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Memories of Eli

Eli Segal Citizen Leadership Fellows have conducted interviews with the Founders of the Program, many of whom were Eli's friends, mentees and colleagues. Below are some of the stories and descriptions of Eli that were shared during those conversations.

Eli’s Link to Youth

“Every year growing up, the Brandeis families went on a vacation that consisted of six to seven families and 22 kids. They went to places like Disney and the Segals' rural farm house.  Eventually, all the kids grew old enough that it was only the ‘adults’ who went on the trip. When he got to the location, Eli wanted to do 500 things. He wanted to swim, sightsee, and go to new places, to name a few. He just wanted to do everything. It was at that moment that someone joked and everyone realized why the kids had to come on the trips -- to occupy Eli!” – Jodi Kanter

“People used to call Eli the child whisperer.  He had a gift in talking with kids and would literally get on the floor to connect with them at their level. Friends would send their children to Eli when the kids were having a meltdown.” – AnnMaura Connolly

“Our kids were friends with Eli independent of his friendship with me.” – Jim Lapenn

Stories of Eli and Children

“Eli would run around and be a ‘shark’ and pick up kids and do a ‘shark attack.’  He was the first one to teach me how to drive.” – Jennifer Gross

“I once wrote a mini-book in 6th grade about Eli. The assignment was to write about someone I deeply admired.” – Jessye Lapenn

Empowering Youth

“Eli was the first adult to believe in me.  The first time I was in a meeting with major figures such as the CEO of Milton Bradley, Eli asked me questions to make sure that my opinions were heard. He never talked down to you or treated you like a kid. He treasured the power of youth.” – Brad Meltzer

“When I was Eli's speech writer, I was also performing in a few plays. Eli wasn’t as interested in theater as he was in other things, but he made time in his busy schedule to come see me perform. He stayed around after a play ended and asked me, ‘How did you prepare for this show while working for me?’. He was so impressed that I balanced theater with my job.” – Jodi Kanter

•   •   •

Palling Around with Eli Segal

The Segal Family

“Eli’s son Jon started up a sports publication called School Sports, which was eventually rebranded as While getting this venture off of the ground, Jon called upon Eli for help, and Eli, characteristically enough, dove into the details, helping Jon to achieve his dream. The publication was eventually bought out by ESPN.” – Jessye Lapenn

“Eli was a fabulous dancer. He and [his wife] Phyllis were the only ones [I knew] who could dance Philadelphia Style.” – Judge Nancy Gertner

Keeping Friends in Mind

“My wife and I went on a trip to Europe and we ended up in Vienna. While there… we went to Hotel Sacher [for breakfast] and were sitting, indulging, when I said to my wife, “I think that’s Eli Segal at the other table over there.”  She said ‘Well, people don’t want to be bothered when they are traveling so don’t make eye contact.’  Eli was there with Phyllis and another couple. I kept looking over, until Eli saw me, recognized me, and gave me the signal to come and greet him. I went over and we renewed acquaintances. Eli was a warm person. It was a privilege to know him.” – Arthur Heller

“I worked with Eli in the Clinton administration but quit the government over President Clinton’s decision to sign the Welfare to Work legislation. When President Clinton asked Eli to work on a project to get businesses to accept welfare workers, Eli called me and asked me if I would be okay with him accepting the assignment. Making that call was vintage Eli because he cared about what his friends thought. He didn’t have to [reach out to me], but it was very kind.” – Peter Edelman

“Our whole group of friends in college, with the exception of Eli, lived in the same dorm in Ridgewood our first year and met within the first few hours of arriving on campus. The members of the group were mixed between athletes and scholars. It was a great group of guys.

     Eli wandered over to our dorm and introduced himself. That was that! He became part of us. It was an inclusive and laid-back group, filled with people like Mike Lewis, Arnie Kanter and Mike Fried. There was very little bickering. From my perspective, everyone was equal in the group. I didn’t think there was a leader, although other people may disagree. 

