George Khouri 1941-2013
Somewhere on the island of Borneo is a mountain known as Kinabalu. On this mountain is an extremely narrow bridge made of rope and wooden planks that extends hundreds of feet across a deep chasm, at the bottom of which lie treacherous rocks and a raging river.
In 1992 George Khouri walked out of the Malaysian jungle and stood before that old bridge. Drenched in sweat, he wiped face as he watched the rope and wood sway perilously in the hot breeze and listened to the water crashing against the jagged terrain far below.
George looked at his 12-year-old son and screamed, “Are you fucking kidding!?”
Good afternoon. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m George’s son Amin, but for reasons that were never made very clear to me, Dad always called me Andy. On behalf of my sister Jennifer – also known as Jeannie, which, similarly, is not the proper nickname for Jennifer – we thank you for joining us today to say farewell to our father. Many of you have come from far away and at great expense and inconvenience to yourselves, which is of course what Dad would have wanted.
I began my remarks with the story about Dad and the Mount Kinabalu bridge for a couple of reasons. It is probably the most popular of the many, many George Khouri legends I’ve shared with people all over the world. But in the last ten years or so, since Dad and I have been living nearby and spending a great deal of time together here in Southern California, I have come to see the story as something more than just an amusing anecdote. For me it’s become for me a vivid expression of the way my father thought and operated in the world, a symbol for many of the crucial choices he’d faced throughout his life, and a way of explaining why he may have made them.
See, while a troop of Boy Scouts tempted fate in a jubilant, single-file dash across that creaky suspension bridge, George compelled one of the local adventure guides to escort him all the way back down the mountain and across the river below. He would catch up with our group at the campsite several hours later, looking incredibly smug, with his pride fully intact.
Dad didn’t care how silly or fearful it looked to walk hours out of his way, because it was a calculated risk, a skill my father had mastered to grand effect in his life. True, crossing the bridge was faster, more exciting, and what everybody else was doing. But it was also true that crossing that old rope bridge could result in crippling terror, lifelong nightmares, or even death. Dad didn’t have to cross the bridge to get where he needed to go. He could save himself tremendous anxiety — perhaps his very life — at the cost of just one whole day of a poor Malaysian man’s life. George Khouri did it his own way, and it worked, and to him there was no other measure of success.
Fifty years earlier, George was born to parents Amin and Irene Khouri in Palestine, in the city of Jaffa. This began a period in my father’s life that is largely mysterious to me because he didn’t enjoy talking about it. At least not with me. What I do know is that leaving Palestine was very painful for my father and he remained scarred by the experience until the end. But knowing Dad as I did, I suspect the real reason George didn’t want to talk about the old, old days was because he was trying to protect me.
As you can see in this portrait – the only one of himself Dad kept in his home – George was quite a dashing fellow back then. It’s not hard to imagine him getting into trouble with a face like that. Word on the street is that Dad was ejected from a couple of expensive schools – not because he wasn’t smart, but because he was having too much fun. Maybe this is apocryphal, but I’ve heard about George later bumming around the Caribbean, gambling his car away in Las Vegas, and spending the night in a Houston jail for violating the city’s ancient “goo-goo eyes” ordinance, whereby it was illegal to “look at, make remarks to or concerning, cough or whistle at, or do any other act to attract the attention of any woman or female person traveling along any of the sidewalks, streets or public ways, with the intent or in a manner calculated to annoy or to attempt to flirt with any such woman or female person.”
Considering the kind of disciplined man my father would eventually become, it’s no wonder that George was so bothered when I got into trouble myself – and I don’t refer only to my own occasional disregard for the goo-goo eyes ordinances of the world. No, like him I was bright but not a dedicated student. I flirted with academic disaster on more than one occasion. Put another way, I was halfway across the bridge, dangerously close to losing my footing and falling into the canyon below.
