Chance at Eugene Mission – a miracle

October, 26, 2011


By Bob Welch
The Register-Guard

* photo courtesy of The Register Guard

The new executive director shares how his and his wife’s spiritual conversion led them here

After a day on the streets, the man was tired and hungry. He pushed on the “transient door” and, like the homeless men around him, entered the Eugene Mission on a cold night in January.

Tattered jeans. Reeboks from Goodwill. An Old Navy front-zipping hoodie over a “Lucky Irish” T-shirt.

Like the others, he got a bed number from Jim behind the caged door. Listened to a message on God’s forgiveness. And ate bean-and-ham soup.
By the time he’d showered and found his pajamas – an odd mix of paisley and plaid – word had spread across the sleeping bay that he was a newbie. Indeed, soon after the man’s head hit the pillow, he heard it, a whisper from one guy to the other above the smokers’ coughs beyond:

“Dude, is that guy over there really the new director?”

One thing you quickly learn about Jack Tripp, the Eugene Mission’s new executive director, is that he’s unlike any stereotype you might have about a person in such a position.

Oh, sure, he’s got the God thing going, but his résumé furrowed the brow of more than one search committee member last fall:
Undergraduate degree in marketing, University of Rochester. Master of arts degree in human resources, Pepperdine University. MBA, New York University.

Management positions with Fortune 500 companies in New York, Singapore, Hong Kong and Beijing. And that didn’t include all the personal history that had played out beyond the résumé: The summer home on Cape Cod, the BMW, the way he met his wife – a food scientist who graduated from prestigious Smith College – at the largest singles bar in Manhattan.
But what struck Dana Eck, one of four people on the search committee, was what wasn’t on the 54-year-old man’s résumé.

“He didn’t have any kind of mission experience, no theological background, no social work to speak of,” she said.

If she hadn’t read his cover letter, she would have deep-sixed his résumé on the spot. “It just grabbed our hearts,” she said. Which, for some people, is what today’s Easter message is all about, and what Tripp and his staff hope the Eugene Mission experience is all about:

New beginnings.

The idea, for example, that a man who didn’t cry at his father’s funeral would tear up decades later while talking about the only peaceful family vacation he ever remembers. That a man who would routinely wake up in the night screaming and punching the air would sleep soundly.

That a man whose vacation home was just up the Cape Cod arm from the Kennedy compound would put it on the market – and sell the refurbished 1832 house in Maine that he and wife, Dale, had just fixed up – to move across the country for a job at a mission for the homeless. Some would call it odd. Tripp calls it “a miracle.”

Best childhood memory? This is the part where Tripp’s eyes start leaking. A two-week vacation on Cape Cod, he says while being interviewed at the mission at 1542 W. First Ave. “For some reason, my mother didn’t drink. It was truce time, the only time I can remember my parents not fighting.”

As opposed to the night he was awakened by scuffling downstairs and had to pull his father away from pummeling his mother. Or the time that same mother abandoned Jack and his three sisters, driving off with a one-finger salute.

Both his parents are now dead. His mother was an alcoholic, his father an abusive man for whom, Tripp said, nothing was good enough. “You’d go fishing and it was supposed to be this touching father-son time. Instead, it turned out to be: ‘Why can’t you put the right-sized line on your rod? Why did that fish get away?’ ”

The Tripps were an Irish Catholic family though the latter meant less than the former, he said. They lived just southwest of Boston, in Medfield.

When Tripp graduated from high school in 1974, he took a Navy ROTC scholarship to attend the University of Rochester because he realized his parents didn’t have the money for college and it was a way out.
He loved it. Not that the past ever quite went away. He got a phone call one night. His 17-year-old sister had taken her life. “She was,” he said, “a tortured soul.”

After college, he gave his four years to the Navy, working in Lakehurst, N.J., on mechanisms to catch planes landing on aircraft carriers. Then he set off to make money, choosing to do sales for, at the time, what was the largest hospital supply company in the country.

Meanwhile, he met Dale, whom he married in 1983. Two jobs. No kids. No car. Living in a Manhattan apartment. “Even if I hated the term,” he said, “we were the quintessential yuppies.”

But it wasn’t enough. To land a better job, Tripp got his MBA and became assistant brand manager for Lever Brothers, helping launch the successful Lever 2000 bar soap. But it wasn’t enough. After two years, he became vice president of marketing for a consumer products company in Westfield, Mass., that involved some multilevel marketing.

But it wasn’t enough. He and Dale moved to the Far East, where he spent most of the ’90s working for a couple of Fortune 500 companies, Borden and Ralston Purina.

Amid helping the latter, an $8 billion a year company, make more, he encountered two things he’d never seen so dramatically before: Greed and poverty. He fired an entire senior management team for skimming money on imports. And learned of what life had been like for some during China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. An employee shared how she had lost a sister: She’d gotten so hungry she’d resorted to eating dirt and stones. And it killed her.

