• Spirituality

    Gang’s All Here

    Catherine Butsch arrived home last night from sophomore year at college. She’s been at Duke for more than three months, so her younger brother, Chris Butsch, was the happiest of all to see her back in Atlanta. (Jan, her mom, and I spent a weekend with her in October at Durham, while also visiting my son Thomas in Raleigh.)


    Chris and Catherine are especially close siblings and get along beautifully. They are both smart, motivated students who, amazingly, provide their parents with a relatively stress-free teenage existence. I remind Jan often how lucky she is to have struck gold twice in a row.

    Chris and Catherine walked up to Blockbuster moments after she arrived, grabbed some DVDs and returned home to watch and laugh late into the night. Jan and I are less than two years from an empty nest, so it’s especially nice to hear the sounds of family bouncing around the kitchen at holiday time. I imagine this scene is being repeated in millions of households all across the country today and tomorrow, as families gather for this most traditional of American holidays. I know Thanksgivings can be tense for some families, but we are blessed with only warmth on all sides of our family.

    Tomorrow, Jan and I will head to north Georgia to spend the holiday with my Mom, brothers and sisters. Chris and Catherine will join their dad, Tom, serving a turkey dinner to the homeless and downtrodden at the Hosea Williams Feed the Hungry community kitchen. My two children, Sally and Thomas, will be in Charlotte with their mom, stepdad and his children and friends.

    No matter where we all are, we’ll be spiritually connected to each other and to our fellow Americans, giving thanks to God for all the blessings He’s chosen to bestow on our families and our nation. Happy Thanskgiving.

    Photos: Chris and Catherine Butsch at her graduation from Westminster in May 2006.

  • Media,  Public Relations,  Spirituality

    PR Prayer Breakfast

    This morning my staff attended the first annual Atlanta Public Relations Interfaith Breakfast at Twelve at Atlantic Station. Organized by a committee of several PR firms, the vision for the breakfast came from Glen Jackson, a partner in Jackson Spalding, one of the largest independent firms in town. Glen’s partner is my third cousin, Bo Spalding.

    Atlanta has a number of annual interfaith breakfasts and the tradition goes back decades to our city’s legacy as a beacon of civility during the turmoil of the Civil Rights struggle in the 1960s. One of the most successful of these is the Atlanta Rotary Club’s Prayer Breakfast, which I attended for the second year in a row this year. The speakers are always inspirational, but I especially look forward to the dramatic presentation by Tom Key of the Theatrical Outfit, one of the great treasures of this city. Glen happened to chair this year’s Rotary breakfast and I congratulated him afterwards. He told me about the planned PR breakfast, so I quickly bought a table.


    Another successful industry prayer breakfast is the Real Estate Prayer Breakfast, which we also support with the purchase of a table. This one was originally started in honor of the life of Mark Christopher, an amazing man of faith who battled cancer in 1996 and whose optimism and daily recorded inspirational messages of hope through the last months of his life touched many lives. He was scheduled to speak at the first RE prayer breakfast in May 1998, but he died that month. I knew Mark from my Friday Morning Men’s Fellowship and we visited him in the hospital once. We all went to support him, but he, instead, supported those of us crowded in his room.

    This year’s PR Prayer Breakfast was highlighted by wonderful music by Third Day, several members of which flew the red eye from LA to participate. The most touching moment, though, was when Brenda Wood, a local TV anchor for 11 Alive, gave a very transparent testimony of the value of faith and prayer in her life. Interviewed by Beth Bragg of the DeMoss Group, she had the sold-out room riveted silently listening to her having been “broken” several times and how God and her faith saved her. Her facial expressions and body language were amazingly mesmerizing, as much as actress of stage or screen. Yet she’s a TV anchor here in Atlanta, and a great one – and a jewel of a role model of faith for the rest of us.

    In addition to my staff, I invited Jae Stephenson of Resource Real Estate Marketing, and Sharon Goldmacher of Communications 21, who have recently referred business and offered advice to our five-year-old firm.

