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PAYING IT FORWARD, FIERCELY.

The Michaels built a beautiful life together. The Empty Nester power duo now turn their fierce energy to paying it forward.

A PROBLEMATIC ASSIGNMENT.

Like many recent Empty Nesters, Paul and Lee Michaels enjoy the advantages of free time and financial security. Rather than slowing down, the Michaels spend their lives “paying it forward” in a thoughtful manner. The generous spirit the couple displays made them an easy choice to represent what an Empty Nester best life should look like.

On first meeting, “unflappable” might best describe Lee while “inscrutable” could characterize Paul. Spend an hour talking to the Dallas power couple and you learn more about yourself and the world than you do about Lee and Paul. Writing about close-to-the-vest subjects like these two poses challenges. Luckily, I have the advantage of 32 years researching the Dallas power couple (Lee and I were law school classmates) so I have learned a few things about the Michaels the world needs to know. In no particular order: (1) Paul’s dry wit is surprising; (2) if you want to discuss policy with Lee, bring your facts; (3) walks will be at a rapid pace; and (4) you might want a world atlas to discuss travel.

In preparing the piece, we did the 2020 thing, a Zoom call to catch up. I thought I needed a few “finishing details” to round out the Michaels’ most current activities. Already familiar with how the Michaels “pay it forward,” I could just attach what I learned to what I already know and the piece would write itself. When I sat down to write, however, I struggled with capturing the couple’s essence.

A LIGHTBULB MOMENT.

Surely among the thousands of factoids I cultivated through years of shared lives, one or two should perfectly explain what makes Lee and Paul special. The ingredients were all in front of me.

The Michaels appear to glide through life; their quiet charm recalling a better era when political and cultural affiliations took a backseat to personal relationships. Lee and Paul live in a big tent, collecting friends from all walks and with all views. Lee’s Facebook feed tells of their adventurous travel; her personal photographs reveal encounters with people who change the world. Paul spent decades protecting the retirements of public servants, finding the perfect spots for billions of dollars to do necessary work.

The couple’s two daughters, Kate and Lindsey, follow suit. As much as they are loathe to admit it, the girls are their parents reborn. Thoughtful, energetic and a bit stubborn. Maybe more than a bit stubborn, but in a good way. Most importantly the Michaels are Empty Nesters with increasing velocity, using their time in energetic ways. I kept telling myself this should be easy while I kept looking at my blank screen.

Photo by Pixabay.

As a lawyer and now as a writer, I depend on the lightbulb moment. For better or worse, here is my lightbulb moment for Lee and Paul Michaels. For the three decades I have known the Michaels, they have been fooling me. The charm, the wit and the intelligence hide the Michaels’ secret. Underneath it all, the Michaels match perfectly because they are each ferocious; their genius lies in their ability to conceal it. It makes sense to me now. The Michaels are not just paying life forward, they are paying life forward, fiercely.

BAGELS AS A BEGINNING.

Paul spent his first 13 years in Long Island, which accounts for his city sensibilities. At the same time, Lee’s family moved through Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky, making her southern manners authentic. Eventually, both arrived in Sarasota, Florida. Lee, younger by a few years, had a high-school job at “The Bagel Inn,” when Paul and a friend strolled in one day. Paul was no stranger to The Bagel Inn, having worked there a couple of years before.

Sarasota Bay provided a a backdrop for a the Michaels' pay it forward life.
Sarasota Bay and waterfront. Public Domain photo.

Lee took the initiative, which is unsurprising to those who know them. Blending her trademark calculated risk taking and southern manners, Lee maneuvered a double date that started the pair as a couple. Those who understand Paul harbor the deep suspicion that his appearance was strategic; Paul is a practitioner of 4D chess as a life skill. In any event, the youngsters knew the relationship worked, but college separated them.

Lee headed to Vassar in New York, Paul made his way to Austin and the University of Texas. Each New Year’s Eve, however, Lee and Paul had a standing date back in Sarasota. If Lee’s trademarks include calculated risk taking and southern manners, Paul’s brand offers wise judgment after considering all the angles. On News Year’s Eve during Lee’s senior year, Paul explained that in his judgment, they were best for each other. When Paul Michaels gives deep study to a matter, he is rarely wrong and he is always convincing.

Truth be told, Paul was much more romantic. I don’t want to make him blush so I will spare you the details. I do, however, hold a picture in my mind of the end of When Harry Met Sally. Lee reminds one of Meg Ryan and Paul can credibly pass for Billy Crystal; so let’s say that the couple had a movie star beginning.

WORKING FOR A LIVING.

Lee’s Rocky Start.

Paul’s UT degree in business and real estate led him to the Houston office of Lomas & Nettleton, where he began his real estate career. When Lee joined him in Houston, she started as a commercial banker. Paul’s choice of occupation was a great one; Lee’s career selection left room for improvement.

Today, Lee maintains that despite her economics degree from Vassar, she lacked the skillset for banking. I take that assertion with a grain of salt, knowing that Lee accomplishes what she puts her mind to. Lee’s timing, however, was suboptimal at best. The elephants among us remember that in the Texas cycle of boom and bust, the mid-1980’s definitely qualify as “bust.” There was not much for a commercial banker to do and if there is one thing in the world Lee Michaels abhors, it is a lack of activity.

Paul Finds His Place.

