My guest today is a fellow widower, his name is David Brock. David is a widower of two and a half years having lost his wife of 38 years Kookie (pronounced Cookie) in 2020.
I got to know David, from my sales consulting business, having the pleasure of interviewing him on my Evolved Selling podcast. David was an absolute pleasure on that podcast, when we were talking business.
And when I launched Growth through Grief, David reached out to me and said, Hey, I know you’ve interviewed me before, I didn’t realize you are a widower. And I’m a widower, too, and we started to share each other’s stories.
It was great to connect with David, not just on that business level, but certainly on this very, very personal level that we’re going to talk about today.
Speaking of business David has been incredibly successful. He’s an author, he wrote the book, the Sales Manager, Survival Guide, and he’s CEO and founder of a sales performance consultancy Partners in Excellence. David, welcome.
Well, thank you, Tom, it seems maybe a little weird. But I’ve been looking forward to this conversation. I’ve looked at the website and the stuff that you’re doing is helpful to me, and hopefully helpful to others. And in doing so, I’ve been looking forward to this and contributing myself.
And David, I have been looking forward to this as well, just having you share your story. And your journey, I think is great. And the more we can do that with each other, I think the more we can help each other to know that. “Look, I’m not going through this alone, there’s plenty of people that have come before me, there’s going to be people that come after me”. I think the more we can transparently share, I know that’s tough sometimes as men and as business people, we kind of put on our business masks all the time. But it’s great to have you on and getting to know you even better this way on the personal side. Thank you.
I love to start at the beginning, I think can tell us so much about the relationship and about the people involved. Tell us, how did you and Kookie meet?
We first met at IBM in New York City.
I was one of these cocky young college students from California, and with this certain Cali attitude, with New Yorkers having a different attitude.
I went to sell mainframe computers and I came in as this cocky young kid, Kookie had been selling computers for a number of years. In fact, she was one of IBM’s top five salespeople in the world.
And so, you know, everybody in the office is kind of looking at “who the hell is this guy”. Even though these California guys are a little weird, I dressed a little bit flashy then, and we sold to bankers, and rather than wearing pinstripes and that kind of thing, I dressed a little weird.
And then after about six months, through luck, I happened to close a really big deal for IBM at the time,
You typically went through about an 18 month onboarding program and weren’t put on quote until after that. And so I just kind of fell into a lucky situation. But she kind of said, I should pay attention to this guy, and so we started socializing in the group.
At one point, she and a number of the married women in the office said, “Dave, we need to set you up”. For a couple of years, they kept trying to set me up with women. They said,” You’re Californian. So let’s try and find blonde, blue eyed women“, and all those kinds of things, you know, and they kept setting me up with women and it failed. It failed and failed and failed.
And finally Kookie took pity on me. I was ready to give up and wait again … Good thing she gave me a shot.
That’s awesome. And so you guys built a life together. Tell me a little bit about that. Tell me about you and the life that you had.
Well, the life we had was really around kind of our professional lives. We had no children.
As I mentioned, Kookie was at the time I met her one of IBM’s top salespeople, and went on to become the top salespeople person in the world. Her customers loved her. Everybody in the organization loved her.Everybody always talked about Kookie.
I remember there was one time where we had a senior manager that said, we have to change your business cards. Kookie (as a name) is undistinguished for selling to these multimillion dollar computers and all that. It has to go to your given name – Ann Marie. And she says, “Well, no, everybody knows me as Kookie”. He said, “No, no, no, we’re changing your business card”. She says, “Okay, I’ll take care of that”.
A week later, the Chairman of the Board of IBM got a call from Jack Welch, David Rockefeller, and Edmond Safra. Each said, what’s happened to Kookie. And so that change? She went back to her old business cards.
She was almost a force of nature, people just loved her and gravitated towards her.
As she built her career, she was recruited away to another technology organization as a regional Vice President of Sales. What was interesting at the time, I was going up the food chain and running parts of the business at IBM. And she was recruited to a competitor company. We had to say, how do we keep our relationship intact and communicate while we competed? What’s out of bounds? What are the things we can’t talk about?