    Jennifer Sheran, our general manager, my wife Jan and I were excited to invite our staff to the table. For many of our young team members, this event broke the ice of discussing faith at work. It’s always a delicate balance, knowing when to profess your faith and when to run a “strictly professional” firm. Thanks to Glen and the organizing committee for this and other breakfasts in Atlanta, who have set the table for those discussions to continue into the day, well after the warmth of the breakfasts have begun to wane.

    Photo of our staff at the PR Interfaith Prayer Breakfast, from left: Evelyn Anne Johnston, Devin Releford, Reid Childers, Jan Butsch Schroder, Mary Martin, Lila Campbell, Jennifer Sheran and me, Chris Schroder.

  • Family,  Fatherhood,  Spirituality

    Thomas and Friends

    This morning my son Thomas called in a panic, a rarity. He handles life so well and is such a dear soul that when he’s calls to report “good news and bad news,” something’s really wrong. Today, his dog, Huntly, and furry roommate Magnolia, slipped out the deck gate of their house in Raleigh, NC, and went for a long, unsupervised run through the city streets while Thomas was at work. Thomas found out from his roommate, who called to say the dogs were missing.

    Thomas found Huntly, an Australian Shepherd, on the Internet while he was working a summer internship in Bangkok, Thailand. He emailed me Huntly’s photo and announced he wanted to buy him upon his return to the States, right before he completed his senior year at UNC-Chapel Hill. Despite the advice of his parents to the contrary, Thomas followed through on his purchase and kept Huntly at school and later took him to Raleigh for his new job after graduation. We counseled Thomas that he may be just feeling a little homesick after a semester abroad at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland and a summer internship halfway around the world, but Thomas was not to be denied. He knew what he wanted, a sweet, affectionate, high-energy dog that he could train to chase and catch the frisbee.



    Thomas has always been a loyal friend. Even though as a child, he lived in Charlotte and Atlanta, he has tried to keep ties with friends in each city and those he developed during his journeys around the world. Of course, Thomas’ closest friend is his girlfriend, Amanda Brown, whom he met at a high school basketball game in April 2001 when they were both sophomores. They’ve been inseparable ever since, surviving the surefire test of going to colleges halfway across North Carolina from each other. She graduates next month from Appalachian State with two degrees and she may join Thomas in Raleigh, depending on job offers. They have an amazingly stable and close relationship, drawn even tighter from their semester together in Edinburgh (Amanda went to another college across town that semester).

    But his closest buddy these days is Huntly. Thomas works only a mile from his house in Raleigh, so he’s able to go home at lunch and play with him. But today, the playful dogs bounced their way out of the gate, which may have been left unlocked by a weekend visitor. Thomas tried to keep his mind on his job as a stock market investor, but he was having trouble. About 45 minutes after first getting word of their escape, Thomas’ cell phone rang. A neighborhood veterinarian from Crossroads Veterinary in Raleigh happened to be driving down a busy street, when she saw Magnolia and Huntly run out in the traffic. Magnolia slipped away, but Huntly was hit by a passing car in front of the vet, who stopped, grabbed Huntly and took him to her hospital for treatment.

    Luckily, Huntly only suffered bruising and some sore ribs, as the X-rays showed no broken bones or serious internal damage. I tried to explain to Thomas how the angel on his shoulder was watching after him again, with the vet being right on the scene, but Thomas of course was very shook up by the trauma and most concerned about Huntly’s health.

    Huntly will be home healing soon. They secured the gate at Thomas’ house so the mishap won’t be repeated. Thomas is back at work and we’re all thankful it wasn’t worse than it was.

    I tried to remind Thomas of the blessing this day really brought … that God allowed Huntly to only be nicked by one car and He sent an alert neighborhood vet in the next.

    Oh yeah, and the good news Thomas was calling about … he was promoted, along with four or five others in his freshman class of 24 at a new Raleigh office, a division of a New York investment firm. The firm enlarged Thomas’ ability to trade or option larger blocks of stock during the day.

    So, today, Thomas’ job awarded him larger parameters. Huntly and Magnolia tried to enlarge theirs. I’m hoping everyone in Raleigh – as well as the good Lord – keep their eyes on those dogs, just to ensure they don’t try it again anytime soon.

    Photos: Thomas Schroder with Huntly, left, and Magnolia in October 2007; with Amanda at St. Simons Island a few years ago.

