Saturday, December 9, 2023

George Eastman

This is a post being moved from a blog I do for our church men's prayer group. I'm doing some housecleaning there and felt this one was worthy of being preserved. 

A Sad Death?

During a discussion about experiencing a happy death, I thought of an excellent example of what I have always assumed was a sad death, that of George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak. George Eastman was born July 12, 1854, and died March 14, 1932. His father, George Washington Eastman, died of a brain disorder when George was 8 years old, and his mother, Maria Kilbourn Eastman, began taking in boarders to support George and his two older sisters and pay for his education. George left school early and began working to help his mother support the family. He never married nor had any offspring but was devoted to his mother and sisters. His mother died in 1907, her final two years in a wheelchair, when George was 53. 

At age 30, in 1884, George patented the first photographic roll film, and four years later, the first camera designed to use that film to introduce photography to the masses. The business he developed and managed based on those inventions made him a very wealthy man. George became a leader in industrial relations, introducing "profit sharing" for all employees, a benefit I enjoyed during my 34 years as an employee, long after George's death.

George donated more than $100M ($2B in today's dollars) to various non-profits around the world. There was a focus on the arts, health and dental care for poor children, and two southern historically black universities.

Some spinal disorder in his final two years resulted in intense pain and difficulty standing or walking. He suffered depression, perhaps from his condition and remembering the lingering deaths and suffering of his parents. He committed suicide with a pistol shot to his heart and left this note: "To my friends, my work is done - Why wait? GE"

As an employee of Kodak, I never heard any reference to Mr. Eastman having any interest in faith or church or any connection with either. I guess I assumed he was just an unhappy atheist who committed suicide.

But I wondered if there was more to the story and Googled something along the line of "Did George Eastman have any church or faith connections?" That brought up a fascinating story by a long time personal friend of Mr. Eastman, George E. Norton, Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Rochester NY from 1923 to 1948. Included in that story were two faith related quotes from Mr. Eastman. The first is from a letter, a copy of which Pastor Norton had in his possession.

The second quote was made in person to Pastor Norton in response to Norton's statement, following some church criticism by Eastman, that Eastman was not a member of the church and consequently didn't know what he was talking about. Eastman replied, " "Young man, who are you, and by what right do you think you can read me out of the church. I was baptised in St. Luke's Church and I was confirmed by Bishop Cox. You can't read me out of the church."

The last paragraph in Pastor Norton's story was about the funeral of George Eastman:

So, maybe the death of George Eastman wasn't seen by him as sad. Maybe nobody had ever explained to Mr. Eastman the complicated theology of the Catholic Church, the benefits of its sacraments, the necessity of worship, and it's view of suicide. Maybe nobody had invited him in. But it appears that he lead an unselfish life that resulted in better lives for thousands who enjoyed employment by him, preserved important memories with his inventions, or benefited from the generous distribution of his wealth. And, lest we get hung up on the suicide issue, there is this from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Of course only God knows how George Eastman's life looked to him.

In the meantime, in hope for a happy death, let's focus on “seeking first the Kingdom of God, the Our Father, the Commandments, the Beatitudes, the Gifts of the Spirit, the Virtues, and the Creed. Hmm, those are the same things suggested last week for protection from demons!

Footnote: And one truly sad death was the death of Eastman Kodak, the imaging company that failed to respond to the shift from silver halide to digital imaging and, after long and painful suffering, went bankrupt in January 2012. A healthy George Eastman would have not allowed that to happen.