And we talked about them anyway. But we managed not to let that influence how we worked. I remember one of the accounts that she had was an account that was in my responsibility. And I said, you just can’t tell me anything about it. I’m going to have my team compete against you and beat the crap out of you. And she said, Well, you know, I’m the best salesperson in the world. So good luck.
And so we went on doing that. At one point, it was really interesting. In her career, she went and worked for Wang Labs, which was, at the time was one of the fastest growing computer companies around. But it hit a peak and started plummeting.
At the time, I was being recruited away from IBM to be EVP of sales for a technology company on the West Coast. She was working for a guy by the name of John Chambers, who went out to run Cisco. And I remember the day, John had said, “Kookie, you gotta lay off 130 salespeople in the region”. She was trying to figure out what she wanted to do, and if she and I were moving to the Northwest. And John had offered her a job as an RVP In the Northwest. She went back to John and she said, John, I always over achieved my objectives, and you know, I’m not laying off 130, I’ve laid off 131, and here’s my resignation.
And what she did was pursue her dream. She had always dreamed of becoming a professional chef. So she went to the Culinary Institute of America for their three year program, and became a professional chef. She then started a catering business, and that’s what she did.
This was our life, all around a lot of professional interrelationships, around a lot of family. and our friends. Everybody gravitated to her. I was the guy that kind of hung on and they said, “You came with Kookie, so I guess you must be alright”.
Those who are in technology know this really well. Outside of tech, sales is a difficult job for a woman to start with, and in tech especially. it was definitely a man’s club and a man’s world. And the fact that she was the top sales rep at IBM and then went on to overachieve so much, that’s real testament to her talent and her tenacity.
Yeah, it was amazing because as she moved into managerial roles, she was such an inspiration and a mentor. She had high expectations of everybody, but really deeply cared.
When she left and became a professional chef, people who work for her in sales would call her up and say, “I have this forecast review, do you mind if we talked about it before I go through it”, or “I have this tough deal, do you have any ideas on how to move it forwards?”.
And some of these guys went on to be VPs of big organizations themselves, but they still called on for her mentoring and her ideas. She listened really well. She cared and she was wickedly smart. I have conversations with people who worked for her in the past, and they you know, they always bring up that deal or a situation or things like where she helped.
Now, your journey with her ended unfortunately, in 2020, tell me a little bit about that.
Yes, she passed away on January 14 2020.
We had just celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary on December 20, of 2019. In fact, that was the day she went into the hospital. We were thinking about going out to a fancy dinner. And I know that she wasn’t doing well. And we ended up having to go into the hospital instead.
Over the prior three years, she had struggled with cancer. And we went through as I think so many people do, this kind of the roller coaster of an experience.
At first, she went through radiation and chemo and all those sorts of things. And we were reasonably optimistic with the results. And the doctors were reasonably optimistic.
Unfortunately there was a recurrence. And again, the doctors said, we’re working and we believe we can save her life and have it go into remission. About six months before she passed away, the tune dramatically changed, and they said, we can only work to try and extend her life and to try and give you the best quality of life.
So the last three years were difficult for us both emotionally and physically. She was always quite an active person, but now was on oxygen, carrying around an oxygen machine. She was a huge golfer. but no longer had the physical capability, even though everybody was so accommodating, saying they’d put the oxygen machine and a golf cart, all those sorts of things.
She just didn’t have the energy to do that. So, she went from being a tremendously outgoing social person, and through her failing health became increasingly isolated. Fiends would come over and help her, but you could tell that that, emotionally it was devastating to her
Three years going through the disease process is what you went through,
I know, for me, it was a big roller coaster over almost a 10 year period, if you count all of it together. That takes a toll on you because you’re in the fight. I took over as the one who had to understand everything that the doctors were saying, trying to guide the care as much as I could, trying to make sure that she had the best of everything that was available. Tell us about that a little bit, for you.
I think for a lot of us, with the profession that we’ve chosen to be in, we tend to be kind of heavy Type-A people. As such, there’s “not a problem we can’t solve”. So I’d spend all sorts of time doing research and studying and talking to different people and saying, you know, through sheer force of willpower, “I can help get this problem solved”.