  • Life Stories,  Spirituality

    A World of Difference

    Two Decembers ago, I stepped off a plane in Vienna, Austria, on what turned out to be St. Nicholas Day. Last December I arrived in Santiago, Cuba, in time for the Festival of San Lazaro. Two higher-contrast examples of how we humans celebrate the holidays might be difficult to find on this earth. Yet in some ways they were so similar.

    Vienna is all old-world charm. Nestled next to the Alps, its winters are all gray skies and snow. The people are an odd blend of Germanic rigidity and Eastern European culture. Beautiful cathedrals and palaces and family-run goulash houses. Coffeehouses where locals linger for three hours in deep conversation.

    There may not be another city of this size that takes Christmas so seriously. The downtown has many streets closed to cars and in their place are hundreds of trees, wreaths and crèches. Stores seemed to compete for festive decor. Long after the stores were closed, the downtown pedestrian-only streets were crowded with neighbors walking and socializing. Neighborhood squares around town had individual fairs, with children performing in costume and artists displaying their work. And throughout the city, the most popular stops were countless booths serving a warm wine concoction called gluvine. Family members of all ages drank the traditional potion from festive ceramic mugs as they tried to stay warm in the evening wind. The alcohol ignited a minor buzz that seemed to tie the entire city together into one large family with a collective electric current.

    Crossing the island of Cuba in December was a sub-tropical contrast. Thirty years of isolation and a government ban on religion have tried to smother what was once an island of deeply Catholic people into a spiritual desert. There are no nativity scenes, Santas, or reindeer and the only Christmas trees are strangely tucked into the corner of lobbies of hotels into which only foreign tourists are allowed. Until the pope visited in 1997, any recognition of Christmas was outlawed.

    But on the Festival of San Lazaro, even Castro and his guards couldn’t stamp out a spiritual expression that is as basic to mankind’s needs as food and water and companionship. Groups gather in selected homes for a 24-hour spiritual holiday called a bembe, disguised as a family party. The collective theme is Santeria, a cleverly hidden hybrid of Christianity, African Yoruban icons and voodoo.

    These people who have so little material goods are quick to invite even American tourists off the street to share in their chanting, dancing, drinking and worship around an altar of food, holy water and artifacts. Percussionists or even old tape players keep the beat going around the clock.

    One man who was the local butcher invited us back that evening for a family feast for which he was cooking a cabrito, or goat. When we arrived, he led us into a small living room totally encircled with people of a variety of ages and colors. “This,” he said to us in Spanish with his arms outstretched toward the whole circle, “– this is all my family. You are my family, too!” After he had ensured all had plenty to eat and drink, he and his wife took plates full of food to neighbors unable to leave their homes.

    Although these two cultures were outwardly worlds apart, they shared the same sense of family and desire to celebrate the season. I like to think as I celebrate the holidays this year with my own family, I can incorporate both the pageantry of Vienna and the passion of Cuba.

  • Atlanta,  Life Stories,  Spirituality

    Forgiving Our Heroes

    It must be hard to be a hero. Maybe we ask too much of them. Just the other day I was reading about one in particular.

    He was a leader at the height of his glory. Saw a woman one day. Desired her. Did the wrong thing. Denied it. Got caught. Suffered public and private embarrassment. Was faced with losing his lofty position. Suffered tremendous consequences.

    Sound familiar? It could be Bill Clinton, Thomas Jefferson, or even King David – the Old Testament author of so many beautiful psalms. Or for a more parochial example, Eugene Robinson of the Atlanta Falcons on the eve of our city’s only Super Bowl.

    How could they be so stupid, we ask? How could they risk so much for such a momentary fleeting indulgence? We feel betrayed, angry, depressed, lose respect for them and interest in the other things they stand for that once meant so much to us.

    But I am partly to blame for the severity of these downfalls. Perhaps you are too.

    I get caught up the fervor. I am at first attracted to these people for their brilliant professional skills. I expect them to be brilliant in all areas of their lives. But, alas, they are only men. They screw up just like me, and maybe even you. But because they are who they are, their mistakes are magnified to Herculean proportions. I immediately pass a harsh judgment on them.

