Parting Words

Dear Members,

My life’s work has been a delight. Of course there were some low spots along the way; no life fully lived can avoid those. But lives don’t come much luckier than mine.

I’ve spent an entire career doing work many only dream of. And I’ve done it in your remarkable company. I’ve enjoyed your brilliance, sometimes just inches away from you, sometimes watching from my seat in the audience. Your talent is inspiring and infectious. And I can look back now and say with some pride that, at least once in a while, it rubbed off. What a thrill it has been.
I’ll never forget the laughs. The knowing grins. All those wonderful shared stories of prior adventures. And, every once in a while, the marvelous shared satisfaction of creating something memorable. I’d be a lucky man if it stopped there.

But fate had something more in store for me. Something that would change my life. Enlarge it. Give it new meaning. And for that, I am forever grateful.

In 2007, embarking on yet another acting adventure, I met an important friend. My cast mate Ned Vaughn was concerned about signs of growing conflict between Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. When the conflict ruptured into open hostility, Ned spoke with clarity and passion about the need for action. I was convinced, and joined him and others on what would become one of the most meaningful journeys of my life.

When I began serving on the SAG National Board in 2008, I honestly didn’t know how long my union service would last. I’d always been grateful for the protection of my unions and felt it was time for me to give something back. But like so many of us, I didn’t fully understand what goes into maintaining our strength, even after decades of depending on it. In the midst of a busy acting career, it was all too easy to take that protection for granted. But the trouble roiling our unions in the summer of 2008 and my early lessons in the SAG boardroom soon made it clear that nothing could be taken for granted.

By 2009, the stakes of the conflict between SAG and AFTRA were unambiguous: The unions would either engage in an indefinite showdown that would leave both vulnerable or we would find a way to unite and eliminate management’s ability to divide us. As I listened to you, my fellow members, on sets and in union meetings, one message rang out above all others: We are stronger together.

That message — your message — became my cause and commitment.
During an eventful first year of board service, my impulse to give something back became a focused mission to unite SAG and AFTRA. When fellow board members asked if I would run for SAG president — something that wasn’t planned and almost didn’t happen — I didn’t hesitate. By then, I was fixed on your message and our common goal, and decided I would give my all to achieving it.

Of course, there’s an important distinction between embracing a decision in one’s mind and taking action to make it real. And there’s a universe of difference between identifying a challenge — or even having the vision to see its solution — and possessing the wisdom, stamina and grit to succeed. I’ll happily claim ownership of exactly one link in that chain: No one had to push me to take action. I heard a call and answered it, and I’m so glad I did.

But what about all the other links? The wisdom, stamina and grit? The patience, perseverance and seemingly endless planning? The intelligence and trust and listening and friendship? Well, for all those I have relied on the greatest team of partners one could imagine.

Just like I grew as an actor through the inspiration of the transcendent talents around me, I became an effective leader by working with and learning from bona fide superstars. Some are fellow members, others our remarkable union staff, but they all have one thing in common: They are extraordinary at what they do, and you and I are their direct beneficiaries.

One of my proudest moments as president came on March 30, 2012, when I announced to an overflowing Cagney Boardroom that SAG-AFTRA was born. The pure joy of that moment won’t be forgotten by any of the hundreds who were there, or the hundreds more who were watching live around the country. It was, quite simply, electric.

But a short while later, another singular event took place. With onlookers gathered in my office, I presented the very last Screen Actors Guild membership card to SAG-AFTRA Senior Advisor John McGuire. The man is plainly brilliant and when I mentioned that you and I are the direct beneficiaries of union leadership superstars, his is the name that defines that standard. What an honor and privilege it has been to learn from you, John.

Also taking in that moment was SAG-AFTRA National Executive Director David White. When David agreed to become SAG Interim NED in 2009, at what can only be described as a turbulent time, I marveled at his nerves of steel. After I learned he had been both a college football quarterback and a Rhodes Scholar, his fearlessness and focus made sense. As much as I’ve come to depend on those qualities — especially during the late, make-or-break hours of several negotiations we’ve helmed — I value another aspect of his character even more. The real key to David’s success lies in his ability to rally others, a rare quality in someone so gifted. Thank you, David, for your friendship and invaluable leadership.

