever happened to poor people in the developing world.
After college and a term of service in the air force, John married his college sweetheart, a beloved companion and dearest friend for the next 60 years. When John took over his father’s little furniture store, he and Jacque carved out a corner of the warehouse where they lived until the second of their three children was born.
The consummate entrepreneur that he was, John built the furniture company into a well-known chain with dozens of stores across Colorado, Phoenix, Illinois, Texas, and Florida. Unbeknown to his family, they were building considerable wealth, not only through sales in a successful furniture business but primarily from the rapidly appreciating real estate they purchased for their massive warehouses at each site.
On one of our walks, after John had eventually sold the furniture company, and was in the process of now liquidating the land and buildings – a process that took several years – he told me how this sale was all part of his master plan. He’d spent the first part of his adult life building his company, and now for the remainder would be using that business to help hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs build their microenterprises. John had successfully grown his company with the primary purpose of giving it all away.
The astute businessman that he was, John was not selling his real estate, which would have realized millions of dollars in needless taxes. Rather, over time he had placed title to all the buildings and land into a trust, making the foundation the sole legal owner of those assets. Because John structured it as a non-profit foundation, the Webergs received income tax deductions for those charitable contributions. Since he transferred ownership before selling the assets, he avoided all the capital gains tax.
On one of my visits to Phoenix, John presented me with a most rare and personal gift. I knew he’d been working on his will for a couple of years, and now that it was finalized, he wanted me to have a copy. I read it in awe. After modestly caring for his immediate family, everything John and Jacque owned was being left to the poor. He didn’t want his name anywhere or set up an endowment fund that would distribute the earnings in perpetuity. Instead, he instructed the trustees to gradually liquidate their entire estate over the next ten years – all of it for microfinance.
That transaction took place the second year of the Clinton Global Initiative, a gathering when President Bill Clinton would make public announcements of special initiatives that built global interconnectedness. I will never forget flying with John and Jacque to New York, a place they had never been, and sitting in the front row as President Clinton invited them to join him on stage. There, for all the world who cared to hear, the former President of the United States announced the largest contribution ever made for microfinance. “To empower some of the poorest people in the world to start and expand micro-businesses, John and Jacque Weberg are committing $50 million to Opportunity International,” said President Clinton.
Private and unassuming people that they were, it took several weeks of cajoling before they would agree to make this trip. After saying no several times, what finally persuaded them was the conviction that this public declaration would raise the bar for others, and as a result, generate more money and empower more poor families – the ultimate purpose of their foundation.
We basked in joyful memory every time we got together after that, admiring anew the plaque hanging in John’s office, signed by President Clinton. But what brought the greatest joy to the Webergs was the realization of how that announcement inspired others to give to microfinance, not the least of which was a substantial contribution from Bill and Melinda Gates.
However, exuberance quickly waned when John was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Jacque with Parkinson’s. What cruel ways to go! For the next few years, they diligently and joyfully played out their philanthropic plan, expecting that John’s death would precede Jacque’s, which it did by a couple of years. After his funeral service, I wept uncontrollably, in part because I had lost my dear friend, and also because a formidable era had come to a close.
Finally, last month the last chapter of their philanthropy was written. Funds had been set aside so that Jacque would feel secure until her death. Their love for each other carried them both to the end. Their practical expression of love for the poor gave their lives deep meaning and profound joy. And now the principal that had been set aside for Jacque’s care has been released according to their will and testament. As a result, thousands of the poorest people in the world today know new hope and dignity because of this family’s strategic and sacrificial generosity.
Nothing would give John and Jacque more joy than to know that their story had once again raised the bar for others and ultimately for those living in extreme poverty. May they rest in peace.