    I try to remember the lesson of the married woman in the Biblical story who was caught in an adulterous situation. She was hauled before a huge crowd in her town. The crowd wanted Jesus to confirm the traditional Jewish law and demanded that he order an immediate death sentence. Turning the mirror back on the crowd, he said “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

    Then I think about an even harder challenge: forgiveness. Jesus predicted one of his apostles would betray him to the soldiers, resulting in his crucifixion. He knew it would be Judas Iscariot and possibly knew it the moment he asked Judas to join his band of 12. Yet Jesus showed up at the Last Supper anyway. Perhaps he even forgave Judas before the betrayal had taken place.

    Then I’m faced with so many questions. Should we have known that our presidents would not stand up to moral scrutiny? Is the very pedestal we thrust these men on too high for mere mortals? Is the international adulation and heavy responsibility we heap on their shoulders too heavy for their souls? Does the intensity of our need to look up to them squeeze out the darkness that otherwise lurks in the corners of their minds? In their most private moments, are they shamed by their realization that they are, after all, only men, that while capable of great good, also succumb to temptation?

    Perhaps we should reverse the cycle. Maybe we should forgive these heroes before their betrayal. Next time a leader takes a turn at the top, we could expect mistakes. When our sports icons are preparing for the big game, we could wager which one will be weak at the worst moment.

    The rise and fall of men, just like civilizations, is a consistent theme in our history and our literature. Why not anticipate it? Our disappointment and sense of betrayal will be lessened. Our judgment will be less harsh. And if we don’t thrust such undue pressure on our heroes, maybe they will perform better in the roles they have been selected to play.

  • Atlanta,  Media,  Spirituality

    Losing the Keys

    I ask a lot of my employees, but I also grant a lot of freedom. One rule I stress above all others: It’s okay to make a mistake, but learn from it so you won’t make it again. Admittedly, I’m the worst offender.

    I park in a garage where you leave your key with the attendant. If you leave by 6:30 p.m., there’s no problem. But if you come late, your key is locked up. This happened to me once so I walked home, actually enjoying the hour-long journey. “Won’t let this happen again,” I chided myself. I decided I’d have a spare key made to give to the attendant.

    A couple of weeks later, I stopped off at a store to get the spares made. They were busy so I said I’d be back shortly to pick up my keys.

    So, of course, I work late that day and totally forget about my keys. At 8 p.m., I’m staring at my car, realizing that I not only made the same mistake again, I made a much worse one. It was Friday of Memorial Day Weekend. I would be without the car not for just one night, but for the entire three-day weekend, and the next day I was to pick up my children in Greenville. Everybody I could call was out of town. I peered through the window in the garage office and called all the phone and pager numbers of the garage employees to no avail.

    For 10 minutes I stood there looking at my reflection in the car window, wondering how the state ever gave a guy this stupid a license to drive. When I was tired of listening to myself, I looked heavenward. “God, I really messed up this time,” I said. “I can’t imagine You bothering to bail me out of this one.”

    A minute later a van pulled up slowly, its passengers eyeing me closely. “Great,” I thought. “I hadn’t considered the possibility of being robbed.” The gates to the garage opened and my heart leapt :Maybe this is a garage employee. It wasn’t. It was a security guard from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, escorting an employee to her car. He unlocked the garage office and got her keys out. “Hallelujah,” I shouted. “You’re my savior.” I explained my story while his passenger eyed me suspiciously. “This means you can give me my keys, and my life is saved,” I finished.

    “Sorry, sir. I’m not authorized to do that,” he said.

    “Oh, no, you don’t understand,” I pleaded. “It’s so simple.” There was a long silence. The security guard wasn’t buying it.

    “Look,” I said. “I used to work at the AJC. I’m still in the newspaper business and I own my own company. Here’s my business card, my driver’s license and my insurance card. I can prove I own this car. You can rescue me, please, please, please,” I said.

    He started to get back in his van. “You’re the answer to a prayer,” I begged. “Not two minutes ago I told God how stupid I was and asked if there was any way He could bail me out. Then you pull up. You see, it’s meant to be.”

