Bill Dodd, a direct response pioneer who helped build some of the great names in progressive advocacy and mentored a generation of fundraisers, died on July 17th. He was 68.

Bill will be remembered in our trade for the causes he embraced with his skill, talent and big heart to help them grow. The magazine Mother Jones of which he was a co-founder and architect of their remarkable growth in circulation … Greenpeace, the tiny Canadian charity he took under his wing and helped built to the large and powerful group it is today … and PETA, to name but a few of dozens of progressive groups aided over the past 40 years.

Ken Smith, my partner in Craver, Mathews, Smith and later in the firm of Dodd Smith Dann, reminded me of Bill’s mastery of complex testing patterns and his rigorous assessment of results — long before the days of personal computers, Excel, and predictive analytics. Not to mention his almost preternatural sense of what might make for a winning package.

(Those of us steeped in direct mail lore of the 1980’s will always remember the wide-eyed, sad-eyed baby seal pictured on the Greenpeace envelope right above the teaser: “Kiss this baby goodbye.”)

Most of all I remember the enthusiasm, patience and generosity with which he shared his insights and experience with others. Because beyond his immense skill Bill possessed the one trait that marks every great fundraiser, every great stone mason or physician, every great human being — character.

Sam Shepherd, the actor and playwright who died last week reminds us: “Character is an essential tendency. It can be covered up, it can be messed with, it can be screwed around with, but it can’t be ultimately changed. It’s the structure of our bones, the blood that runs through our veins.”

Bill had character. He also had Multiple Sclerosis and he battled it through for 40+ years.  Never giving in. Always giving more.

Harvard professor Richard Parker, a co-founder of Mother Jones Magazine and Bill’s business partner in Parker-Dodd in the early days of liberal movement-building, has penned a memorable and worthy tribute, The Battles of Bill Dodd, in the current issue of the very magazine that Bill helped launch and build.

Richard’s description goes to the essence of Bill’s character. Here are some excerpts, but I hope you’ll read the full tribute.

  • “Bill was, in short, a battlefield hero—but he never spoke of himself as one, in keeping with the qualities he admired and modeled. He was a battlefield hero in a second, quite different way: From the Mother Jones days onward, he battled multiple sclerosis.
  • “He was also an athlete—a superb one, who earned eight varsity letters, set the school’s (still unbroken) record throwing the discus, and was named an all-Ohio quarterback his senior year with the Sidney High Yellow Jackets.
  • “One day his father got a call from Woody Hayes, the legendary football coach at Ohio State. Was Bill interested in playing for him? It was an offer most high school players would have died for—but Bill had applied to other schools that wanted him. Harvard was one of them.
  • “…in September 1967, Bill Dodd walked proudly and expectantly onto the Harvard campus, a whole new world ahead of him. By mid-winter of 1968, though, Bill knew that something didn’t sit right. ‘My high school co-captain was in Vietnam crawling around rice paddies,’ he later recalled. “I was walking around Harvard. I couldn’t make the two things mesh. Finally I said, ‘I’m going to leave until I figure out my place in the world.’”

After his long stint in helping to build progressive causes and advance progressive candidates, Bill returned to Harvard where he received both his undergraduate degree and a Master’s from the Kennedy School of Government.

Richard Parker relays this story which says it all about Bill. “Asked by an admissions officer why, in his 50s now, he wanted more school, he replied simply, ‘I think it could help me find new ways to help people’.”

And for the next 10 years, confined to what he called a “puff-and-sip” power wheelchair, he continued advising the progressive world of causes he cared about so much.

Not only did Bill Dodd find his place in the world, he continued to work to leave it in a better more enlightened condition — to the very end.

Thank you for everything, Bill.

Roger

 

 

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