At Work

Larger Than Life: A Tribute to Hugh Whelchel (Part 1)

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Acts 1:8 (NIV)
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After learning that Hugh Whelchel (1952 – 2024) had passed away on Good Friday (March 29, 2024), I was deeply saddened, feeling like I’d lost one of my very best friends.

The truth is, I didn’t know Hugh that well, but, as you would understand if you knew Hugh at all and as I know Hugh would agree: When Christians are joined in Christ, they become friends instantly. Preliminaries, ramp-ups, or long periods of “quality time” are completely unnecessary.

Today, my memory of Hugh brings joy and laughter. You had to know him and what fun and adventure it was.

I met Hugh Whelchel first over the phone after I stumbled on the Institute of Faith Work and Economics (IFWE) website and, in their exceptional digital library, found an essay written by Michael Novak, “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism 30 Years Later.” I had called Hugh to learn more about the organization. (In fact, I had already interviewed Mr. Novak, and I learned Hugh and I shared a deep admiration for him.)

Afterward, we had lunch in Tysons Corner, Virginia (outside Washington, D.C.) a couple of times, and he ended up on the board of the non-profit of which I’m the Executive Director, Praxis Circle.

I knew I would like Hugh, a dedicated family man, when he said he’d spent thirty years in business as a “turnaround computer guy” before focusing more directly on a Christian calling. I had spent a similar amount of time as an investment banker in mergers and acquisitions and private equity, working with such entrepreneurs, and appreciated how important they are to American business. When he said he’d tried seminary in 1977 in Richmond but left after one year because “nobody there actually believed in God,” I knew I was going to like this guy.

Also extremely unusual, prior to founding IFWE, Hugh had spent seven years without an “official” (there’s another “Hugh story” here) graduate degree in theology at the helm of the Presbyterian Reformed Theological Seminary in Fairfax, Virginia, transforming its educational model to suit our Internet and smartphone-based age. I’d been raised a Presbyterian and was very happy to see the Seminary again on solid ground. One could really benefit from the “walking around” advice from this man.

A couple of years later, Hugh traveled in his pick-up truck from his home in Leesburg, Virginia (Northern Virginia west of D.C.) to Richmond and stayed at our house (Beth and Doug Monroe) to speak downtown on June 19, 2019 at a Praxis Circle-sponsored luncheon. He gave a terrific talk about his passion, the importance of work and economics, to everyone Monday through Friday, but especially to Christians of every calling who attend church on Sunday . . . but might not see the connection. (The role of work remains central to Praxis Circle’s current mission “to renew a good and free society through building worldviews.”)

On that beautiful, sunny, and cool June 19th morning, I vividly remember Hugh telling me something important. As we went out the door and down the porch steps to my car to attend a preliminary meeting of Christians at the church my wife grew up attending, St. Mary’s Episcopal, which was next door to our home, he told me that he had noticed some trouble recently moving his legs. It had influenced his golf game a bit. I knew he was a golfer and had been looking forward to a game sometime on another visit, maybe later that fall.

Almost exactly five years later, I am now the age Hugh was (sixty-eight) then. That thought is extremely powerful to me now. Why? There was much Hugh would endure ahead of him that neither of us could have known. Indeed, I am still thinking about it almost every day since Hugh died. June 2019 was just before the pandemic hit and the 2020 presidential election (already a popular subject then). Shortly thereafter, Hugh received his ALS diagnosis. We never know what lies ahead, and our time is limited.

Hugh’s life had a Jack Armstrong, Forrest Gump-like, Renaissance man, “bigger than life” quality to it, and I will not try to add to the wonderful tribute paid him here by his trusted IFWE colleague, Jacque Isaacs. However, I will note that, quickly after Hugh received the ALS news, he not only accepted the diagnosis, but seemed to accelerate his work for Christ with a renewed faith in God’s plan. He never once expressed fear or anger to me. Instead, he immediately made up his mind to maximize his contribution to God’s glory through his work in betterment of our world in this life with whatever time he had remaining. He never strayed from his Christian pathway, the Way.

I would say he took up his cross, but it had been on his shoulder for decades.

Editor’s note: This article was republished from Praxis Circle’s website with permission. Read the entire article here.

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