Unfortunately, this was something that regardless of how much I wanted to solve the problem, I couldn’t and, and so it was. It was a real struggle for me from a mindset point of view. I’ve been involved in really complex, difficult business situations and most of the time prevailed. But this., I couldn’t do anything about it.
And coming to the point of acceptance and saying, “How do I go through with this” was a challenge, and I’m not sure I successfully dealt with it.
I keep accepting it, but then I keep saying, Well, gee, I’d see a study of something. And I go look at the study and say, “Are there some tests or things like that we can go through”. And she, at one time, she said, “Dave, stop doing that”. You know, what was amazing to me, is she managed, particularly those last six months, in a much better fashion than I was ever capable of managing. She had accepted.
And you were still continuing to fight for it.
I continued to fight for it indeed.
In my work, I tend to travel a huge amount. But I stopped traveling and cut down on traveling, and we started doing a lot more things remotely. And you start learning about the goodness of human beings, through my clients.
I didn’t publicize to everybody about what was going on, but usually the sponsor might be a CEO or EVP of sales, I’d say, Look, I’ll participate in these meetings remotely, here’s my situation. And they said, Dave, whatever you need. And so the goodness of people that acknowledged my circumstance. And this helped me through a lot of the struggle.
And I know for me, because it was a battle that was lost, and was one that ultimately could never have been one because that wasn’t His plan, I definitely lost my mojo quite a bit, for lack of a better term for it.
And it sounds like you struggled with that a little bit too, right?
We’re not used to losing. And even though I’ve had a couple of business deals that went sideways, it wasn’t the same as this. How did you get that mojo back? Or are you still kind of struggling a little bit to get it all the way to where it was before?
To be honest, I’m still struggling a little bit.
Towards the last few months, and then particularly in probably the six or seven months that followed, I keep myself busy, I’d be going through the motions but I knew I wasn’t 100% and I would be easily distracted.
The other challenge at the same time, she passed away a couple of months before COVID hit us. The changes in COVID and the isolation. My inclination was to travel more, be more engaged in business. to get out and do things, If even for the distraction.
All of a sudden, we were shut down. I couldn’t do those things, even going to church and be with people I could talk to, or friends or community kind of groups. Even working out at the gym, which was always a great relief for me, it all shut down.
I was shut into my house. The timing, where I most needed to be engaged and involved with people unfortunately, COVID made that very, very different.
And the interaction digitally is not the same. You know, this little screen that we’re recording this on isn’t the same as if we were in person in the studio. That human touch wasn’t there for you either. So yeah, that had to be doubly tough. There’s a compound grief aspect in that you lost your wife, and then you also lost a lot of ability to recover from it right at the same time.
That’s exactly right. I’ve been reading or talking to friends who’ve been through similar kinds of challenges that when you go through grief, there’s a tendency for you to shut down. But that’s probably not the right thing to do.
However, with the restrictions of COVID, you were forced to. So you start looking at the alternatives. How do I get past this and how can I get beyond it?
And here’s what I found. I’m just always amazed by the goodness of people. Folks that came out of the woodwork. Good friends that changed the conversations they’ve had with me. People who had gone through similar situations who said, “Dave, I just wanted to let you know, I’m here, I’m going through the same thing you are, anytime you need help, just give me a call”.
To know that there are people that are thinking about you and praying for you, it’s really special.
With the isolation being a heavy type a type-A person, I tended to try and throw myself into activity. Some of it was meaningless activity, but it was activity.
I was just reading one of your posts before this interview that hit home. https://growththroughgrief.org/home-alone/
We lived in our home in Southern California, overlooking the water. We’d lived there for 18 years. She had found the place. She had made the place our home. After she passed away, it was no longer our home. and I felt like a foreigner in the home.
So what I did is I immediately sold the home. It sold very quickly, and the day we closed was the day the real estate industry in California shut down because of COVID. And the interesting thing was, I’ve been planning to move to Northern California. And they said, “Dave, you won’t be able to see any houses”. And I said, “Well, what do you mean”, and they said, “The house has to be empty”. And I said, “Well, if people don’t want to leave, I’ll pay for them to go to Starbucks or McDonald’s, whatever, just give me a half hour in the house so nobody can be there”.
