My 91-year-old father had been a lonely man since he stopped working just a decade ago.

Executive Summary

There are heroes hiding in the insurance industry, and one of them—the CEO of a brokerage firm—touched my family recently in a very personal way.

Regularly, he’d ask me to contact friends from his youth or colleagues he’d worked with during the 1950s and 60s. I didn’t always have the heart to tell him that they had died well before him. He’d also want to reach out to younger co-workers still working at the hardware store where he sold nuts and bolts and hammers and nails for the last few decades of a sales career that began at age 14. But while I could get some of them to chat with him on the phone for a few minutes, it was a rare event. More often they were busy and probably not tuned in to what it would mean if they could muster up the patience to follow stories that probably seemed like ramblings of an aging mind.

Sure, he had his daughters to make sense of the reallife tales he would share about learning to drive when a colonel in the Army forced him to get behind the wheel of a Jeep, about a high school basketball maneuver called the “weave” that outsmarted his team’s opponents, about his fight to earn more than a nickel an hour on his first job, about the illustrious career of Rocky Marciano, or about the New York Yankees decision to release Babe Ruth, among others. But even Dad knew that the novelty of his stories was wearing on his most attentive listeners, who were clearly exhausted from other caregiving tasks.

So, when the social worker for the home hospice program told us that he could send a volunteer to sit with Dad and provide companionship for an hour a week, we signed on. We expected another retired senior to visit with him, or maybe a teenager or young college student.

The actual identity of the volunteer who would take on the assignment was a surprise: a working executive of an insurance company, more than half-a-century younger than Dad. Her father was in the military, too, the hospice nurse revealed. And she likes sports as much as your father, he added.

When the volunteer, Susan L. Combs, left a voicemail message on my phone to set up the appointment, I immediately conducted an online search to learn more about her. And even though I interview insurance industry executives for a living, her impressive credentials made me nervous to meet the founder and CEO of Combs and Company, who was also a former president of Women in Insurance and Financial Services.

I need not have been. For Dad, she was simply Susan, someone who spent an hour of a hot summer Saturday afternoon in a chair positioned next to his wheelchair truly listening to as many tales as he could fit into that time. And she was the last new friend he would have before he passed away a few weeks later.

Susan’s fantastic act of kindness for my father would only be known to a handful of people from my family and the nursing service if it didn’t happen in the living room of an editor of a magazine that celebrates great insurance leaders.

Is Susan a great insurance leader? I can’t say firsthand. But I do know that she’s a great person, who also just happens to lead an insurance enterprise. A great person—and a great leader—is someone who listens. A great leader is someone who puts her executive title aside to understand customers, employees and others.

Susan didn’t help my father to further her already successful career. Instead, she said that she hoped to honor her own father, a former major general who died in hospice care in August last year. She also celebrated him with online tributes to an active life well lived and with tips on dealing with the loss of a loved one, available at the Women’s Insurance Network website links below, which are helpful to anyone struggling in the weeks following the death of someone close.

In a small way, I tried to celebrate my own dad with my recollections of some of his best stories here.

Thank you, Dad, for giving your best to your family, your job and your friends, and for your incredible strength and energy—living your life as if it would never end for as long as you could.

Thank you, Susan—and all the people reading who also take the time to listen to a lonely person of any age.

A final thank you to a great leader, Andy Simpson, Wells Media’s chief content officer, and a great friend, Lisa Howard, who shared the work of putting together the September/October Carrier Management print magazine, filling in while I was caregiving, then grieving and then dealing with the aftermath of my recent loss.

*Susanne Sclafane is the Executive Editor of Carrier Management.