Saying Goodbye to a Friend

March 28, 2019

At first blush, Mike Van Cleave and I had nothing in common. We met in 1999 working for the same ad agency. When I mentioned I went to Cornell, he asked if I’d spent time at a certain local coffee shop on campus. I said that I hadn’t and that I’d wondered who went in there as it looked like it was filled with self-important d-bags. He told me he was the owner. Whoops. He then told me his customers would have thought I was a d-bag. Fair enough. We didn’t interact much for the next two years.

By 2001 he had started his own agency and I had hung out a shingle doing organizational consulting work. When we ran into each other at a mutual friend’s party that year we were both struggling as entrepreneurs. We quickly found a kinship around this topic that trumped any old animosities. From 2001-2003 we became close friends, diving into deep conversation about business and life. We supported each other, but also pushed and challenged each other. We gave each other confidence at a time when it was in short supply. It was a pivotal few years in my personal and professional development, and Mike was a big part of that. By 2003, after a few client setbacks, Mike was fed up with NYC and moved to Colorado to restore Jaguars. We lost meaningful touch for a decade.

When we reconnected in mid-2014 Mike shared that he’d been battling cancer for a number of years and things didn’t look good. He was living in Paris by then. I felt guilty that I hadn’t known about his illness and hadn’t been there for him, but also thankful to be back in touch. By December, doctors had given him six months to live. He decided to throw a blowout party at a farmhouse outside of Paris for five days in Jan 2015–The “Fete de Mike.” A (potential) last hurrah. 100+ people from four continents showed up. It was a remarkable gathering. I’ve never felt so much love in one place.

Fete de Mike, Jan 2015

Moving from one experimental drug to the next, Mike somehow managed to live for four more years. We interacted a lot in that time. It felt like our conversations from 15 years earlier. In Sept 2018 we got together for a few days when I was visiting France on business. He was in a lot of pain and couldn’t move. We just drank, ate, and looked out over the Mediterranean. He shared that I had had a profound impact on his life, which I hadn’t really appreciated until that moment. I shared that he had had a profound impact on me too.

Mike passed away on March 27, 2019.

Over the course of a lifetime—If we’re lucky—we each come across 2,3,4, at the most maybe 5 people with whom we powerfully resonate for some reason. 3-hour conversations feel like 10 minutes. Crazy ideas are greeted with a knowing head nod. You don’t want the dialogue to end because it feels validating at a fundamental level. You feel deeply understood. Some would argue that’s all any of us really wants out of life.

Mike, you’ve been one of those people for me. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. I feel deeply appreciative to have crossed paths with you.