    He took a deep breath, looked at the employee he dropped off as if to seek guidance. “I won’t tell anyone,” she said. As the guard went back in the office to get my keys, I turned to her and shook my head. “I don’t know how I got this lucky,” I said.

    “Jesus is looking after you tonight, son,” she said.

    I haven’t walked home since.

  • Media,  Spirituality

    A Match Made in Heaven

    We sat in John’s triangular office overlooking Peachtree, agonizing over yet another draft of a company budget with only one goal in mind – survival.

    For three years we had rubbed together enough resources and fanned the embers of three neighborhood newspapers, all the while hoping and praying ad sales would catch fire and provide much-needed fuel.
    So many had helped along the way. My friend Mike handled our incorporation for cost. My father loaned a couple of thousand dollars right after my first issue of Atlanta 30306 . He died two days later. When I needed to pay a computer bill, my mother put a check in the envelope. Ward left a steady job to become the only employee in my small company, and then together with Natalie, my first salesperson, pulled several 48-hour shifts.

    My sister Van wrote a column for free. Her son John left a better-paying job at IBM to help me with accounting. My friend Charles and my brother Jack bought stock. Jan took a huge risk, deferring her salary for a year. I could mention many others.

    There was always just one more dollar in the checking account. That was, until now.

    We ran several models on the computer. Cut this. Don’t rehire that position. Quit mailing that. No matter what we did, it didn’t work. Despite my years of optimism, I was depleted and had finally given up faith. My staff worked for a month not knowing if they’d be paid. I wrote a front-page appeal in our Buckhead paper asking for donations, advertising or for an investor. I called CEOs for help – without success. The readers of Buckhead responded wonderfully – sending in checks for $25, $50 and $100 and heartfelt letters of support.

    They sustained us more than they’ll ever know through what seemed like the final days.
    I briefed my mom. “There’s no one in our family with any business sense that you could call,” she said. “They’re all lawyers or whatever. Call someone who has been through this before. Call someone like Tom Cousins,” the real estate executive.

    “Yeah right, mom,” I thought. Then others whose counsel I sought mentioned his name as well. I had written him a letter five days before this meeting in John’s office. But his secretary said he was rarely in town, that maybe he’d see the letter one day and call.

    Before the meeting I slid my personal American Express card through the charge machine and made a final cash deposit in our account. In John’s office, we struggled with the concept of an SBA loan, for which I’d have to pledge what was left of the equity in my house and add more debt to our monthly budget.
    “It’s over,” I said to John and Jan. “There’s just no way. This is the end.”

    For two years, John had maintained his confidence that we’d find a way through. But my  verdict left him silent for the first time. Jan, resilient and never losing faith, looked at me and stood up. “I’m going to check my voice mail and see if the bank called about the loan.” We took a break. I wandered into my office. The phone rang. It was Tom Cousins. “I’d like to help,” he said. “Come by the house tomorrow.”

    Over coffee in his living room, he said he always thought Atlanta should have positive newspapers. He read over mine. We discovered we believed in the same ideals, shared the same faith. As I stood at his front door, he shook my hand.
    “Say hello to your lovely mother,” he said.

    “I will,” I said. And thank her – and everyone else.

  • Media,  Spirituality

    Friends Indeed

    It was 6 a.m. on Good Friday. Our staff had spent most of Thursday stuffing newspapers and personally addressed letters into envelopes and paper bags to be delivered by hand to hundreds of business prospects around the city. We were launching our newest paper, Atlanta Downtown.

    Associate Publisher Jan Butsch and I had drawn the predawn duty of pulling the newspapers hot off the press and putting them into the bags along with bagels from Highland Bagel. We had 45 minutes before the courier showed up. Despite our optimistic spirit (which had brought us downtown in the first place), it seemed doubtful we would make it.

    Usually on Friday mornings you will find me at a bar near Lenox Square. I meet with a group of men to drink orange juice and coffee. We talk about spiritual issues and whatever other topics arise during the hour we spend together. Mostly it’s a bunch of guys looking for more meaning in life.

