For Bob Walter, kindness started with the example his father set. Throughout his life, he’s seen how kind acts gain momentum, manifesting good in ways that might not be expected. Now Walter focuses intentionally on spreading what he describes as contagious kindness. He’s invested in major initiatives such as establishing a professorship at another university to help develop empathy in doctors, but he’s equally confident that everyday actions quickly cause kindness to multiply. For example, Walter recently helped a stranger — a father with severe disability issues — by driving him in a golf cart so he could follow his son at a golf tournament. As it turns out, that simple act meant the father was able to make it to the 17th hole to witness his son’s first hole in one. A simple act of kindness turned into something much bigger.
Otterbein President Kathy Krendl recently sat down with Bob Walter to talk about kindness, Walter’s hopes and Otterbein’s role in the kindness initiative he’s started with The Columbus Foundation known as Kind Columbus.
Kathy: Why does kindness matter to you?
Bob: As I think back on my life, I think about how my father lifted me up and I am reminded that my father is probably the most kind person that I’ve ever met. I saw the effect he had on other people, including me. I think kindness is important to me because it was such an important quality in my father.
Kathy: When you think about your father, what memory comes to mind as demonstrating that kindness to you or others?
Bob: First of all, my father lost his eyesight when I was 14. Here’s somebody who graduated from college summa cum laude; had a great career going; decided to go into business by himself and then he went blind. You could really feel sorry for yourself. In all the years I knew my father, I never heard him complain. The second thing is, he always worried about my mother, which is a quality I admired. And the third thing is, he was always concerned about everyone else. He always had this positive attitude; he assumed people were good and he treated others with what I think was unbelievable kindness.
Kathy: So that was early in your life. You watched him throughout his life. Did something click in terms of precipitating your and Peggy’s attitude about trying to make kindness contagious in your own lives?
Bob: I think the singular event — this was three years ago — when I was reading in The Dispatch that one of the missions of a local charity was to provide gifts for children at Christmas — and [that year] they weren’t going to be able to do it.
I’m thinking, “what an incredibly nice thing to do” and then I started thinking, “what’s going to happen to those kids?” I called The Columbus Foundation to see what was happening and told them we would buy all the gifts. That was not hard for us to do.
But I was reminded of that organization’s kindness through all of those years and, of course, what would be their lack of ability to do it. That’s what spurred me to do something. Then, I started thinking about kindness and started reading more about it.
Kathy: We’ve been through a couple of major disasters lately. Do you think it’s easier for people to come together in crisis as opposed to making kindness a daily habit?
Bob: I think what we’re trying to do is to get people to be kind every day and to be thinking about that in every social situation — not just in a crisis. That seems like it would be easier to do. I think if we were better trained to practice kindness; we would probably be better at it in crisis situations, too.
Kathy: What piece of the puzzle do you hope Otterbein can address in terms of the kindness initiative?
Bob: Otterbein’s job is to educate a segment of society — and you want that segment of society to go out and be leaders and influence society.
Bob: The whole core of your institution is about service and equality and treating people well. It feels to me like Otterbein can develop a program to help students realize this and take it to the next level. It can be part of giving back — both training the student not just on what you call book academics but understanding life and how to be a better person. As you’re developing them, they can also be service providers. Otterbein could be a leader in this segment — the college level — and have an even bigger effect on community service.
Kathy: You and Peggy are making things happen that we hope will be amplified and multiplied. I don’t know that there’s an end to it, but when would you know you’ve been successful?
Bob: I think when I can say to myself this is self-sustaining. We’ve been involved on the front end of a lot of charitable initiatives where the charity couldn’t do it on their own. It’s what I call engaged giving — where we got involved personally. You get them going and then all of a sudden you realize, “they don’t need me anymore.” That’s fantastic.
Kathy: If you were to give someone advice about why they should do something kind more intentionally or more often, what would you say to encourage this kind of attitude?
Bob: We have a responsibility to help lift other people up because we all have been lifted up. I don’t care who you are — there are times in your life when you’re going to need to be lifted up. I’ve never hired anybody who didn’t tell me that they needed a little help. To say you’ve never needed help — it simply isn’t true. I would say an act of kindness, in some ways, is selfish because you will probably get as much or more out of it as somebody else.
Kathy: So let me ask you, if people made it a habit to be kinder, what would you expect we’d discover?
Bob: I think we’d discover less fighting and discord and more connectivity and happiness. Frankly, it would be a more efficient world.
Editor’s Note: Robert D. Walter is the founder and retired Chairman of Dublin, Ohio-based Cardinal Health, Inc., a global provider of healthcare products and services. Walter, who served as CEO for 37 years, founded the company at the age of 26.
Why Kindness Matters. What inspires one of the most powerful business minds in the country to help motivate his city to be kinder?
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