I originally wrote this essay in February 2009 for Scout Sunday and shared the excerpt below on my business blog September 11, 2010.  In 2011, I decided to make this an annual post in remembrance. Every trip I have made to New York since 2002, I go down to the WTC site and pay my respects to Richie, an 18-year-old man who answered a call of service to others with such passion and commitment, he never saw his 19th birthday. In May 2013 I saw this, a more permanent reminder of his remarkable courage…

I hope you’ll consider joining me in a moment of silence at 8:46 AM Eastern Time today to remember Richie Pearlman and the nearly 3,000 people who died twelve years ago. 

From February 2009…

A few weeks ago, I was in NY and visited the World Trade Center site as I have on every trip to the city since 2002. This trip I was able to go to the museum for the first time and reflect on that tragic day. As I made my way around to the photographs of the three thousand or so individuals who lost their lives, I caught a glimpse of a familiar face. It was the face of Richard Pearlman. Suddenly, I couldn’t contain my grief. Standing there looking at that wall, at the picture of Richard, the tears streamed down my face. Although I did not know him personally, I did know his story.

In February 2009, I had the privilege of sharing the message for Scout Sunday at my church. My message that Sunday was based on the New Testament book of Luke 6:17-26, commonly known as the “Beatitudes.” I closed the message with a story about Richard Pearlman that I compiled from news reports. Below is the story and the message closing:

…let me share with you the story of Richard Pearlman. He knew a little something about making an effort and the responsibilities of taking care of others.

Richie joined the junior corps of Forest Hills Volunteer Ambulance Corps. When he was 14, working as a volunteer dispatcher. At 18, he joined the Senior Corps as a paramedic, where he immediately became a source of knowledge for new dispatchers and new volunteer members. He looked forward to starting his EMT courses and a career in emergency services.

Richie was a constant presence at the Corps. He was the regular Tuesday night and Saturday daytime dispatcher. He was present at every can shaking and blood pressure screening the Corps held. But he found his passion when became involved in the Boy Scouts of America, as an Assistant Scoutmaster for Troop 106, in Queens, New York. Richie was committed to both Scouting and caring for others. The summer of 2001, Richie was a staffer at Boy Scout Camp Aquehonga in Narrowsburg, NY. He served in the trading post, camp services, assisted the commissioners and as an office manager. While in the office, Richie found his calling and a new nickname, “Mother.” He earned this name for the way he doted on injured campers and staff. Richie was a trained in CPR and as a first aid technician, but his specialty was psychological first aid. He had a knack for calming down the most upset and injured Scout and Scouter alike.

Richie lived with his parents in Howard Beach, NY and was working as a messenger for a New York Law firm the morning of September 11, 2001. He was delivering a package to One Police Plaza when he learned that the first airplane had struck the World Trade Center not far away. He called his boss and told him he had gone over to help. His employer ordered him back to the offices where he would be safe. However, Richie knew in his heart where he belonged. He saw total mayhem before him, and his training kicked in. He shared that he saw people hurt and bleeding. “I have to stay and do what I can to help.”

Upon arriving, the 18-year-old flashed his gold paramedic’s badge #3754 and rushed into a building to aid in the rescue effort. Despite the chaos at the scene, Richie’s heroics were later confirmed on pages 16-17 in Newsweek’s Extra Edition of America Under Attack which shows a picture of Richie aiding the injured—helping a woman covered in blood, but alive, from one of the towers. After getting her to safety, he ran back in to find more survivors. Shortly afterward, the towers came down.

Richard Allen Pearlman, 18, an assistant scoutmaster with Troop 106, chartered to Trinity Lutheran Church in Queens, NY became the youngest victim of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. He received The Honor Medal, with crossed palms, the highest award given by the Boy Scouts of America for an act of Heroism at extreme risk to oneself.

“He used to always say,” his mother shared at his funeral, ‘I’m going to be a famous person one day, Mom. I’m going to help save the world. ‘You’ll see.’ “And he did save the world…at least the world for the one woman he helped escaped the towers that day.

