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Promises Kept

How a former NBC exec went from making good to doing good


Published June 30, 2010 at 5:39 a.m.

On the morning of his second driving test, David Faske seemed confident. Having practiced parallel parking, hill starts and the “Vermont turnaround” countless times in the weeks before the test, he felt sure he would pass. Then he saw his examiner — the same seemingly unfriendly, unsympathetic man who’d failed him the first time around. Faske was rattled.

His driving instructor assured him everything would be fine, even though the examiner had failed the middle-aged man who went before Faske. After the 20-year-old left for his road test, his instructor, Bill West, admitted he felt anxious. Faske needed to pass. To get a job as a welder — his chosen trade — he required reliable transportation, and the bus system wouldn’t cut it.

When he returned from the road test, Faske was all smiles. He threw West a thumbs-up, and West breathed a sigh of relief. “Now I can get a job,” Faske said to West, beaming.

Another student passed. West was on a roll.

While a professional driving instructor might shrug off another success, West had a personal investment in the outcome. That’s partly because he isn’t really a driving instructor. The South Hero resident volunteered to help Faske, letting him use his new Volkswagen Jetta to practice and test on, just as he has done for about a half-dozen kids from Spectrum Youth & Family Services who, like Faske, have no one to teach them to drive.

Not everyone would let a new driver learn on his or her car. But, while West is one of many devoted mentors serving youth in this region, his brand of hands-on volunteerism is unique. He’s not afraid to get dirty. In fact, he’s pledged his life to it.

Before West was helping teenagers learn the rules of the road, he served as chief information officer for General Electric’s NBC Universal division. Think a tech version of Alec Baldwin’s character on “30 Rock,” Jack Donaghy. As CIO, West oversaw IT operations for the entertainment giant.

During his four years as NBC’s top IT guy, West lived a dream life — he had a tony condo in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, a high-profile job and a handsome physician for a partner. But in 2002, he began showing symptoms of the rare liver disease with which he’d been diagnosed five years earlier. He would need a transplant almost immediately. And, just like that, West’s New York City corporate life of long hours and cutthroat competition ended.

How he arrived where he is now — in Vermont, teaching young people to drive — has to do with a promise West made post-transplant. It wasn’t exactly a deathbed vow, but it was close. West received a transplant in 2004 from a 46-year-old Louisiana woman who had died of a stroke. Upon his recovery, he wrote a letter to his donor’s family vowing to honor her memory by doing good. He’s been doing so ever since.

“He brings such an incredible energy to everything,” says friend Linda Ayer. “He motivates people to reach out and help other people.”

Much of the energy West exudes comes from a healthy diet and a strict regimen of swimming and cycling. Despite his gray hair, which is closely cropped, he looks far younger than 56. West has a swimmer’s physique — broad, muscular shoulders and a trim waist. You’d never know he has to take 14 different medications to stay alive.

West grew up in eastern Pennsylvania, where his father was the president of Bethlehem Steel. After graduating from college, he entered GE’s financial-management program, but it wasn’t for him. West was more interested in gadgetry and the “geeky” tech side of things, recalls his ex-wife, Bonnie West.

Years later, after working in IT for his alma mater, Union College, West returned to GE. The company sent him all over the country — Lynchburg, Va., Rochester, N.Y., Washington, D.C. During that time, he married, had a son, got divorced and came out as a gay man. In 1992, during a tour of duty in Cincinnati, West met his now-partner, Daniel Wilds.

Bonnie West guesses that much of her former husband’s drive comes from his father, a no-nonsense executive. “His dad pushed him to succeed and be as good as him,” she says. “Bill, in his career, has probably striven to fulfill that obligation to his dad.”

While climbing the corporate ladder, West received a troubling diagnosis. During a routine gall bladder removal, doctors discovered severe scarring on his bile ducts indicating primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a disease that would eventually lead to liver failure.

Doctors suspected West’s liver disease resulted from a bout of Crohn’s disease some years before, but couldn’t be certain. That’s part of the difficulty of having layered illnesses. In West’s case, the base-layer illness is HIV, which was diagnosed 24 years ago. His depressed immune system makes him no stranger to health crises.

In a perverse way, HIV may have helped save West’s life. His HIV-positive status requires him to get blood work done every three months. A routine workup eventually led to the gall bladder removal and discovery of PSC.

West’s liver remained asymptomatic for years. But in 2003, he was told he’d need a transplant. He took a leave of absence from work and waited for an organ.