      During our junior year, most of the group wanted to live apart and stay in singles. I was upset about that but there was no conducive dorm to live in on campus and everyone had made their own plans. One night, Phyllis and Eli went to make out in Eli’s convertible and drove past the spot where the old folks' home is currently located.  When were in school, the area was all forest except for one 6-bedroom house. Eli and Phyllis drove into that one driveway and saw that it had a for-rent sign. They called the owners the next day and found that it was a perfect fit for our group! Six of us lived in the house that year even though it ended up being torn down the year after. I joke that if Phyllis and Eli hadn't been so sexy, we all wouldn’t have lived together!” – Mike Oberman

“Eli and I bought a boat together even though neither of us knew the first thing about boating! Still, we enjoyed the adventure.” – Geoff Cowan

•   •   •

Eli as a Mentor

A Willing Sharer of Wisdom

“For someone in his position, Eli had an extraordinary interest in people. He would ask ‘How are you doing? How can I help you?’ Hundreds of very successful people would say that Eli was their mentor. It was remarkable. He had a huge network of friends and contacts and he took time to listen to people. Mentorship like that is rare; it takes time, and Eli was willing to give the time. Eli had optimism and conveyed that he believed in you. He didn't have a strong idea of what a person should do; rather, he would say that you should do what you want to do, that you should think big and chase your dream.” – John Gomperts

“Eli taught me the importance of speaking the language of multiple sectors, bringing people together, and listening. He stressed setting high expectations, encouraging people to achieve them, but not micromanaging. [He showed me that] part of setting high expectations is the process of creating a vision for people.” – Mark Feldman

Opening doors

“Eli didn’t know me much at all. I had never met him when the Kanter family put us in touch with one another. But after we spoke for the first time, Eli made phone calls to key people in Washington, D.C. and he sent a fax to the People for the American Way. I ended up with a job there a few months later! The introductions that Eli made for me were critical. When I was writing my book, I was an outside academic while Eli was a known leader. Eli gave me an introduction that was pretty different from what I gave myself. He also introduced me to Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center (RAC), and member of the Executive Board at PFAW who has remained a mentor for me ever since.  Eli and I met in person in the fall before he died. We went out to dinner with Phyllis and Jodi in D.C. and I had a chance to thank Eli in person. I have always remained grateful for Eli's help.” – Robert P. Jones, PhD

“Eli told me to join the City Year DC Board and told the Board, ‘You need Susan Berger.’ An Eli Segal recommendation didn’t need to be voted on.” – Susan Berger

“Eli was great about connecting people. He didn't just link people who could help one another but also brought people together if he thought they would enjoy and inspire each other.” – Laura Gassner Otting

A Friend, not just a Colleague

“Eli and I traveled together to South Africa with President Clinton.  We were there on business but with Eli nothing ever felt like work. His was a special brand of magic. Some of his famous questions were ‘What keeps you up at night’ and ‘What are you worrying about?’ He took such an interest in people and was always a calm, loving sounding board. I miss him every day.” – AnnMaura Connolly

“Eli was always trying to fix people up. The only wedding photo I have in a frame shows me and my husband walking up the aisle with Eli looking at us. It is my favorite picture because it shows the bigness of the ground Eli covered personally and professionally.  He knew everyone and brought everyone together, even people who didn’t want to be together would come together for him.” – Maggie Williams

“‘Serious things are important but so is laughter’ -- Eli lived that.” –  Jennifer Gross

•   •   •

Eli as a Leader

Leading by Inclusion

Engaging Everyone

“Eli would research people’s personal backgrounds so he could always talk with someone about something. He used that strategy to make his immediate and lasting personal connections.” – Rick Allen

“Before his first year at Brandeis, Eli memorized the facebook of the entire incoming freshman class. He used to walk by people and know their names before they introduced themselves to him. That's how he made friends.” – Mike Oberman

“At an important event in South Africa, Eli made it a point to talk with the man who was pulling a curtain, a job where both the stress and stakes were very high. Eli was deliberate and purposeful about saying hello to everyone.” – Charlie Rose

Reminding People that they Matter

“One time, I made significant contributions to a State of the Union Address but could not attend because a senior staffer needed my ticket. Eli left me a personal note after the address telling me how valuable my work had been. I still have the note. I was struck by Eli's kindness after that incident and his general ability to recognize people's goodness.” – Laura Gassner Otting 

