Monday, September 28, 2009

A sad day for all KIPPsters

The following is an email from KIPP Foundation CEO Richard Barth.

Don Fisher passed away this morning at home in San Francisco, surrounded by his family.    As most of you know, Don was Chair of the Board of the KIPP Foundation, but most importantly, co-founder  -- along with Mike, Dave and Scott Hamilton – of the KIPP network.   KIPP was one of the greatest loves of his absolutely extraordinary life, and all of us across the KIPP Team and Family have been blessed to have Don Fisher as our fiercest champion.


For those of you who have been with KIPP for more than a year or two, there is a good chance you actually met Don.  Each year for the first six years in the life of the KIPP network, Don and Doris visited every new KIPP school.   Nothing made Don happier.  He loved seeing our new schools and was thrilled to experience the increasing reach of our network. 

If you were a Fisher Fellow, preparing to open a new KIPP school, you met Don and Doris each year at the annual Fisher Fellow dinner.   That too was one of Don’s favorite experiences of the year.  Don took such immense pride in all of you, knowing that you were setting out as leaders to prove the possible and create life changing opportunities for children growing up in some of the most challenging circumstances imaginable.

Don was not someone who wore his emotions on his sleeves.   Over the past four years, however, I had the opportunity to work closely with him.  And as all of us at KIPP know, it’s what you do – not what you say – that truly lets the world know what it is that one values.  And so, while it is virtually impossible to describe what Don has meant to KIPP,  I am going to share a few thoughts tonight in hopes of helping everyone in our Team and Family take a moment to recognize what this man meant to us and our work.   I am going to start with the personal and finish with his impact on the world.  I am also attaching a Tribute to Don that I thought many members of the KIPP Team and Family would want to read.


Almost 4 years ago exactly I heard from Don Fisher for the first time.  As Chair of the KIPP Foundation Board, Don reached out to me to talk about taking over the CEO role.  Dave and Mike had encouraged him to do this, and over a several week period in October and November of 2005 he relentlessly engaged me until I said yes.  I  remember being bowled over by his persistence and his passion.  He loved KIPP, and he was determined to see it succeed.  And, he couldn’t understand why I hadn’t just said yes the first time the idea of coming to KIPP was presented to me.  He persisted.  He called me when I was travelling and when I was at home.  He found me wherever I was.  Those early conversations gave me a sense for why he had been such an extraordinary success in the business world.  The focus he brought to this effort and our conversations was just so extraordinary, and I don’t think he was going to take ‘no’ for an answer.

After I took the role and started work at KIPP, Don and I decided it would make sense to have a weekly call.   And so, over the past four years,  once a week, every week, we spoke for an hour.  In my first weeks at KIPP, I was anxious about these calls.  I tried to hide that fact, but Don probably knew but was too kind to let on.  I would come to these calls with laid out agendas, ready to work through them and hope Don wouldn’t discover something I wasn’t already thinking through myself.  After  my first two months of these weekly calls, I began to relax a bit and came t realize that Don wasn’t looking for me to show him I had everything under control.   Don was actually interested in listening to me discuss my challenges.  He wanted to explore opportunities alongside with me.  He cared so deeply about KIPP, and he listened attentively.  And, during these calls, he would share thoughts when he had them.  Sometimes he gave me a number of things to think about.  Sometimes he only left me with a single thought.  What I discovered over time, however, was that his instincts were simply exceptional.  And perhaps most importantly, that his obsession was quality.  In whatever we were doing, he wanted to make sure we were doing it well.  Really well.   And he was so clear that if we were doing the right thing, so much else would take care of itself.

Don never missed these calls.  Ever.  Even over the holidays in Hawaii.  And even when he was under the weather.  He always, always showed.   And so these calls  became an anchor for me, and  through me, for KIPP.  Don’s check ins – even when he was pushing me on something he was worried about – were a gift to our growing network.  Here was an incredible man with so much experience, devoting himself to us and our work.   And I could put any topic out for discussion and he would take it on with me.   He would engage, he would offer advice, and when he made the same point three weeks in a row, I knew I had some real work to do.  


When I came back home to New York after KSS this August, I shared with you all that I truly believed the best is yet to come for KIPP.   Part of my belief that the best is ahead of us came from the fact that even as Don was battling his cancer, he was only interested in talking about the future.  The Friday after returning from Orlando I called Don to share with him how KSS had gone, how it felt to be among 1800 people and the incredible story of the KIPP Infinity dancers.  I know he was so proud of us, but only for a moment.  Then he was quickly pushing me on leadership bench depth, worried that we still were not doing enough.
Don just never stopped looking ahead.  Even when he was feeling far from great, he was focused on the fact that there was more to do, more WE could do for our schools and kids.


Given how much we have grown in the last couple of years, it is important for me to share the obvious as I leave you tonight, given that so many of you are new to KIPP these last two years……that KIPP would not be a network of 82 schools today (on track to 97 or more schools next year) without Don’s passion, drive, insight, and unbelievable generosity.  It’s just that simple.  And so, as we get ready for school this week, and for the over 20,000 KIPPSters who put their faith in each and every one of us, we head off to work knowing that Don had so much faith in us.  He believed so deeply in our KIPPsters, and he believed so deeply in all of you who are helping our kids climb the mountain to and through college.  

One of the things that makes KIPP so great is that we’re not afraid to talk about stuff that others shy away from.  Yes, we are all about Results.  And Don loved that.  And we are all about high expectations.    And Don loved that.  And we are all about more time, and power to lead and choice.  All of which Don believed in.  But if there is something Don showed us, not through words, but with actions…with how he used his life….it was the absolute transformative power of faith and love.  Don was a rock for KIPP.  Immovable.  His faith in us, and his love for us, knew no bounds.   

Given all that Don accomplished (enough to make any normal person gasp) it may be hard for some to realize that the full impact of Don’s life is yet to be realized.   There are thousands of current KIPPsters who are yet to get to high schools, and tens of thousands who are yet to even enroll.   And beyond KIPP, there is a world towards which we are all working,  where all schools – not just KIPP schools – provide children with an opportunity to pursue the American dream.  Don had the vision to see what was possible for all children, that demography truly should not define destiny.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the entire Fisher Family tonight.

With Love,



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