Soon West’s symptoms worsened appreciably, and he and Wilds moved to Florida to be closer to family and to Louisiana’s Tulane Medical Center — at the time, one of only three transplant centers in the nation that would operate on an HIV-positive patient. Most refuse to do so because the risks of rejection and concomitant infection are too high.

Finally, on the day of his son Eric’s college graduation, West got the call — a donor had been found. He flew to New Orleans on a private jet and walked into the transplant center alone. “It was very surreal going in by yourself,” West says.

After 12 hours, West’s transplant was complete. But his journey to health had only begun. In the days following the transplant, he was in and out of intensive care as his bile ducts leaked and kidneys began to fail. West gained 80 pounds of fluid, and then lost 140 pounds during his five-week hospital stay. He returned home a virtual skeleton.

The day West left the hospital was the day he vowed to “focus my life on helping others who go through difficult times.”

His commitment may sound like the hollow pledge of a man in crisis who promises to be good if things get better. Once healed and deposited back in his New York life, would he be motivated to keep his promises? “It could have been like a New Year’s resolution,” West says. “It’s so easy to fall back to the way things were. But I was determined not to let that happen.”

If there’s one guiding principle in West’s life, it’s the importance of following through. His first act of helping others was endowing a professorship at Tulane University Health Sciences Center. Then came his vow to honor the gift his donor’s family made.

That life-changing promise led West and Wilds to Vermont. Seeking a slower life, they made up a spreadsheet of potential landing spots, which included all the usual progressive enclaves. Vermont won out, in part because Bonnie West, the mother of Bill West’s son and still a friend, lived here, and in part because Wilds was smitten with the place.

When the couple moved to Vermont in 2005, they decided to “live organically,” allowing time to take them where they were meant to be. They joined the First Unitarian Universalist Society in Burlington and founded the Care Network Ministry to help elderly, sick and homebound members of the congregation. It was at the UU that West learned about Spectrum Youth & Family Services, which provides support services to homeless and at-risk youth.

The nonprofit needed mentors, and West needed a mission. Spectrum paired him with a teenage boy named Matt Lawrence. A handful from the beginning, Lawrence missed appointments and didn’t return phone calls. But West stuck with him. He knew the value of having a mentor; over the years, West has had three mentors of his own, whom he credits with pulling him through various stages of his life.

Over the years, West and Lawrence developed a friendship based on trust and respect. From the start, West was open with the boy. He told him about his HIV, his liver transplant, and his sexual orientation. It was a sobering story for Lawrence, but ultimately it helped the pair relate to each other. West, too, knew what it was like to suffer.

While West was mentoring Lawrence, he volunteered to help fellow UU Society members as well. Linda Ayer recalls how, recently, when West heard she had signed up for a charity bike ride, he offered to help her train. He and Wilds took her out on the roads near their lakefront home, one riding in front of her, and one behind. The gesture touched Ayer.

“It exemplifies how important humanity is to them,” she says. “I didn’t know them very well, but I knew if I needed anything, I [could] call them.”

West also devotes much of his time to the Hospice of the Champlain Valley. In the tradition and spirit of gay caregivers during the early 1980s AIDS crisis, he and Wilds provide care to people at the ends of their lives. Some of those he has comforted have suffered from liver failure and died awaiting transplants. It serves as an acute reminder of just how lucky he is. “It was really hard seeing a patient who was yellow with jaundice and know I [had] looked worse,” West said.

Post-transplant, he’s lived by the biblical maxim that “to whom much is given, of him much will be required.” Because of his previous career, West is financially secure enough to spend his days volunteering. Some days, he’s busier than he ever was at NBC.

“There’s just a never-ending vortex of need,” West says.

It was after West taught Lawrence to drive that word got around, and he became the go-to guy for other Spectrum youth who need driving lessons. Many of the kids don’t have access to driver’s ed or a parent willing to teach them. Somehow, he also ended up teaching a handful of Bhutanese refugees to drive.

“On his own, he offered to take kids out in his own car. I just thought that was a pretty cool thing,” Spectrum’s executive director Mark Redmond says. “He could be out golfing every day, but instead he’s spending his time volunteering.”

People can’t believe West lets new drivers, especially teenagers, get behind the wheel of his car. But he trusts the kids, something many of these youths have never experienced with an adult before. He’s only had to pull the emergency brake once.

“The transplant thing has helped me not worry,” West says. “I don’t worry about my car.”