Three more stars in my office that day were SAG-AFTRA Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, Chief Financial Officer Arianna Ozzanto and Chief Communications and Marketing Officer Pam Greenwalt. Here’s a tip to all future presidents of SAG-AFTRA: If your general counsel is the lawyer every other lawyer in any room, anywhere, consults to see if they are right, stick close to him. Duncan, you have been the rock on my right through six-plus years of board meetings and I could not have done it without you. Ari, your expertise and treasured advice have been essential to me and so many others in the big decisions we’ve all faced together. And to my dear friend, Pam: There must be a special place in heaven for those who work so tirelessly to help others, like me, get our messages across with clarity and style. Whether I’m meeting the president of another union or the President of the United States, I can always count on you for exactly the info or insight needed, not to mention countless shared laughs along the way.

If I were to single out the rest of our staff professionals for the praise each deserves, I would fill this magazine and still be writing. Those who make it their life’s work to protect us as we pursue our dreams are special people indeed. I have seen their commitment and unrivaled dedication in a way few will, and I am here to tell you: We are, truly, stronger together.
Of course our union is, first and last, the members. But here again, the list of notables and the praise due to them would fill this and several other magazines. So with apologies, and acknowledgement that there are dozens more who richly deserve mention, I will concentrate on a special few.

SAG-AFTRA Executive Vice President Gabrielle Carteris is a wonder to behold. When she and I ran for the SAG board together in 2008, I couldn’t have guessed that this 5-foot-1-inch dynamo and I would end up seeing eye to eye on practically everything, but that’s exactly what happened. That I first affirmed my decision to run for SAG president in her welcoming home and later celebrated the evening of our merger with a fully clothed dip in her pool might lead you to believe she is the consummate host, which is true. But far more important, she is the consummate unionist: tireless, fearless, and absolutely dogged in her desire to bring people together for the purpose of moving forward — even when sharp differences must be overcome. I’ve known many superb leaders, but very few match Gabrielle when it comes to actually living out the creed “We are stronger together.”

In a job like this, one of course relies on many friends. It may owe a bit to the fact that we are all gentlemen of a certain age and experience, but two staunch allies I have depended on for years are New York President Mike Hodge and National Vice President from Los Angeles Clyde Kusatsu. I would hurry to become the friend of these outstanding men under any circumstance, but I am especially grateful that union service brought our orbits into alignment. As we worked long and hard to make historic changes, Mike and Clyde’s warm camaraderie was a sustaining tonic. Their common-sense advice often helps me see the way ahead and their selfless dedication to the tens of thousands of members each represents offer two shining examples for my own service, which they have made better. Hats off, my friends.

My debt of gratitude to SAG-AFTRA National Board member and fellow SAG-AFTRA Foundation Board member Rebecca Damon will never be repaid, but here are a few tokens. Leading an organization of SAG-AFTRA’s size and scope is consuming business and while our marvelous staff is always there to help, some problems can be resolved only by the elected leaders. When those arise, nothing is so valuable as a trusted advisor who knows each issue in intimate detail and, somehow, has a personal relationship with nearly everyone involved. That is Rebecca. Also, as anyone who has been part of such a large and diverse enterprise knows, the ceaseless planning comes in three flavors: long-term, short-term and right away. Rebecca is an astute sounding board for all three and beyond, and her sage advice and unwavering friendship have never once failed me.

And then there is SAG-AFTRA’s founding executive vice president, Ned Vaughn, whom I mentioned earlier and whose guidance and vision I value beyond the telling. To call him a friend, an advisor, a leader — none of these is quite adequate, so I’ll leave it at this: As all who were part of it know, if you are grateful for the creation of SAG-AFTRA, you owe thanks to many, but to none more than Ned.

However, there is one member who eclipses all the rest. And when I tell you that none of it — absolutely none of it — would be possible without her unique participation, you can take it to the bank. When I said that lives don’t come much luckier than mine, I was holding an ace up my sleeve. You see, not only have I had a career that fulfills me and an opportunity to serve which has enlarged me, on top of all that I found a woman — a soul mate — who elevates, excites, and emboldens me. Linda, my darling, you have given me more strength and love than I could have hoped for or imagined. There aren’t thanks enough, so you’ll have to make due with me adoring you forever.

My ultimate thanks is to all of you, who inspired me to carry your message, adopt it as my own, and take action to make it real. I have been profoundly honored to serve as your messenger. You sent me forward with a statement of truth and power. Never forget it. We are stronger together. And we always will be.

In unity,
Ken Howard