“The last time I was able to be with Eli was at a dinner he and I had with [my husband] Robbie, Phyllis, Mora and Mora's husband. It was before the 2008 primaries and Eli wanted to know what everyone thought of Hilary Clinton as a presidential candidate. I was not amazed that Eli was interested so early, but rather that he was genuinely interested in every single opinion at the table. I was not as invested in the political scene as others in the room, and yet, Eli valued my opinion just as much as my husband's opinion, even though my husband was much more involved in the political arena.” – Jodi Kanter

“Eli was warm, made you feel important, and wanted to listen to what you had to say.  He was a people person and had a commitment to what he was doing.  He had a vision and a direction. He never forgot the importance of the individual.” – MaryAnn Miller

From Mutual Respect to Mobilization            

“Eli was president of his class in 6th grade.  He had the ability, since he was very young, to be seen as a leader and could handle difficult situations. Eli was able to see peoples’ talents and exert his ability to get people to see that they could do more than they ever thought they could. I experienced this personally, when Eli helped me see my talents by encouraging me to enter the business world.” – Alan Segal

“Eli was the catalyst behind the Clinton Campaign’s success. The campaign pushed the expected speed of response, focused the discipline of message, and included people who were previously not part of campaign teams. Eli inspired them, connected them, made sure that everyone felt valued and activated everyone’s skills for the betterment of the common good. As a result, he proved that all members of the campaign team were valuable.” – Melissa Green

Leading through Passion

“Whenever he would introduce me he would always call me the most liberal judge in the United States which was not true but that was the way he wanted to see me. He was extremely proud that Clinton had appointed a former civil rights worker to the bench. Tears would well up in his eyes when he talked about the work he was doing on national service.” – Judge Nancy Gertner

“Eli and I worked together to establish an AmeriCorps-like program for South Africa.  When the program first started, Eli brought some of the new fellows to the office and was just brimming with excitement about these young people who were going to serve. Eli was always pushing us, pushing the president, beating up on us to come through and do what was necessary to get a second class of fellows from South Africa. It wasn’t that Eli forced people to do things. Rather, people felt as if they had to succumb to his energy. I have never met anyone more motivating.  

     Eli had a positive attitude, radiated can-do-ism, and there was nothing, especially service-related, that he felt could not be accomplished, no matter the obstacles. For instance, every Republican senator was beating up on the AmeriCorps legislation.  Eli met with them one by one and convinced them of its value by the sheer force of his personality. He took it as a challenge. He was like an apostle or disciple, using every fiber he had to convince people. He never gave up, but the notion of giving up was never even an issue.” – Maggie Williams

“[Eli's wife Phyllis and I worked together to help start the NOW Legal Defense Fund.] We shared a tendency to worry about decisions and to worry about mistakes.  Eli was building a business at the time and [Phyllis would talk about how he did not have the same problems we had.] ‘Some days he would make really big mistakes,’ she would say, ‘sometimes he would win and other times he would lose but he will tell me what happens and he won’t worry about it. He just moves on.’ We started to have these conversations and we would ask each other what would Eli do? And [after asking ourselves that] we would just dust ourselves off and move on.” – Stephanie Clohesy

Leading through Humility

Eli was soft spoken, impressive but not at all overwhelming. When we first met, he made a point of asking a lot of questions rather than of saying what he wanted me to do.” – Fran Rodgers

“Eli would interject and have a powerful argument but he would couch it by saying, ‘I have one small point to make’. Eli was decisive at times when some would think he would act as a mediator - he was powerful and unique!” – Charlie Rose

•   •   •

Advice from Founders

Eli Segal Citizen Leadership Fellows have conducted interviews with the Founders of the program, many of whom achieved great success in their chosen field. Below is some of the advice for fellows that was shared during those conversations.


