A Force of Nature Touches The Face of God

Two weeks ago, one of my dearest friends, mentor, admired leader left this world way to soon.  I’m at a loss to fully process this but feel compelled to share a bit about Juanita Duggan that you might not read in the now multiple official tributes to her from various trade associations, leaders in Washington and business (see TFASWSWA).

By now, most of you will know that Juanita led the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) as EVP and CEO and later President and CEO from 1998-2006.  I served on the board of WSWA when we selected her to be the first woman to lead the organization since its founding in 1943.  I also rose through the executive committee ranks to President and then Chairman of WSWA during her tenure.  This was a time of tremendous change in the industry and Juanita was exactly what WSWA needed to fight the key battles of the day which included the direct threat to the 3-tier system known as “direct-to consumer” just as the internet was going mainstream. See Justices Reject Curbs on Wine Sales re Granholm v Heald in the Supreme Court.

The day I met Juanita, she struck me as someone operating at an elevated level. She had a way and grace about her that commanded the room, no matter where she was.  On a funny note, at our first dinner, she corrected me for using the word “impacted” in a sentence.  I retorted, “thanks mom” in reference to growing up with an English teacher mother.  This friendly banter and friendship would continue for the next 24 years until this month. 

In 2000, I attended both the Republican (Philadelphia) and Democratic (Los Angeles) conventions for President.  Juanita joked that we had “God passes” and had access to everything.  This was an incredible experience for me, a young businessperson with an interest in politics and government.  

As President/Chair, I committed to being in Washington every week Congress was in session to support Juanita and the staff. There’s nothing quite like a member in leadership showing up to make the case along with the professional staffers.  

In 2001 on the way to our board meeting in Cabo, Juanita received the news that her youngest son Wilson may have a problem.  We found out later, it turned out to a rare form of blood cancer.  Juanita’s commitment to Wilson will forever remain with me as the true definition of love.  She was by his side throughout years of hospital stays and treatments and through his eventual recovery (Happily he is now married, and I hope living his best life today). 

As a result of my time in Washington, we spent a lot of time together, sometimes at the hospital with Wilson. It was incredible seeing her operate at such an elevated level even with her very real family struggle.  All the while, Juanita was leading our trade association and passing two laws in Congress during my tenure.  

After I left the distribution business and she left WSWA, we stayed in touch and connected on multiple occasions over the years with family and friends.  In recent years, we connected on my endeavors to bring cannabis into a mainstream regulated industry.  She invested both time and money to help me and had agreed to join my board at Vertical Wellness (had we gotten public).  I was embarrassed and ashamed when I could not get VWEL public, and her efforts seemed to be for naught.  

Our last communication was texting back and forth in October regarding the potential for the SAFE banking act to get into law this year after President Biden’s mostly toothless but symbolically important executive order on cannabis pardons.  I will always regret not picking up the phone and talking to her again.  

As a young staffer, Juanita worked for President Reagan.  She always revered him and the class he brought to the highest office in the land.   I believe his greatest speech was in the moments following the Challenger disaster (aka “the Teacher Mission”).  I share it here with respect and dedicate it to my friend and teacher Juanita as she “slips the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God”. I will always remember Juanita with love and the highest regard for her life and her influence on mine.

President Reagan’s remarks following the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger and her crew.

Broadcast at 5 p.m. EST, Jan. 28, 1986. 

Ladies and gentlemen, I’d planned to speak to you tonight to report on the state of the Union, but the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans. Today is a day for mourning and remembering. 

Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss. 

Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But we’ve never lost an astronaut in flight; we’ve never had a tragedy like this. And perhaps we’ve forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle; but they, the Challenger Seven, were aware of the dangers, but overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together. 

For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, “Give me a challenge and I’ll meet it with joy.” They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us. 

We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for 25 years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers. 

And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them. 

I’ve always had great faith in and respect for our space program, and what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don’t hide our space program. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That’s the way freedom is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute. 

We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue. 

I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA or who worked on this mission and tell them: “Your dedication and professionalism have moved and impressed us for decades. And we know of your anguish. We share it.” 

There’s a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and an historian later said, “He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.” Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete. 

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”

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