Richie Pearlman was an exceptional man. He was a brave, courageous, tenacious, and strong. But, we learned that he was also loving, compassionate, empathetic, and kind-hearted – everything we hope for in ourselves and others. In our scriptures today, Jesus is clear about his expectations of us; that as His followers, we are held to a higher standard through this “code of conduct.”

Richie Pearlman was just the kind of person that God calls us all to be.

The Scout Sunday message closed with this video:

May God bless and keep the families of those who perished on September 11, 2001 (911).

If you would like to commemorate the life of Richie Pearlman, please consider making a donation to the Richard Allen Pearlman Memorial Annual Scholarship, providing scholarships for EMT or Paramedic Training.

It’s In Every One Of Us, by David Pomeranz, is used with permission. The photographs of Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Venturers, and volunteers leader shown in this video were photographed by David Harkins and are also used with permission.

For most of his life, dad has put the needs of everyone else above his own. My sharing the list of things I know he’s done would embarrass him, but I’m willing to bet the list of things he has taken care of without anyone’s knowledge would be twice as long. In this way, he taught me the principles of servant leadership—quiet service to others to build a more just and caring world.

I did not know my parents while growing up. I knew what they looked like and where I could find them every day because we lived in the same house. They were my parents, and I never saw them as individuals. I thought their job was to take care of me; to make sure I had food to eat and clothes to wear.  I think most children feel this way about their parents until they’re well into adulthood. As for me, my perspective changed the summer of 1982.

In 1982, my dad was on the board of directors for our community swim club and one summer Saturday decided he was going to fix a malfunctioning sump pump at the pool. He was up and out of the house early that day, as he usually was, with my little brother in tow. Mom was working. My sisters were sleeping. The house was still and quiet, making it the perfect morning for a 19-year-old college student on summer break to sleep a little later, too.

The phone rang about 11:00 a.m., my sister answered and then woke me to take the urgent call. When I picked up the phone, a family friend told me dad had been injured, and I should come right away. I grabbed a shirt, put on my shoes, and drove up to the pool alone, wondering what had happened and what I would need to do when I go there if I could do anything at all.


I pulled into the parking lot to see paramedics, firemen, and a crowd of concerned friends. They told me the sump pump dad had been working on was in a small well a few feet underground. He had his hands and arms down in the well when the powered-off pump released a residual spark, igniting fumes in the well, and sent a ball of fire shooting up and out of the top where dad and brother were looking in. It happened in an instant, they said, but somehow dad was able to get his face out of the way and move my brother aside.

Paramedics were treating dad for third-degree burns on his arms and hands, and second-degree burns on his face when I saw him. I talked to him briefly and he said he was okay, but I knew he was not. The skin on his arms had blistered, peeled, and rolled down around his hands. It looked as if he had been wearing arm-length latex gloves and had rolled them down around his wrists. My brother had a few singed hairs and some first degree burns—similar to a slight sunburn—on his face from the blowback.

The paramedic told me dad’s condition was serious. It was likely he would be airlifted to Pittsburgh to the regional burn center for treatment, he said. He also told me my brother wasn’t hurt, but like dad, he was in shock, and I should ride in the ambulance to the hospital with him.

Later in the day, Dad was flown to the burn center. After helping my sisters and brother settled with my grandparents, mom and I drove to Pittsburgh. We stayed for a little over a week while dad was stabilized, and then came home for a day. Mom returned the next and stayed for several weeks while dad was treated for his burns and had multiple surgeries for skin grafts. I traveled back and forth several times that summer.

On one visit, I was sitting with mom and dad in the room he then shared with a Rabbi, who had third-degree burns on his hands from a Fry-Daddy® explosion. Both dad and the Rabbi were being treated for pain with heavy doses of morphine, and while alert, they were anything but lucid.

“I used to be a Rabbi,” my dad called out to the real Rabbi in the next bed.

“You did? That is wonderful,” said the Rabbi. “Did you know, I used to kidnap little children for a hobby?”

