When the Times Turn Awful

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Jan 06, 2011 2:49 PM

You may not recognize the name Robert Macauley. Or even that of his brainchild, AmeriCares. But there was a time -- April of 1975, the Last Days of Saigon -- when he was very much in the news. And the news was bad, very bad. The pictures in the paper and on television were of defeat, collapse, exile and all the attendant chaos that goes with the loss of any hope of freedom. It was a whole panorama of suffering. Only the communists and their friends, in Vietnam and elsewhere, were celebrating. Freedom's loss was communism's gain. Tyranny looked like the Wave of the Future once again -- a dark, crushing wave that would trap still more millions under its inexorable advance.

Disaster was so commonplace in those tumultuous days that it came almost as a footnote to the news when an Air Force transport carrying more than a hundred Vietnamese children to this country for adoption crashed on take-off. And the military couldn't spare another plane right away. The soonest a second transport might make it to Saigon, authorities estimated, would be 11 days. By then Saigon would be Ho Chi Minh City -- and all hope of rescuing the orphans would be lost, or at least indefinitely postponed.

That's when an American businessman named Robert Macauley entered the picture. He'd been supporting a charity for Vietnamese orphans since 1970 (Friends of All Children), and he wasn't just going to sit there while those kids were stranded for who knows how long. Maybe forever. He would not be deterred. He would not be put off. He would not accept what seemed inevitable at the time. He would find a way to get those kids to their new home. Pronto. Before it was too late. So he leased his own 747 from Pan Am and, mortgaging his house to cover the costs, arranged for a quick flight out of Vietnam for those hundred kids -- and more. Happy ending.

Only that rescue flight wasn't the end of the story, not by far. It was only the beginning. Because a few years later, Mr. Macauley would go on to found AmeriCares, which he would serve as chief executive, without pay, for the next two decades. Wherever people were desperate and time was of the essence, wherever there was a need for action and not just words -- quick, decisive action -- AmeriCares and Robert Macauley would be there.

In 1982, when Poland was put under martial law by its communist rulers, Pope John Paul II asked Robert Macauley to get medical supplies there. He did. Some $1.5 million worth, raised from companies Mr. Macauley badgered till they came through.

Since 1997, AmeriCares has been sending medicine, nutritional supplements and medical supplies to suffering North Korea. In 1985, it flew food and supplies into Ethiopia to fight a famine there. It dispatched aid to Kuwait after Iraq's Saddam Hussein seized it in 1990, to Sri Lanka when it was hit by a tsunami in 2004. Here at home, AmeriCares has built housing for the poor, set up health clinics, and was one of the first on the scene in Lower Manhattan after September 11th.

AmeriCares' chairman and founder didn't wait on any slow, decorous study commission to consider all the alternatives before not doing much of anything. He just moved. Fast. No delays, no excuses, no red tape. As he put it, "You see a situation and you have to move, boom, boom, boom." If he was ever told Sorry, Our Policy Won't Allow Us to Do That, he got the policy changed -- or ignored it. People were hurting; he had no time to waste.

Robert Macauley didn't take No for an answer, or even We'll Get Back to You. As he once explained in an interview, "Someone will always give you nine reasons why it can't be done. Just mow 'em down. Make things happen," He certainly did. Good things. Who knows how many people around the globe have benefited by his actions by now? He was too busy to keep exact count.

If you hadn't heard the name Robert Macauley before, you might remember it later -- whenever the news grows bad, very bad. He died at 87 last month as the old year ebbed, but his works go on. For he's left not only a shining record but an example. There was a time, lest we forget, when Americans were known around the world for our can-do attitude. Robert Macauley exemplified it. It needs to be revived.