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Remembering James Burke's Lessons

Last weekend, when I first thought about submitting my letter to the Harbus, I was conflicted because it’s so personal. I’m not ready to face judgments about it, I’m not thrilled with my writing, and I tend to be especially self-conscious about being “cheesy.” Then Tuesday, after the attacks in New York and Washington, the world changed. History books, movies all became reality. Emotions were intense yet confused. The Harbus was the last thing on my mind until I realized that not only could I benefit from writing down my thoughts and making sense of them, but maybe the lesson I learned that’s reflected in my letter is even more pertinent and meaningful to others now.

Let me preface the letter by explaining that after discussing the Tylenol case in LVDM class last Friday, I was incredibly moved–to near tears, in fact. I went straight home after class, found James Burke’s address, poured out my feelings, and sent the letter. I don’t know if it ever got to him.

Dear Mr. Burke,

My name is Elizabeth Chang. I just started two weeks ago at Harvard Business School, and we just read the infamous Tylenol Crisis case of ’82 and we watched the HBS interview with you. I’m sure you must receive letters every year from first years who, like myself, are completely in awe and in profound respect of you. I am writing to thank you for one of the most inspirational events of my life.

In my class, I watched and read how you seemed to constantly challenge yourself, question yourself, learn about yourself, and improve yourself. Yes, you had strong values and principles seemingly instilled since childhood. But it was more than that. You ensured that those values and principles always meant something to you. You fought apathy. You fought complacency. The Credo by Robert Johnson was great. You knew that it may not mean much to others. You knew that what started out as “words of meaning” often will naturally become mere “words on paper” unless you actively and persistently challenge those words and keep them alive. You knew that in order to keep values and principles strong, it requires constant challenge and constant reflection. You showed the difference between a leader in business rather and a business leader.

While you may have been told this a thousand times, please know the impact you have on many people’s lives. I’m not the only one who was so inspired. Since I came to HBS, I’ve been struggling to figure out which career path to take after school, because it is really important for me that I leave this world having contributed positively and actively to society. But you have shown me that it doesn’t matter which career path I choose, as long as I leave a teacher.

Thank you again.

Sincerely,

Elizabeth Chang ’03

For me, reading this again helped me make more sense of Tuesday’s events and of my feelings, and it helped me get through a lot of pain. It is cheesy and a bit all over the place, but it is how I felt at the time. Reading it now reminds me of my priorities and how to distinguish between what’s important and unimportant, and how I am kind of cheesy and sometimes too rash. My letter may mean nothing to others in light of such horrific events, but I pray that those people can find their own way to make sense of their thoughts and feelings.

September 10, 2001
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