My mother started laughing so hard—uncontrollably really—she had to leave quickly to find the ladies room. Of course, it would be in the moments after she left that dad would need the bedside urinal and I would need to help him because his hands were bandaged. It was at that moment helping my dad, when I realized my parents were people, too. They had hopes and dreams. They even had bodily functions at the most inconvenient times. Their life and their dreams were on indefinite hold now because of a freak accident.

When dad finished, and I took the urinal away, I needed to do something to take the edge of the awkward moment, so I asked him how to build an AC-to-DC converter to put on the starting buzzer I was making for pool swim meets. I wanted to lower the voltage of the power to the switch since the person tripping the switch would be closer to the water. I did not expect him to tell me. I didn’t think he was lucid. He described the circuit and told me how to diagram it. It worked flawlessly. Teaching me how to diagram a circuit while critically injured and under the influence of painkillers was not the first thing dad taught me. His first lesson was dedication and commitment to the task.

After graduating high school, dad did a short stint in the Navy where his leadership skills earned him an offer for recommendation to attend Officer Candidate School. He turned down the offer and was honorably discharged after three years of service. He moved back to Charleston, married my mother, and started a family. When I was three, he decided to get serious about his college education and began night classes, often carrying a full load each semester, while working full time and raising a family. Five years later, he had earned a B.S. in Business Administration and another in Mathematics.

For most of his life, dad has put the needs of everyone else above his own. My sharing the list of things I know he’s done would embarrass him, but I’m willing to bet the list of things he has taken care of without anyone’s knowledge would be at least twice as long. In this way, he taught me the principles of servant leadership—quiet service to others to build a more just and caring world.

Dad and David

Dad also taught me perseverance and the importance of perspective. When he was younger, he fell asleep while driving and was in a bad single-car accident, but walked away without serious injury. He was helping neighbors trim a tree and were knocked off the ladder by a swinging branch, and fell eight feet onto a pile of branches on the driveway and again, walked away unhurt. He was in the explosion at the pool, and he has had two heart bypass surgeries. Recently, he walked away from another auto accident without injury. My siblings and I encourage him to be more careful because he has used most of his “nine lives.”   He believes there is a purpose in his survival considering how frequently he has had brushes with death.

“I think there’s still someone on this earth I’m supposed to meet,” he says.

To the contrary, I believe many people still need to meet him. Maybe, just maybe, he was is a rabbi once.  of sorts.

Happy 74th Birthday, dad. I love you.

We can dance if we want to
There are greater powers at work in the world, I think. There are lessons to learn and people to meet to help guide our life journey. I am convinced it takes the Universe time to line up all of the stars—to get everyone ready—for the work we are called to do, often unknowingly, for each other. Until that stage is set, the play cannot begin. This is why life does not always happen on the schedule we plan for ourselves.

This is the final essay in a three-part story of self-discovery that coincidentally culminated with my attendance at the World Domination Summit (#WDS2013) in Portland, Oregon July 5- 7, 2013. Click here for Part I in this series.

I was grateful to wake up without an alarm Sunday morning until I realized it was 6:45. I needed to check out and change hotels, and I had a 7:30 meeting. I jumped up, showered, extended my checkout time, and ran to meet Tami for a Working Life Project interview. Tami shared a compelling story of entrepreneurial spirit, and it was perfect for the project. I was energized and ready for the day’s sessions.

Gretchen Rubin, the author of The Happiness Project, kicked off the morning sessions with a talk about our search for happiness.

“Self-knowledge is the key to happiness,” she said. “There’s a certain sadness to self-knowledge because when we acknowledge who we are, we also acknowledge who we aren’t and who we’ll probably never be.”

She talked more about how it was okay to let go of those fantasies so we could have more time to do the things we love. It sounded like a good plan, provided I could figure out what I loved doing.

“Shine a light on the things you love, even if it doesn’t fit the image you have established for yourself,” she continued.

Oh, so there’s the catch, I thought, Not only do I have to find the thing I love doing, but I also have to call attention to it, even if it’s not something I want to share with others. My level of cynicism was on the upswing.