Dad probably thought he’d made a bad risk crossing that bridge when he was my age. He flunked out of school twice and disappointed his father bitterly. What did George get in return for that risk? Some good times, surely, but stories he couldn’t even tell his own son, because to do so was to affirm my own dubious choices. Or so he thought. I think he could have told me…
….No, he was right, I would have thrown it back in his face.
One of the hardest choices most of us have to make is whether to follow our dreams. Defying my grandfather’s wish that he pursue a life in medicine was a major risk, but George was right to cross that bridge and study business and economics, first at Texas Southern University and later at the University of Oklahoma. I’m honestly in awe of this aspect of my father’s life:
Decide what you want to do with the rest of your life. Study that thing. Go get a job doing that thing. Excel at that thing. Every stage of this process is excruciatingly difficult for most people, but Dad made it look easy.
A little over ten years ago I found myself driving across the country in my car all alone for almost a year with no real purpose or destination – Dad was absolutely thrilled by this, by the way. At some point I stopped at O.U. One of the campus libraries has copies of all the Masters Theses going back decades. I found Dad’s on a shelf, typed and bound and looking very prestigious even 36 years later. It was a thick book called “The Development of the Oil Industry in Iraq.” Obviously I had as much chance of reading that as George did reading one of my beloved superhero comic books, but I was impressed just the same. The object lent a tangible value to a great story Dad often told about how he got that paper done. It involved a kind but hopelessly ignorant waitress he met at a local Oklahoman diner; she agreed to type the thesis in exchange for getting to see George’s “flying carpet.”
My sister will read a testimonial from one of Dad’s colleagues that speaks more specifically to George’s prodigious business skills, so I’ll just say that I think success came so easily to Dad that he became frustrated with other people’s indecision or lack of confidence. His sharp, analytical mind served him so well in business and enhanced his enjoyment of sports and playing cards, but those same qualities made it hard for Dad to wrap his head around more abstract things like music, art, and the many complex emotions of the human race.
I remember a story he told me about an anti-Vietnam War protest meeting he attended at O.U. In those early days Dad was skeptical about the anti-war movement but listened to what one of the organizers had to say. While possibly embellished in the fullness of time, this is nevertheless how Dad related the conversation to me:
Organizer: George, you and I have been talking about this issue for a couple of hours. I feel like we’re friends. Would you say we’re friends?
Organizer: Okay, now imagine – god forbid – that one day we meet on the field of battle. Me fighting for Israel and you for your country. Wouldn’t it be awful? What happens then?
George: I’d blow your fucking head off.
Organizer: WHAT? WHY?
George: You’re sitting here in America protesting the Vietnam War, but you’ll go to Israel to fight a war over there? I’d shoot you in the face – and not because you’re Jewish, but because you’re a god damn hypocrite.
Obviously, the point this poor man was trying to make was lost on George Khouri, who never came across a poetic sentiment he couldn’t undermine with relentless logic.
It’s been gratifying to hear from so many of you and others who couldn’t be here that George was such a funny guy, full of life and generous with his counsel and friendship. The truth is that my experience with him was much different. I think my father and I were adversaries for a very long time. I’m sorry to say most of my childhood memories of Dad have to do with bitter arguments over, well, nearly every conceivable thing. From topics as important as my grades in school to as insignificant as the way I tied my shoes, Dad believed there was a right way to do everything – his way, and if things were not executed thusly, they were manifestly pointless.
At my mother’s insistence Dad took me into the yard to play catch when I was about seven. It was something all American boys did with their fathers, or so I’d seen on television, so it was something I felt I had to do. I remember Mom watching through the window because I was really embarrassed when George quit after only a few throws, citing my obvious lack of skill.
George Khouri’s Field Guide to Success in Life even included a prescription for the kinds of toys I wanted to play with, my posture, the way I tucked in my shirts, the desires I’d voice about becoming a performer or writer, the way I would blow my nose into a tissue, and the order in which I would eat pieces of food off my plate. Seriously, Dad would sit across from me and stare as I moved my fork around the dish, sighing loudly when I’d deviate from his choreography of consumption. The look on his face was one of sincere shame and disgust. Things became so unpleasant during dinner time that I lost weight and found all food distasteful for years hence. This caused our mother to insist that Jeannie and I take our meals before George got home from work and turned the dinner hour into another session of bellowing and complaining.
