Purpose in a Time of Loss
Call it fate. Call it serendipity. Call it divine providence. Everybody who hears their story agrees that a vivacious pioneer of a radio talk show in Tennessee and a sophisticated estate planner in Scottsdale, Arizona would never have met without the startling, life-defining events that shaped their destinies.
Dennis Stack had been enjoying a successful 19-year career as a wealth manager and senior vice president for UBS PaineWebber. He'd lost his father before his only child, Jamie, was born and then his mother to Alzheimer’s disease before she was two. Jolted by the realization that Jamie would never know her grandparents, he wished they had shared more of their world, or that he’d known to ask the questions that now plagued him.
For almost two decades, Dennis helped clients to grow, preserve and pass down their valuables with little or no attention to the bequeathing of values or even the wisdom that created their wealth.
Then the Twin Towers fell on 9-11, and Dennis learned that the lives of two of his colleagues were lost, leaving little more than a voice message for their children to cling to for connection. Profoundly moved, he shifted his attention to creating a do-it-yourself “Family StoryKeeper Kit” for his clients as a Christmas gift, asking them to take the time to save something infinitely more valuable than money. The response was overwhelming, and his mission began.
Devoted to the cause, Dennis left his high-paying job to launch Project StoryKeeper, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. He further developed his Family StoryKeeper Kit by training over 5,000 hospice volunteers to conduct life review interviews and record patient’s stories on cassette tape.
The campaign for funding became a major barrier to reaching the mass population, and Dennis realized that something much more aggressive needed to be done. One of his wealth manager colleagues mentioned that she represented a client who had just died, along with his wife, in a plane crash. His business partner, she said, might have the answers to his prayer. Destiny had already been at work, preparing Tom Cormier for their meeting.
Tom and the Cemetery Feud
After borrowing $500 from his brother, Tom and his wife, Christine, moved their family from the White Mountains in New Hampshire to start anew near the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.
Inspired by self-improvement experts of the era, like Zig Ziglar, Denis Waitley and Tony Robbins, Tom wanted to bring this message to the masses by starting his own radio talk show: “Let’s Talk America.” From the kitchen table in his apartment, he used the local radio station to remotely interview top personal development gurus and share in the sales of their training courses.
Let’s Talk America was the first programming of its kind on AM radio, and it soon grew to over 450 stations in the United States and Canada, setting all new sales records. One of Tom’s most successful clients was J.B. Lauchner, who later became his managing partner and very close friend.
No longer needing to deal with day-to-day business issues, Tom began looking for land in the mountains on which to build a log home. The perfect spot was located on a hilltop, overlooking a million acres of unspoiled National Forest. But then he learned that the land was being sold because of hostilities that existed between a small community of about 50 old mountain folks and an outsider who wanted to build his home on the spot where seven of their children descendants were buried after they died in a fire when the family first settled.
The property owner used the court to rule that the cemetery was officially abandoned. The ruling was neither well-received nor accepted by these independent families who almost never interacted with the civilized world.
One might never suspect that a southern hillbilly feud would be resolved by a wealthy Yankee, but Tom was no ordinary Yankee. He wanted to understand the dispute regarding the property. So on a cold and snowy afternoon, he met with nine of the community elders who led Christine and him to the area. The elders uncovered the stones that marked the seven graves, proving the primitive cemetery existed and that their story was true.
Stunned by their experience, Tom and Christine agreed to resolve the feud by purchasing the property and then assigning a deed for the cemetery to the elders' tiny, primitive mountain church.
This gesture so moved the hearts of the close-knit family that they “adopted” Tom and Christine into their family. Tom soon hired them to build his family’s log home, utilizing their logging skills and incorporating stones recovered from the ruins of their ancestors’ cabin fireplaces.
The full story of this experience was documented in a memoir titled “The Disappearing Cemetery.” The Cormier’s mountain retreat was also featured in a 12-page centerfold article in “Country’s Best Homes Magazine,” a proud accomplishment the elders would never have imagined.
While their home was being constructed, Tom and Christine often sat around a campfire under the stars with the some of the elders, listening to amazing stories about logging with draft mules and train whistles that were heard across the mountains whenever a logger was killed. Stories were told of economic desperation, when survival entailed running moonshine.
As Tom listened, he realized it was possible that the elders’ grandchildren would never hear these important stories and he asked if he could record them.
About a year after one of the elders died, Tom was asked by the elder’s wife if he still had any of the recordings. Above all, the grandson, who she and her husband raised, was painfully missing his grandfather’s voice.
The next visit was very emotional, as the grandson listened to his "papaw’s" voice telling the story of how his father died when he slid off a pile of logs when the truck turned a corner too fast. This was much more than a powerful legacy story. It was priceless first-person family history!
The expression on the grandson’s face profoundly impacted Tom and it gave him a new purpose: giving voice to every elder, so their personality, dialect, attitude and life story would be heard, impacting their grandchildren and future generations in the same way.
Fate, Serendipity, Divine Providence- DESTINY
There is no chance to recover priceless life stories once the teller dies. Meanwhile, millions of baby boomers and their parents pass away each day, taking libraries of life lessons with them to the grave.
Without a movement to activate people around the globe, the greatest body of wisdom in history would soon become extinct. Something big needed to be done and it needed to happen quickly.
Utilizing his connections, marketing experience and financing, Tom launched the Living Legacy Project to ensure that people of all nations, cultures, ethnicities and faiths would have access to a unique tool for recording the stories of elders before they were lost forever.
A movement of this scope required a secure online living history library, where priceless recordings could be stored, backed up and shared for the benefit of humanity. This was a formidable undertaking, but Tom’s experience with the elder and his grandson fueled his commitment.
With little experience, other than what he had already recorded, a process was needed for efficient story collection, best practices and methods. This slowed the movement down.
While mapping out his plan, Tom received news of the plane crash that killed his partner and good friend, J.B. Lauchner. Not only was this a shock on a personal level but it also meant Tom needed to abandon his dream and resume the day-to-day management of his radio marketing business.
A few weeks later, Lauchner’s estate planner called to resolve some final details and suggested that Tom meet a colleague who had developed a system to efficiently elicit and record life stories of hospice patients at the end of life.
Within days, Dennis and his daughter arrived at Tom’s magnificent “Sky Ranch” mountain estate. As the two men shared their experiences and vision, the sense of destiny and purpose was extremely palpable. They brainstormed from morning until night for three days, devising a strategy that would bring the Living Legacy Project to the world.
Through the vision and commitment of Tom Cormier and Dennis Stack, today millions of people can access a user-friendly, yet state-of-the-art method to record their voices and stories for their loved ones and ancestors.
We hope that by reading this remarkable legacy story you will join Tom and Dennis’ quest and play your role in the Living Legacy Project by recording your legacy stories and spreading the word to others while it is still possible.