Tess Vigeland, formerly of NPR’s Marketplace Money, followed with a heartfelt talk on how it feels to jump from the security of a job without a safety net. I could relate. I’ve been where she is several times. Toward the end of her talk, she offered this advice, “The only way to get back to remarkable is to redefine what remarkable means to you.”

I could feel my brain working to assemble the patterns, skillfully ignoring the cynicism I had introduced earlier. When my brain is doing this work, it feels like mental alertness and physical exhaustion simultaneously. My body is ready to recharge, but my mind is in high gear. I knew something was coming, but the connections were not solid. The picture was not clear.

On the afternoon break, I went back to the hotel, packed, checked out, and moved to another hotel in a planned bit of loyalty-point juggling. I grabbed lunch and then walked to the park where I sat for a few hours reflecting and watching people. I even talked briefly with Tess, who took a bench nearby, about how the Universe manages things on its time, not ours.

We returned from the afternoon break to hear several moving pieces from actor, songwriter, and musician Steve Schalchin’s musical, The Last Session. Christian author Donald Miller was the closing speaker for the event. I was intrigued when Miller suggested most of us hide our “true self”—the person we were as a child—because of some “shame” we experienced early in life. Our adult personality is the result of what we have built to cover and protect our true self—an inner child—from the shame. He had my attention.

For months I had been thinking about why some of my friends find it so easy to be vulnerable and open, while I only open up to a few very close friends. And by few, I mean one. Maybe two. I wondered if those who wore their vulnerability as armor lived a fuller life than I did because sharing so openly seem to give them deeper and more meaningful connections.

Then Miller caught me off guard with this question, “What if we are not the identities we project? What happens when we operate outside of our ‘false’ selves? Maybe, we get to impress fewer people, but connect more.”


Then it was over. A little closing fanfare, some acknowledgments, and the World Domination Summit ended for another year.

Well, that was fun, I thought. Still, did I learn anything? I wasn’t sure.

I walked back to the hotel and recharged for a while, wrestling with myself about going to the closing party at Pioneer Courthouse Square Park. I was hungry, and the party had food, so I made my way to the park and walked directly to a food line.

An hour later I sat down to eat a Philly Cheesesteak while watching a large group of dancers move in unison to Bollywood music in the middle of the park. My original plan was to eat and then leave. The weather was nice, though, so I opted to get in line for a drink. Once in line, the couple in front of me turned to introduce themselves. It was the couple that sat next to me Saturday, Andrew, and Christine.

I remembered them because of the energy I felt from them when we first met, but I didn’t think they remembered me.

“We met yesterday,” I said. “You sat next to me in the morning session.”

“We did?” Andrew asked. He told me he wasn’t good with names or faces, and jokingly said he had a short-term memory issue.

“Yes. You’re from like, a mile away, and she’s from like, four miles away.”

Christine seemed surprised at my recollection. Andrew jumped in with, “No, no… that’s not right. I’m from four miles away, and she’s from sixty miles away.”

We laughed. The ice was broken.

We talked about the day’s sessions while standing in the long line. Donald Miller’s session seemed to be most intriguing to us all. Suddenly, Andrew shared a story about his “shame,” as Donald Miller called it, the one thing that drives us to create a personality to hide our true self. In the seconds it took Andrew to tell his story, my brain had assembled the connections it had been working on for days. It had identified my shame.

My “shame” occurred after my family moved across town and I started 8th grade in a different, more affluent school. I was talking with a group of friends at lunch one day and improperly pronounced the word “wash” using a more typical southern West Virginia pronunciation, “warsh.” One of the boys in the group made fun of my pronunciation, and all the others laughed. The embarrassment of seeming uneducated and backward hurt. I remember the names of everyone standing there that day, and the boy who leads the charge. I can still see their faces.

It was in that moment of embarrassment I began building a different personality to hide my shame. I would become educated, informed, and articulate. I would become private and reserved so as not to endure that shame again. I would become whom the majority of people in my life know today as “David Harkins.”