They said it would take me nine months to find a house. Well, I had a friend who had a house that he couldn’t sell up at Lake Tahoe. And so I said, Do you mind if I lease it for a little since you can’t sell it? Can I lease it for a year? So I spent a year up there, just kind of camping out.
The difference was good for me, to be out of the family house. Everywhere I turned in our old house, I saw her and memories 24 hours a day. And so the difference was a good change.
Fast forward, and I bought a house in Northern California, which I still have now.
During our relationship, we collected all sorts of things. So I still have our collections, but it’s now in a different context. I can remember the fun of collecting and doing those things without getting hung up on the emptiness of the old home.
Now part of the that article you wrote about, psychologists recommend not making big decisions as part of that post trauma process because your decision making might be clouded. There’ll be a more emotional than logical choice perhaps. But for me, it was definitely the right choice, and I don’t have regrets.
I’ve got a dear brother, here locally, that’s part of my widowers brotherhood group where we get together monthly. And he’s struggling to be in the family home. Kind of a lot like you were, and he feels isolated there.
He can’t sleep there very well. And so he just gets out on the road and travels all the time. He too is a tech seller. What do you recommend there? If you knew him, and his situation, having gone through it, it sounded like it was a good move for you to sell the home. And to do that more quickly?
For questions like that, my answer is, it depends.
It depends on each individual and your circumstances. Through my professional career, I’ve always traveled a huge amount. With our professional careers we had to move locations all the time.
We started out in New York City, and we had a second home in Pennsylvania, and then we moved to the West Coast, and then moved back East and bounced around a number of times. So moving was something that I was really familiar with, and was really comfortable with because of my travel. And with all that, it seemed the best thing for me.
In hindsight, it might have been escaping, but it has worked out really well for me.
You’ll see, like the chess board in the back, and some other things around, that we collected a certain kind of game board all the time. I have 35 of them scattered through this house. She collected kerosene lamps, and it’s hard for you to see it. But you can see there’s some kerosene lamps. Behind me, you see two pictures of really joyous times we had together. So I’ve been able to create a space that I feel comfortable with, that still has her attributes, but where I am not overwhelmed by her presence.
And I adopt little habits. Some things that may seem silly, but I had been journaling for a number of years. And I changed, my journaling every evening, to be a letter.
Every evening we’d talk about our day and our business. And even though she moved on into being a professional chef, her business mind and our understanding about how big businesses really worked, it was essential I got that. And she was the Chairwoman of our company, and she’d say” As the Chairperson of the company, we have to forecast how much money is coming in, and what I could spend this year”. This is what we always talked about: our days, our professions, her clients, some menus that she was doing, what I was going on, and we did this every evening.
It was always those conversations each evening. And so now, I have those conversations in my journal letters.
That is wonderful. A great way to continue that dinnertime chat that you all used to have.
So journaling is one way that you were able to heal through the process and keep connected to Kookie.
When you moved to Tahoe, it was good that you could get out maybe a little bit more out into nature out into the woods.
Indeed, it was good, because we lived in a placeI really could get out in nature. Unfortunately, I couldn’t ski because I destroyed my knees skiing prior, but hiking and bicycling and doing those kinds of things was a way of refreshing myself. Because I lived in Southern California, even though we lived in a beautiful area. it’s still Southern California, with masses and masses of people. And so this was a way that I could be away.
And I had some family close by so I could visit with the family. I had a kind lady who’d gone through breast cancer, a coach and a confidant of Kookie, and as she was going through her struggles, she lived close by. And I was able to stay connected with people who cared.
As I mentioned earlier, this community around the world came out of the woodwork. People like, Jill Konrath who you know from the sales consulting space, who had gone through a similar experience with her husband about two years prior to mine. Jill would check in on me. as would a number of other people. Author Brent Adamson is a close friend, and Brent would call me every Friday to solve the problems of the sales world. But what he was really doing was trying to make sure I was OK.
I had an opportunity to interview Brent for my book a few years ago and he’s a great guy. And with Jill, I haven’t had a chance to interview her in the business world, but anticipate maybe one day being able to do that too.