Creating a Vision

“Be active! You can’t make change from behind a desk. Ask more questions, make real discoveries by listening and being a sponge.” – Charlie Rose

“The principles that Eli embodied that can be continued: business and government aren’t enemies and should work together on the same side. Try to create accomplishments and policy, big structural changes of trends, instead of being ‘do-gooders.’” – Mike Oberman

Commanding Respect

“Be a straight shooter. If you are not going to be able to deliver, tell people straight and don’t overpromise. Reputation matters.” – Judy Lichtman

“Be a good listener. When you listen to people, it makes them feel good about themselves and they will think you’re wonderful, even if you don’t say anything.” – David Squire

“There are three things that make a potentially transformative leader. First, you need a core set of principles. Second, you need to have toughness, not only with your enemies but also with your friends. Third, you need to have compassion and empathy. One skill that also helps, and which Bill Clinton possessed, is the ability to articulate relatively complex issues in a way that makes sense to normal people.” – Al From

•   •   •

Approaches to Careers

Foster Relationships

“Build a big network early on. Political campaigns are perfect for that because they have lots of people, many of whom are young, and are very intense. Campaigns are an opportunity to take on a lot of responsibility very quickly. They are the ultimate start-up. Start-up companies also present the same opportunities. Graduate school can be great but it's important to view it in context; the world will not hand you opportunities after grad school.” – Ethan Zindler

“It's important while networking to say ‘thank you’ when people are willing to go out of their way to help you. An email that says, ‘I’m really grateful for the time and our meeting’ means a lot. Once doors are opened for you, YOU have to walk through them and bring something to the table. Bring the experience from an internship, bring your skills, and bring your confidence to the table.” – Robert P. Jones, PhD

“By all means, form mentorship relationships (and return the favor as you go through your career). Mentorships require effort on a fellow's part, to get the most of them, and to sustain them for years after. Their value can grow over time. But don't be afraid to forge your own path.” – Garen Gorbett

“Many people will want to help you along the way, be attuned to that.” – AnnMaura Connolly

A Career is More than One Job, Be Flexible

“Fellows should not be so wound up with the word ‘career.’ You’ll do a million things in your life, some of which you will never have imagined. You  should be available and not be so totally structured that you miss opportunities. Absolute planning keeps you from following your heart. You should get as much exposure as possible to anything and everything. Embrace life and let it take you places instead of deciding ‘these are the places I’m going.’” – Maggie Williams

“In different stages of life you may be focused on one specific area, but you need not give up all your other interests. For example, Eli was involved in politics even when he was working in the business sector.” – Marcia Greenberger

“As you get older and have kids, it’s easy to settle into a certain job. Even if you’re in a job and you’re helping people and it seems good, you can always do more.  It’s true of me. I’m always thinking: ‘Who else can I help?’ ‘How can I be more effective?’ If you find a place where you’re giving your all at a maximum level then stay there. But usually you’re not doing that after you’ve been there a while. At that point, you should start to look for something new.” – Aileen Adams

“I never had a strategic plan for my life, but I did prioritize certain values, such as flexibility, autonomy, and having influence, as non-negotiable.” – Laura Gassner Otting

What Employers Want

“The most scarce quality in the marketplace is the combination of talent and good spirit. If you have both, people will be attracted to you. Be a great worker and a pleasure to work with. Be more passionate than tactical. Don't just check boxes to improve your resume. When I hire, I am looking for people who have a lot of energy for what they do and care enough to do their best job.” – John Gomperts

“At my first job I would go and get my bosses’ running shoes with as much pride as I would compose a policy paper. Do everything, big and small, with as much pride as you would show for the assignment you want most. I attribute my success to having drive and work ethic, along with creativity for problem.” – Melissa Green

“Try not to bring an attitude into a job. Be open to learning and doing anything. Work hard. Stay late to do things that need to be done. Convey to people that you aren’t over-qualified for anything. A work/life balance is more relevant when you have a family; early on you won’t have that balance.” – Laurie Kohn

“You need to have the most basic skills: writing and communicating exceptionally well. You can only get them by reading everything in sight.” – Maggie Williams

“Find opportunities to build expertise at the intersection of disciplines. Figure out what issues matter and mean to different external or internal stakeholders. For instance, try to become an expert at business issues that intersect with policy topics, or ways to help finance managers translate what operations people are saying.” – Garen Gorbett

 Changing Jobs and Choosing Jobs

“A lot of people do things that they don’t want to do because they think they are positioning themselves for something later in life. Don’t do that. Do what you enjoy and something new will come when it’s ready. Too many people make compromises because they think that later they will do something wonderful. Do something that you have passion for and it will become easier.” – Geoff Cowan

“Fellows should think about developing an area that they can know really well. They also should try to move back and forth between different levels of advocacy and government (local, state, and federal). Some people fit in one place and that’s fine, but there is value in testing a variety of levels.” – Eve Brooks