In what I can only describe as an impulsive moment, I did something my friends and family would say is out of character: I allowed myself to become vulnerable. I shared my moment of shame with Andrew and Christine. I doubt they realized the importance I placed on the moment because they didn’t know the person I began building all those years ago. They only knew me at this moment.

The three of us talked most of the evening about business, some about life, and a little about close friendships. Andrew and I confided that we have few close friends “on purpose,” immediately recognizing, I think, how our created personalities were the words, “on purpose.” Our true personalities made friends effortlessly, as we proved with our near instant connection that night.

While we talked, the Bollywood music gave way to 80’s dance music, and Andrew and Christine began to talk about dancing. They prodded me for a while to dance with them, but I resisted. The heart and feet heard the beats, but the head would not let them move. “David Harkins” had not danced since most of the music playing through the speakers was first released. To dance in public would risk looking foolish. “David Harkins” does not like to look foolish.

They didn’t give up, though. Christine kept asking me to dance with them, and Andrew occasionally chimed in with encouragement. Jeff walked by, sat down, and we talked for a while about the problem he was having with a foot and how the strobes affected his balance. Jeff could not have danced that night, even if he had wanted to dance.

I took a Porta-John® break and when I returned the song, “Walk Like An Egyptian” was playing. The goofy 12-year-old I keep tucked inside broke through to prove he could still “walk like an Egyptian.” Christine saw me, laughed, and asked me to do it again. I was not embarrassed at all.

By the time “Footloose” began, my toes were tapping quietly inside my shoes. It took the song, “The Safety Dance,” and Andrew’s battle cry, “I’m going in…all the way in…” to get me into the dancing crowd of people with the two of them.

And I danced. Not as freely as I would have liked, but I danced.

Over the last year, a few of my closest friends have noted how little of my true personality I let the rest of the world see. Apparently, the “true” David Harkins is more creative, charming, generous, and loving, or something. Go figure. Of course, I could not fix what I didn’t know was broken, and once I became aware I still needed to identify the cause. Sunday night, thirty-five years later in Portland Oregon with 3,000 people trying to find a way to be remarkable in a conventional world, I identified that cause.

There are greater powers at work in the world, I think. There are lessons to learn and people to meet to help guide our life journey. I am convinced it takes the Universe time to line up all of the stars—to get everyone ready—for the work we are called to do, often unknowingly, for each other. Until that stage is set, the play cannot begin. This is why life does not always happen on the schedule we plan for ourselves.

Traveling home Monday I realized the Universe might have put this plan in motion for me over a year ago. A string of events, seen only in hindsight, opened the door to make it possible for me attend the 2013 World Domination Summit. There I heard diverse voices, each carrying to me the same message—it’s time for the “true” David Harkins to come out and play. I encountered the energy of Andrew and Christine, who were placed in my life, not once, but twice to make sure I heard the message and to help me facilitate this transformation.

So, if you’re reading this, thank you, Chris and Patti, for opening the space. For gently encouraging me to let down my guard more often and to expose that vulnerable “soft underbelly,” thank you Katherine, Kristi, and Greg. For giving me a place to temporarily call home while I unknowingly prepared for what was to come, thank you, John and Steve. Thank you, Nancy, Jia, Gretchen, Tess, Steve, and Don for using different words, but sending a singular message I needed to hear. Thank you, Jeff, for appearing out of nowhere to keep me grounded in those moments when I needed it most. Thank you, Andrew, for sharing your story, your passion, and your gentle humor that helped us make a connection. Thank you, Christine, for your kindness and persistence, but most of all for helping me remember how much fun it is to let go and just dance.

Sunday night in Pioneer Courthouse Square, I discovered I was free from the shackles of the single mispronounced word, which had shaped so much my life. Andrew and Christine saw, without even realizing it, something so few people in my life have ever seen, the “true” David Harkins.

And they saw him…no they saw me, dance.

The title of this post is taken from the lyrics of “The Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats.

Photo Credit:  Chris Gillebeau WDS 2013