My friend, mentor, and former boss Sam Dryden passed away this week. Sam and I met a decade ago at the World Food Prize and I remember our first conversation well with his easy smile, humble nature, and slight Appalachian drawl. He took me seriously though I was new to the world of food and agriculture and he was well-known and accomplished. As I came to learn, he didn’t just acknowledge people, he saw them and made them feel they deserved his attention—whether it was his waiter, a smallholder farmer in a too-often forgotten part of the world, or the most famed politicians, musicians, or business magnates. To me, this is the first and most important trait I will carry with me as I remember Sam.
I am sure this orientation toward seeing and listening is what made Sam a great businessman and a great advisor to the Ministers of Agriculture around the world that so often called him. I know that it was this orientation that helped Sam build bridges between people who seemed miles apart as he led the Gates Foundation’s agriculture work. Sam was passionate about creating new possibilities in addressing the challenges of poverty around the world and his wisdom helped many to see that the robust and bold solutions we need are often born from a willingness to engage contentious and critical voices. In the modern food ideology wars, Sam intentionally reached out and befriended voices clashing on the biggest issues, including those who criticized him without knowing him. You could find Sam in the company of pro-GMO and anti-GMO advocates. The best, small, farm-to-table chefs and the CEOs of grocery store chains and large food companies. And farmers, of course. He insisted the key was listening to the farmers. No matter who Sam talked to, he listened, learned from them, and when necessary he wore down ideological walls—walls that too often prevent reasonable solutions from being found and used.
The gap Sam leaves is large. But he intentionally cultivated, promoted, and encouraged many of us to pick up where he knew he would be forced to leave off. He aggressively connected us to his impressive and able network, believed in us, and pushed us—both because it was his nature and because I think he believed the nature of problems were that they could be solved—even in the most broken and intractable of situations. So we’ll keep moving forward. And since Sam was far from all business and no play, I know all over the world there are glasses that will be raised in his honor, stereos that will be cranked to blast the songs of his favorite musicians (also his personal friends), and we should all eat an extra dessert—Sam’s favorite. For as much as Sam was about working hard to realize big goals and leaving the world better for having lived—he was also about finding the joy of today.
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