When it came to life, my father believed I was doing it wrong. He studied finance, I studied art. He was a Republican, I was a Democrat. He was short, I was tall. He had dark skin, I was pale. He loved sports, I loved comic books. I loved technology, but Dad decided he’d learned everything he wanted to know about computers by 1991.
Now, in these battles George relented almost all of the time. I had to pay a tax in yelling and personal pride, but I did usually “win” in the sense that I got what I wanted — or I just refused to let Dad sway my own very George-like certainty in the righteousness of my own ideas. In those days, I thought even an impasse was a victory.
Things were probably at their worst after our family moved from Singapore to Oklahoma in 1995, when I was 15 and George was about 55. Dad and I hardly spoke at all, and like him at that age I went away to boarding school. I don’t think we had a real conversation in over three years. After nearly 15 years of bitter rivalry, neither of us was willing to cross the bridge that lead to respect.
Everything changed in 1998, when George and our mother Suzanne split up after nearly 30 years of marriage. Dad was pulled kicking and screaming across that bridge, and things were never the same, especially between us. I was going to college here in California, so I was the natural point of contact when Dad left Oklahoma and returned here, where his mother Irene also lived, and where he and Mom had originally started their lives together after college. After years apart, all but estranged, George and I were living under the same roof again for almost a year, and for ten years after that within a 40-minute drive of each other.
Believe me, it was a harrowing years-long trek down the mountain and across the river, but we got there: common ground.
One of the best experiences of my life was participating with Dad in what was his singular passion: investing. Together we researched and put money into a brand new venture, his first in decades, and one I got to help envision. Dad had gained a reputation in our family for secrecy about business, but now he was letting me witness his financial alchemy firsthand and it was awesome to behold. Not so much the actual investing – that’s still largely beyond my realm of comprehension – but for the first time I was watching George perform on his own stage. We’re not talking about a lot of money here, but there was still a light in his eyes I hadn’t seen since my earliest days when we played together by the pool in Abu Dhabi. I was seeing my father as more than this howling force of nature sent by God to make me feel bad about myself. Instead, he was my father, he was teaching me his secrets, and he crossed the bridge with me to achieve something that benefited us both. We did it together.
Ten years after that investing adventure, Dad and I came to an understanding that I honestly believed would elude us forever. As I said, Dad was a very critical person and although my career had been progressing nicely after some very rocky first years in my early 20s, he never seemed to care. Whatever I was doing – working in entertainment, in music, in the comic book business, animation, the Internet – Dad did not understand how any of this mattered and always received my career updates like they were garbled communiques from an alien world.
I joked earlier that my father decided he’d learned everything he wanted to know by 1991, but it’s really not too far from the truth. I was living and working in a world that he couldn’t and didn’t want to understand, and true to form, he talked to me like I was some kind of jerk. So one day I let him have it:
Dad, I said. I’ve worked for some of the biggest media companies on the planet. I’ve been nominated for my industry’s most prestigious awards. My enterprise was acquired by a competitor. I have a retirement account. I have benefits. I have prospects. I’ve lived all over the world. I have friends everywhere. I have a woman who loves me. I want you to stop talking to me like I’m a loser just because you don’t know what year it is.
But as I went on this rant, I realized something that you probably just did too: everything I said also applied to Dad. Without ever being conscious of it, I had followed in my father’s footsteps, up to and including our mutual alienation of our fathers. Our destinations were different, but the paths that George and I walked were exactly the same.
He realized the same thing.
“Andy,” he said. “You’re right. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you feel that way. I’m proud of you and of your sister…
“…But I do wish you would have listened to your Dad more.”
I know Dad wished I’d crossed the same bridges he had. In my own way I’ve also taken the long way down and around the mountain, but like Dad I got to where I needed to go. It would have been nice if George and I crossed that last bridge years earlier, but going all the way down and around the mountain got us both where we needed to get: mutual respect.