    I found the group during a rather dark period in my life. I’d suffered a series of setbacks that affected my personal life, job and health. I was in the north Georgia mountains with my two children in a state of shock when the phone rang. My college roommate (with whom I hadn’t spoken in several years) was calling from Hong Kong. I had no clue how he got my number. During the course of the discussion he said he wanted me to meet his brother-in-law, who lived in Atlanta. I did and his brother-in-law asked me to join him for breakfast at the bar near Lenox.

    The guys at the bar talked about the inspiration they found in the Bible, a book I hadn’t looked at in years. They wanted me to come back every Friday. I did and found some much-needed support, both from exploring spirituality, as well as from the fellowship with the other men.

    A couple of years later, I started working for myself. People that do that have to spend time looking inward, searching for more energy, creativity, direction. Sometimes it just isn’t there and doubt creeps in. We begin to feel depleted and don’t know where to turn.

    That Friday morning, Jan and I stood outside the door to the Flatiron building as I struggled with my keys, our arms full of newspapers and our bodies feeling the bone-wearying fatigue of the past few months of frantic preparation for this first issue. Neither one of us said anything, but I think we both felt our energy declining.

    Just then a car pulled up and a voice called out, “Looks like you two could use some help.” I turned and saw a guy from my Friday morning group. Then two more came. These three men had gotten up early and had driven downtown to help us put newspapers and bagels in bags. I have no idea how they found me. I hadn’t even told them where I would be – just that I couldn’t make the meeting. Somehow, they figured it out from there.

    Jan and I looked at each other in amazement. We knew angels when we saw them. And that they had been sent by a God who has a great sense of timing. We made the deadline.

    Some people think angels only come in life-or-death situations. And putting bagels in bags or even putting out the first issue of a newspaper doesn’t qualify. But once again I received support from an unexpected place, and once again my spirit was renewed.

  • Media,  Spirituality

    Another Leap of Faith

    If you’ve bought an electronic appliance lately, you know you can’t leave the store without the salesperson pitching you on an opportunity to buy replacement insurance, a service contract, or an extended warranty.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if you could buy these types of guarantees for other parts of your life, say when you start a new job, change a career, or take the risk of telling someone you care about that you love them first? There are no guarantees on any of these endeavors and many of these things can’t be undone, yet people take these risks every day.

    In the past few years, I’ve learned a lot about taking risks. Two and a half years ago, I walked into my boss’ office and said I was going to quit my good-paying job to start a neighborhood newspaper called Atlanta 30306. I had no staff, no money and no advertisers. I just had a good feeling. And yet, it was only after I quit that local business people took their own individual leaps of faith and wrote checks to someone they didn’t know to buy advertising in a newspaper they had never seen.

    A year ago, a friend asked me to lunch. He was looking around for a job opportunity. Near the end of the meal, we talked about starting a newspaper in his neighborhood, 30305. I told him I wasn’t sure I was ready to take another leap, but maybe my timetable was not the governing one. I told him I’d put the question to God and if I started getting green lights, we’d do it. If we got red lights, we’d stop. We got nothing but green lights.

    There are two emotions involved in these leaps of faith: fear and courage. Anyone who makes any kind of leap is going to be afraid ? of failure, rejection, the unknown. A lot of people remain in current situations because they’re waiting for the fear to go away. It doesn’t. Courage is necessary to make the jump anyway.

    A paradox about making a leap of faith is that at the same time we’re trying to take control of some aspect of our lives, we’re also admitting that we aren’t totally in control. That’s when we have to rely on faith.

    People call me sometimes with their own ideas for starting a business. They’re looking for encouragement. They want to know the secret formula for ensuring their idea will work. I’m no expert, but I do know there is no secret formula. It’s scary out there. It helps to ask yourself, what’s the worse case scenario if I fail? Sometimes the worst is that you’ll have to start over. But even then, you’ll learn lessons. Meet people. Gain experience.

    A few weeks ago, the Atlanta Downtown Partnership approached us about starting a newspaper for folks that work downtown and for the pioneers that are making their own leaps of faith by moving into the warehouses being converted into loft residences. I’m scared beyond belief. We need to hire new people, buy new computers, and ask for advertising from people I don’t yet know. It’s possible we may fail, but something in my gut says, “I don’t think so.”

    Wait, I think there’s a green light up ahead. Excuse me, I need to go take a flying leap. And say a prayer.