What are some other things that you think were helpful in your own healing process? Anything else that you were able to leverage or that you’d recommend?
I’ve always been a fairly private person. My natural inclination would be to not talk about this and put up a wall around it.
And while I have to say I’m not totally comfortable, I have become more comfortable talking about the experiences about her, about the experience of going through lonely times.
We used to have date nights every Friday where we’d go out to dinner, or we’d go to a movie and dinner or something like that. And shortly after she passed, I wanted to continue that, so I went to a movie. And I chose the same seats we always sat in. I couldn’t pay attention to the movie, because the seat next to me was empty. So I struggled doing some of those things, and finding new routines.
But I become much more comfortable being open about it. Before this, I’m not sure that I could have had this conversation.
David, I’m pretty private as well. Not in business, as I’m pretty gregarious in business. But when it came to personal stuff, I really didn’t share very much.
But I found through this, that there’s real healing in the sharing, and being transparent and being vulnerable.
And then you start to realize just how you’re not alone. How everyone is dealing with some kind of loss. And they can relate as a result, and it gets your relationships to a new and better level.
It’s one of the interesting things I’ve discovered in the last few months. A person who’d been a manager reporting to Kookie hadn’t been aware that she had passed away. A mutual friend shared it with him, and he immediately called me up, and he’s so embarrassed. He said, I didn’t know and I wish I’d known. And you could tell he was a little uncomfortable talking about it.
This was about two years after she passed away, and he hadn’t known. and they were close. He just didn’t know how to approach that. I’ve actually found that I’m more comfortable talking to them, and helping them become comfortable and not embarrassed by it.
I’m more open to discussions, but sometimes. even right now I’m feeling things in the pit of my stomach. There’s a little bit of discomfort. You know, I’d much rather be talking about the future of sales.
But it is therapeutic, and you can’t keep it all bottled up inside of you.
I agree. I totally agree with that. From a body standpoint, that was one of the first things that I changed was my drinking, eating and exercise routines, I really doubled, tripled down on that. It helped a lot to get moving. It helped to start my own healing process. Because I think that those of us who’ve been through a journey of trauma through the disease, it takes a toll on us.
I had gained a lot of weight. I’m now about 60, maybe even 70 pounds lighter. What were some of the things that you did especially e under a lot of COVID isolation to not just wallow in the loss.
What I found was that during the week, because of my business commitments, working during the week was pretty easy.
What got a little bit more difficult was Friday and Saturday, because those days were always our time together, going to theater, dinners, parties, or just going to see friends
I still struggle to fill my weekends. I attempt to compete in triathlons, but not very well. I’d always been physically active. getting on my bike and riding. Swimming was a little bit of a problem because all the pools were shut down, and I’m not going to jump in Tahoe in December.
So there are certain things that from a kind of workout and fitness point of view that lapsed and I’m trying to rebuild right now, If I look at my physical condition and strength, like my timings on some rides, I’m not where I used to be. But of course, I’m two and a half years older where I was before as well.
My eating? About six weeks ago I actually starting something new, because I found I was just doing the easy things. Since she was a professional chef, dinners were simple but stunning. So, I took a recipe that I knew was one of her favorites. And my goal for the week was to create a meal on Saturday or Sunday, using that recipe. So I could both remember her and get exquisite food. I haven’t managed the way she mixed flavors quite as well. Is like she had such subtlety and depth in the flavors in mind kind of goes playfulness or slicing.
That’s a lot better balance and experience. I’m really good from a health standpoint and eating but really bad on the experience David. So I’m glad you shared that because I do the easy route.
I don’t cook. She used to cook. I can cook, but I just don’t because it’s just for me. And it’s easy to grab the same exact meal every day, which is just about what I do. So I love that you’re working on her recipes, which is just amazing to remember some of the special, cherished moments.
I have literally hundreds of recipes. And in fact, I have some brand new neighbors coming over this evening for a glass of wine and a meal using one of her recipes.
I see these as little parts of her and a great ways to celebrate our relationship.