With that milestone achieved, the end of our 30-year rivalry, Dad and I set out on our next and ultimately final project: trying to save his life.
It was obvious to everyone that George should not have retired. I know he regretted it. But that’s easy to say in retrospect. Leaving his home in Singapore, the breaking of his family, living with his ailing mother… it’s really impossible to overestimate the psychic toll all of this took on Dad. A person needs that drive, that purpose to be happy, and without his work at the bank or his marriage, George was rudderless and frequently sad.
Compounding it all was of course his health. George started smoking when he was only 14-years-old. He quit a number of times throughout his life, but never in earnest until he was in his 60s. It was almost ten years ago that he started showing the signs of what would develop into the lung condition that would eventually take him from us.
There were ways Dad could have extended and improved the quality of his life, both physically and mentally, but they would necessitate upheaval on a scale like nothing he’d ever attempted. They were all a bridge too far. He would never catch up.
If it’s not already clear, in this story the treacherous rope bridge is change, and what I hope I’ve communicated today is that change could be my father’s greatest ally but also his greatest enemy. Dad walked out of the jungle and stood before the bridge again and again throughout his 72 years on this planet, but his nature was such that he usually took the long way around. He believed he was right – and he often was – but everybody in this room knows there’s no force in this world that can pierce the shield of stubbornness that George Khouri wore always.
I regret that my father’s last days were spent alone. My sister and I remember all the times our father went away on business that was completely mysterious to us, but we knew it was important. Like so much in the last several years, the roles had reversed. It was Jeannie and I who were out of town doing things our father could not understand, but at least now he recognized what we were doing was valuable. Even though we’d been every place he’d been and lived on our own for years and years, George always worried about us traveling. So when Jeannie and I went away on business, we called Dad to remind him of our plans and make him feel at ease. In that fashion, we had a chance to say goodbye.
The news of George Khouri’s passing has affected people all over the world; men and women of all ages and of all walks of life. As our mother has said so memorably: No one who’s ever met your father has ever forgotten him. Besides those of you here today, nearly everyone I know who’s encountered George even once has communicated to us their immense sorrow for our loss – but something else as well.
You see, the contentious relationship I described before was not altogether bad. Despite it all, I knew my father loved me, and I knew he was a good man, so from a very young age I chose to synthesize all his criticisms and idiosyncrasies into a kind of character that I would present to people as a way of explaining where I come from and why I am the way I am. Nobody had ever met or even heard of a man like this, so strong in his convictions, so unrelenting in his habits… so colorful with his language.
Let me make it plain: the people of Earth loved George Khouri.
“Your dad was was the first adult that yelled at me like I was a man already. I’ll miss him.” That’s a message I received from my oldest friend, a boy who met George when he was just seven years old.
“I never got to meet your dad, but the stories relayed to me are legendary.”
“The stories you’ve shared about him were always the greatest.”
“I was convinced your father was an international man of mystery.”
“I haven’t seen you guys in around 20 years and I know I still remember him.”
“He was an unforgettable, man.”
“He will live on in all your incredible stories.”
“George was truly one of a kind and we will remember him for the rest of our lives.”
There are literally dozens of these, transmitted via Facebook, Twitter, email, text messages and other methods George would never have understood if he lived to be 100 (but he was still clever enough to make a buck off them in the market).
There are few people in this room who haven’t benefited from George’s generosity and from his advice. But people who never even met George, they know him. They feel his loss like they would a great entertainer whose life enriched their own.
That’s the lesson I take from my father’s life, maybe even more than what his example taught me about the importance of change: life is about the stories, it’s about being unforgettable, it’s about the memory you leave behind.
That’s why I return to the story of the old rope bridge on Mount Kinabalu — which, incidentally, in the local language means “the revered place of the dead.” That story is just so indelibly Dad, and it’s one that I take comfort in knowing I will tell for the rest of my life.