A Sad Farewell

Thursday, October 1, 2009 (All day)

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Nothing in your life has ever matched the generosity of this moment.

Mercy Rodriguez used that quote - something her father Al Rodriguez said impishly whenever any of his three daughters did a favor or showed a kindness - as a way to sum up the spirit of the man.

We said goodbye to Mercy's - and Raquel's and Veronica's - dad a few weeks ago. He was also the devoted, doting husband to Mercedes. To me, Al was a wonderful human being and a gifted attorney I knew for more than 25 years. He died much too young, of cancer, this past August 28th. 

Al was general counsel when I initially met and worked with him in the 1980s at the California Community Foundation. We forged a lasting friendship. Al rendered patient, creative counsel to an A-list of individual and organizational clients on all matters philanthropic from his perch as a young Latham & Watkins tax attorney, the first Hispanic partner in the firm's history. From him, I learned how properly-applied charitable tax laws could build strong organizations. His work helped me appreciate that, matter by matter, the good practice of law could knit a vital, virtuous web in service to a vigorous community. In the process, Al's thoughtful, deliberate approach to the law and civil society influenced much of what I know and work to practice each day about honorable stewardship of a civic mission.

Al once told me that he specialized in charitable tax law because he loved its variety. "I'm constantly challenged and amazed by the number of flavors that nonprofit organizations come in," he said. Yet he also understood that not every new nonprofit could meet the test and competitive stresses of the charitable marketplace. 

A short paper Al wrote and circulated to a few friends in 1989 anticipated and articulated the need for early support for new civic and social ventures; something he called at the time "a foundation for emerging charities." We talked a lot about the paper and brought a number of other experienced people into the dialogue. Throughout those discussions, Al's character and ideas fired my imagination and fueled my entrepreneurial ambitions and, in 1991, from that forge grew Community Partners. I knew all of the funders who provided our seed capital, but they came largely because they knew Al Rodriguez. 

Charged by Al's enthusiasm, many of the same people from whom he sought formative advice agreed to serve on Community Partners' founding Board of Directors. They elected Al to chair of the Board, a position he held with a steady hand through our first five critical years. Even as he left the role of chair and remained an active board member, Al was well into yet another emerging venture.

With partners Bill Choi and Dwayne Horii, he started a law practice rooted in his field of specialty. The firm thrived and continues to do so today, despite Al having to leave the practice a few years ago when health problems hit him hard. "I don't think I ever would have risked it all the way I did by working with others to start a law firm," he said years later, "if I hadn't first had the experience of starting Community Partners." For someone who had done ground-breaking legal work for so many new charities during his career, Al's intimate daily involvement in helping craft Community Partners by hand bolstered his own entrepreneurial confidence. That was a sweet serendipity for him, I know.

It's always hard for me to say goodbye, especially to someone I regarded, as I did Al, with brotherly affection. Al and I were barely a year apart in age. Goodbye becomes all the more difficult when it is to someone for whom I feel such a profound debt of gratitude. The timing was perfect in the early 1990s for the union of Al's good idea and my interest in accelerating that idea into action. I am so glad he felt he could share his thinking with me. And I know how pleased he was that he had a community partner with whom to work. I like to think of our collaboration as a prototype of the essential work in which Community Partners engages every day. 

I don't think Al indulged many thoughts of what civic legacy he might leave behind. He preferred spending time with his daughters, making sure they excelled in school, went to college, and led good lives. He preferred the present, insisting to those three young women - Mercy, Raquel and Veronica - to take an immediate measure each time they chose to act.

"Nothing in your life," Al instructed with the gentle persistence of a loving dad, "has ever matched the generosity of this moment." I think he was well satisfied, through his beautiful children and acts of every-day example, to leave us all with a yardstick for living.