Well, with 38 years with Cookie, you are never going to forget her and she is irreplaceable. I didn’t have this in my list of questions for you, so I can understand if you don’t want to answer
Have you gotten out and dated at all?
I haven’t yet.
She had always made me promise that I would go out and if I found somebody to marry again, to so so.
And I haven’t yet, partly because of us still emerging from COVID, and partly because I’m in a new community where I’m slowly getting to know neighbors and things like that.
I’m doing things again though, via a community center here. I’ve signed up for evening classes as a way to perhaps meet people.
But if you remember, I was originally so awkward at dating, remember, she finally put me out of my misery, so I still have that memory of the experience. I’m trying to figure out how to do that. I have been pondering those dating sites? Do I really want to sign up for one of those? How do I meet people? So it’s something that I’m looking at, I’m not averse to, but I Just don’t know how to do it.
It’s a little bit of a new world as the last time for me was 25 some odd years ago, and for you even longer, probably more than 40 years if you were married for 38.
I met Kookie through work and friends, and the thought of the dating sites, or hanging out at bars again doesn’t seem like an option especially with my track record of miserable failure.
I highly recommend, having tried it myself, not doing the dating sites. And I will write an article about this pretty soon.
I recommend pursuing a little bit more organic route, like you said, through friends, through church, through some of the community things that you’re doing. Workout classes are great. You know, I do yoga, I do spin and I’ve got different “families” that I consider at those places. And that’s been really, really helpful to getting out and feeling connected. To meeting interesting people.
I’ve started doing yoga and some tai chi, and I go to the gym for workouts,
And I’m starting to have friends keep an eye out for me. Hopefully it’ll work out better than that original time
We want to share time with a partner, even though our spouses are irreplaceable. I can say, having dated a little bit, it is wonderful to have someone to share experiences with.
And even though everyone has different timing for that, it’s great to have that somebody that you can have an evening conversation with over dinner, or you go and do something and just share the experience.
You’re really cerebral like I am. SoI love a smart person just to hang out with and share deep discussions. So Dave, what’s the one piece of advice you’d like to leave our growth warriors with our, our widowers with today?
When you sent me the questions, I looked at that and I kept struggling with it. Because I don’t know that I have an answer.
I think the best thing I can say is be at peace with the struggle. I mean, it’s a part of the process. And you know, for heavy Type-As like us, if you kind of push it away and resist it, it gets worse.
It’s amazing how much you discover about yourself, about the relationship, through conversations with other people, so just be at peace with the grieving process and the journey.
I love that. David, one of the things you did was you set up a scholarship for Kookie. Talk about that a little bit, because I think that’s an amazing tribute.
Well, both because of her sales ability, and because everybody remembers her as such a caring, wonderful person who was driven to mentor and develop people we did setup a scholarship fund.
I happen to do a lot of work with Dr. Howard Dover at UT Dallas, business school, and we were talking one day, and he actually made the suggestion.
What we’ve done is established a scholarship fund for women, so each semester we award a woman who’s majoring in sales with a $1,000 scholarship in memory of her career, and as she wanted to really mentor young people and women in developing and sales. So this is a tribute to her.
So far, we’ve raised enough to fund around 15, maybe 17 scholarships. And if anybody could contribute $25 or whatever it is, that would be great,
I love that and as we said, it can be difficult sometimes to break into sales as a woman and the mentorship isn’t always available. So any help we can give is really important. We lost a great proponent of that. I don’t know if you remember Barbara Giamanco who passed away as well. Too soon, way too soon.
Well, yeah. And I mean, they have a great scholarship fund for her setup through this kind of collective universe. Yes.
So we will share the link David, in the show notes, so please take note of it. And, David, I cannot thank you enough for sharing so frankly, everything that you’ve been going through and the journey, and especially sharing the story of Kookie and you. It’s just wonderful, your life together and great memories, and I really appreciate you sharing that. So thank you.
Well, it’s such a privilege to be able to talk to somebody like you about this to be able to share it again. I think I probably get more out of it than the audience because it’s intensely therapeutic for me. So I am so deeply appreciative of the invitation and the opportunity
Donate to Kookie’s scholarship fund here at: giving.utdallas.edu/kookie