Another explained to him how to make a brick. “How do you know so much about making bricks?” he asked her. Because, she explained, she was forced to make them daily at age 5.

In 2001, the Tripps moved back to the U.S. and flipped a coin to decide where to live, having narrowed their choices to Portland, Ore., andPortland, Maine. The latter won.

Jack worked for a trio of companies in the next 10 years. Meanwhile, Dale threw herself into refurbishing their house above Belfast Bay and into gardening. In fact, she became a Master Gardener.

In 2002, after they’d finished the house, after they’d signed the papers for the Cape Cod summer home, after they’d finally gotten everything in their lives neatly arranged, Jack Tripp sank into a living room chair and felt it:

Utter despair.

It still wasn’t enough.
“I had this hole in my heart, this void that couldn’t be filled with company parties, golf and nice houses,” he says. “And it had just kept growing and growing.”

He flipped on the television set to get lost in something else. He was searching for the Red Sox game. Instead, he found Jesus.

The minister – a grandfatherly guy from Atlanta, Charles Stanley – was talking about “the love of God, your true father. How ‘works’ won’t do anything, but the grace of God will. It’s like the holy spirit melted my heart, like this was the first truth I’d heard in my life,” Tripp said.
Alone in that living room, Tripp vowed to start over. To trust God.
Dale later made the same commitment.

They started getting up at 4:15 a.m. to drink tea and study the Bible.
Seemingly overnight, Tripp’s night rages stopped, he said. The man who hadn’t cried in 25 years suddenly found himself weeping while doing something as simple as reading the Sermon on the Mount.

“My sister who I hadn’t seen in five years came and I instinctively hugged her,” he said. “She said, ‘What’s going on? You’re a different person.’ ”

In hindsight, Tripp understood his past: “Raised in the atmosphere I was, you either go one of two ways: Develop an inferiority complex or try to compensate by achievement, by being perfect, by trying to be your own god.

“When I’d heard that preacher talking about a father who loved me and about grace, it appealed to me because I’d come from just the opposite. No fatherly love, and no grace, so I worked to prove myself worthy.”
Years passed. A friend was on the board of a homeless shelter. Tripp started volunteering, as if the seeds of empathy he’d felt for the two Chinese girls were only now bearing fruit. And sensing that he was to do more involving the homeless.

Someone told him about a website for the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions. He clicked on “find job opportunities.” Saw the Eugene Mission posting. And, weirdly, felt led to apply. At the time, all he knew about Eugene was it put on great track and field meets that he’d seen on TV.

The man whose retirement created this job opening, Ernie Unger, had been at the Eugene Mission for 50 years. Before that, he’d worked in a Springfield lumber mill.

Mike Rimmer, head of the search committee, shook his head when considering Tripp’s résumé.

“We couldn’t have been looking at a guy any more different than Ernie,” he said. “I was thinking: ‘This is a guy who’d probably have to take a pretty hefty cut in pay. And can he be happy here?’ “

If his business experience was impressive, his cover letter completed the picture. A man who knew the struggles of alcohol addiction, who had served in the military and, as Eck said, “gets the vet”; who’d learned to get along with all sorts of people because of an array of experiences, from working overseas to being an equal opportunity officer in Navy ROTC; who had known the same emptiness many guests of the mission knew, even if it came in a high-brow variety; and whose faith was simple.

“The Bible says to take care of the poor with physical food and spiritual food,” Tripp had written. “That is where my passion is.”
The first vote among 10-person board left no clear-cut favorite among the three finalists. The board discussed it more. The second vote was unanimous for Tripp.

“We were never fit for the corporate world – and we never knew it,” Dale Tripp, 57, said. “Everyone said, ‘Go here, do this’ and we just followed, but our hearts were never in it. We didn’t start following our hearts until we were in our 40s.”

But moving to a town 3,000 miles from their East Coast roots to head up a mission?

“I bring myself with me,” she said. “I’m not much attached to places. I like to garden, he likes to run. The people talk to you in grocery stores here, they’re friendly. What’s to not like?”
The BMW is gone. Jack drives a Eugene Mission pickup. Dale drives a Subaru. And is already talking about the mission putting in its own garden.

The Tripps rent a $730-a-month apartment on Cal Young Road, a stark contrast to the summer place on Cape Cod or the $15,000-a-month, company-provided apartment in Bejing.

Jack Tripp, who started Feb. 1, makes a third of what he once did. And his overnight stay – done, by the way, before he started the job and with no notification of even the board – reminded him that he wasn’t in Kansas, or New York or Singapore anymore.

“Zero regrets,” he said about this new life. “In my old world, you worked your head off and the payoff was a bonus.

“Here, you work your head off but the payoff is seeing some guy who is riddled with heroin come through and a month later, give you a hug and say, ‘Thanks. You helped save my life.’ “

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the LORD your God.
Leviticus 23:22