July 5, 2006, former Enron CEO Dr. Kenneth Lay passed away at his home in Aspen, Colorado. He was 64.
In trying to write about Dr. Lay’s death, it occurred to me that I was using a lot of adjectives, trying to describe what he was like and how he is remembered by friends and loved ones. It sounded very thin and frankly I considered deleting it and not writing a Today In Enron History at all for this day (I’ve never written one for this day because words fail me.) But I have one Ken Lay story that I think it illustrates the kind of man he was much better than just descriptors can.
On the evening of January 20, 2000, I was on a date with a reporter from the Houston Chronicle. My recollection is that we were downtown at the Texas State Bar. The reporter looked up and said, “Holy crap, that’s Scott McNealy!” I looked up and there was the CEO of Sun Microsystems. Then I looked past him and there was Dr. Lay, holding the door open for a stream of people entering the crowded bar. Not one person said thank you. Still, he never stopped smiling. He just held the door open. As the evening progressed, people recognized him; this was Houston, after all, and it was the night of the huge analyst conference so everyone was buzzy and excited and he was the man of the hour. People clamored to introduce themselves to both him and McNealy. I remember his infinite grace. I remember he never stopped smiling and he was polite to everyone who interrupted him to introduce themselves.
That’s the kind of man he was. Approachable. Liked. Gracious beyond reason. It wasn’t a gimmick with him; he was really a kind, Southern gentlemen. His love of people was obvious.
When I heard that he had passed away, I though the world had lost someone truly special, truly kind. I was sad for Dr. Lay’s family and everyone involved in the Enron crisis, particularly Jeff Skilling, but mostly I was sad for the ordinary people who went up to shake his hand that night. I was sad because that was as close as they might ever come to being treated as an equal with someone of Dr. Lay’s stature. He was just a very kind and very good man. He is missed.