“DC is exciting and you learn a ton there. State government is also a valuable place to be. I left the Hill because the work there didn’t have a direct impact even though it felt like being at the center of the world. If you want to effect lives in a personal way, do work for state or local government or work with people directly.” – Laurie Kohn

“I learned from Eli that it really matters who your supervisor is going to be. Mentors are much more important than what you actually do. Have your first job with people who will teach you things and invest in you. Go somewhere where you get good mentoring.” – Judy Lichtman

“Put a heavy premium on the quality of the people you work with. You will learn an enormous amount from them. People who are excellent are recognized over time and it's important to surround yourself with those people for both their context, as well as their recommendations. When there are a lot of options and a lot of different routes that you can pick from, choose the path with the highest quality people that you can work with.” – Marcia Greenberger

“Take calculated risk.  I took lots of risks throughout my career, but I took them in a calculated way. I left a firm to work for Hart, but only after I had made partner. I left the Clinton Administration to run for office myself, but only after I knew there would be other options for me if I lost. Calculated risk is an important component of career success.” – John Emerson

“Whether its public sector, private sector, or whatever, don't let anyone tell you ‘no.’” – Brad Meltzer

“My early career was a calamity. I lost every case in my first year. Someone asked for a motion for an extension of time and I even lost that. My saving grace was a sense that I wouldn’t be denied.” – Judge Nancy Gertner

•   •   •

Living a Good Life and Treating Others Well

Know Yourself

“There is a strain among fellows to be too much like Eli. It just isn't possible. He was one of a kind!” – Mike Oberman

“Always merge whatever you are doing with a mission that goes beyond making money. My mission is working with a diverse, low-income community, bringing high quality care to those who don’t normally have access to that. You should find what your own mission is and make sure you love what you’re doing, that you’re challenged by your work, and most importantly, having fun.” – Joel Abrams

“Stay in touch with your spiritual side. Staying in contact with the spiritual aspect of life helps one stay true to one's values.” – Mike McCurry

“Live in another culture, if possible, because it teaches you how to deal with other people generally when you are forced to live in a world that isn’t of your own making.  If it’s not possible to live in a different culture, at least try living in different regions of the U.S.” – Maggie Williams

Give of Yourself

“Care passionately but find base for laughter; a lot of the issues in the social justice field are serious and tough, but you need to find space for laughter so you can bring your full attention to the issues we need to face.  Find time for reflection and to ground yourself.” – Jennifer Gross

“There are people who say, believe, and will tell you that nice guys finish last. That’s true. But, nice guys also finish first. And bastards finish first and bastards finish last too. It’s important that we are nice guys so that wherever we fall on the winning line, we will have been good to ourselves and each other.” – Geoff Cowan

“Mentor people. It takes a village to make a person.” – MaryAnn Miller

“Eli told me to talk to everybody, whether they were above or below me, to ask questions, and to listen.” – Susan Berger

The Importance of Friends and Family

“Family is incredibly important. If it’s a choice between your personal and your professional life, you have to pick personal life. There's no single person who is indispensable to their job, but in the world of love and things like that you are indispensable.” John Gomperts

“I felt insecure as a young man when I looked at the accomplishments of friends such as Eli. I intentionally kept my professional and personal lives as separate as possible because I didn't want friends to know I was doing insurance - something at the time I didn’t feel was as impressive as the work my friends were doing.  If I had to do it over again I would have integrated all aspects of my life at a younger age because I am very happy now and very comfortable with who I am. You should be the best ‘you’ that you can be. We should all have patience with ourselves as well and shouldn't be ashamed by our careers.” – Stuart Paris

Motivation to Serve

“I believe ordinary people change the world: regular, ordinary people who get involved because they believe in something.  Every great change movement starts because regular people got involved, not because Congress or government ordained it. Congress just codifies what is demanded by the people.” –Brad Meltzer

“Follow your passion. Don’t be afraid to take initiative. That said, it was easier to be a pacesetter in the 1960s than it is today because there is much more of an established nonprofit sector now than there was then.” – Eve Brooks

“Don't be concerned with what you’re doing on a daily basis; be concerned with what you’re contributing to.” – Melissa Green

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