Paul, on the other hand, found his place in the work world quickly. Our teachers, firemen, policemen and other public servants work for artificially depressed wages; there is no free market where the great public servant can cash in. Offsetting those low wages is the fact that public service is the last bastion of defined benefit pension plans. A defined benefit pension plan is nothing more than a promise; the employer guarantees that the employee will receive a certain level (the “defined”) of payments (the “benefit”) based on years of service and earnings while working.

Paul Michael's' life's work was to make sure the pension promises made to teachers and first responders would be honored. Paying it forward in a big way.
The people Paul has worked for. Photo credit by Pixabay.

Without access to social security and lacking excess funds to invest, teachers and first responders have all their eggs in that defined benefit basket. The promise the employer makes becomes the central economic fact to millions of lives. The promised money simply has to be there.

As protection against loss is the chief priority, for decades pension fund managers chained themselves to the most conservative investments. That strategy works well when the employed population greatly outnumbers the retirees. As the baby boomers aged, however, the need for pensions to increase their returns became a pressing issue.

Paul’s small group at Lomas and Nettleton provided a key part of the response. To increase returns and maintain long-term security, pension plans diversified their holdings. Real estate investments gave the plans needed flexibility. From the manager’s side, even a small percentage of the trillions invested by public pensions represents a great base on which to build a business. Paul was the right person, in the right place at the right time. Pension fund giant INVESCO took note and bought the Lomas & Nettleton group, now relocated to Dallas.

Lee’s Calling.

In Dallas, Lee switched gears, starting at S.M.U. Law School (now the Dedman School of Law) in 1988. In law school, Lee found a home for her restless intellect. She delighted in figuring out how companies could best organize themselves as well as connecting with an impressive group of women who were part of the first class in school history with more women than men. Lee graduated among the top of her class and went to work with Texas corporate law giant, BakerBotts and then leading Dallas firm Gardere (now Foley & Lardner).

Media shapes our understanding of lawyers; the profession almost always conjures images of Atticus Finch figures demanding justice in front of a jury. The legal profession spreads its net much wider; companies know that there is great value in counselors who can keep them out of the courthouse in the first place. To excel at corporate law, one needs the rare combination of fastidious attention to detail and the imagination to see how an abstract structure fits the client’s needs. In essence, you are a problem solver, often fixing things before anyone else knows there is an issue. Everyday, Lee solved other people’s problems with aplomb.

Lee’s real calling, however, reflects the second point from law school. Lee collects people like others accumulate books or pottery. Lee employs a vast toolbox to facilitate her people collecting, but she turns to two accessories more than most.

The Michaels love active travel and gatherings with them often have a physical component.
Hanging out with Lee and Paul rarely means doing nothing. Activity feeds their soul. Photo Credit: Michaels Family Photos.

First, Lee uses activities as the backdrop for social gatherings: bike rides, mud runs and sailing adventures heighten the ambiance and make warm memories you want to repeat. Second, Lee will talk about anything with you, including the third rails of religion and politics. She gets away with this by expressing her point of view through questioning yours and sprinkling laughter throughout. Conversations with less lecturing and more laughter engender friendships and alliances. Over the years, these memories and friendships put Lee in the center of a large and influential group of friends.

LIVES’ MORE IMPORTANT.

Kate and Lindsey.

It is an unfortunate fact of legal life that most brilliant female lawyers face an unsolvable problem, usually early in their careers. Corporate law requires one thing above all else: your time. Families require one thing above all else: your time. It is exactly the type of problem Lee loves to solve, but no amount of creativity can grow a clock; they all have 24 hours in them.

Lee and Paul brought Kate home in 1993 and Lindsey followed in 1996. Lee first adjusted by moving from big firm life and its billable hour requirements to an in-house position with media conglomerate A.H. Belo, Inc. Over time, she sought flexibility and turned to ad hoc assignments built on all those connections.

My guess is that Lee’s legal career is not the one she dreamed of; I could easily envision her as the general counsel of a large company. Still, she offers no regrets. Lee’s practice fed a deep understanding of how organizations work. Lee employs that knowledge in her present pursuits and in that respect “pays forward” her education and experience.

Simultaneously, Lee raised two fiercely independent and capable young women. After graduating from Penn, Kate specializes in education policy with Association of Public and Land Grant Universities in Washington D.C. with plans to pursue her Masters in Public Policy. Lindsey earned her degree at Washington & Lee and after working for two years as an analyst for Wells Fargo, she is now an associate at Rockwood Capital, a real estate investment management firm in New York City. Raising great kids is the ultimate in paying forward, nothing moves the world forward more than that.

Lee and Paul with their most important projects.
Lee, Lindsey, Kat and Paul. Michaels family photos.
Security.

At the same time, Paul’s business was exploding. Like Lindsey today, Paul began as an analyst. He progressed to working as a dealmaker and ended managing the real estate portfolios of the nation’s largest public pensions.

I asked Paul what made him so good at what he does. The common 21st century answer is data driven and mathematical; the ability to use information to predict how money invested will result in money returned. Paul’s response was different and perfectly old school. Paul went to work everyday knowing that all those teachers and first responders could deal with society’s problems on the front line a little bit better if they were secure.

Paul thinks that the things that make a great portfolio manager start from understanding who your clients are and putting their needs first. Insight comes from experience and using a firm’s full resources to find answers. At INVESCO, that meant a complete team approach as opposed to the “star system” that pervades modern money management. When discussing client portfolios and options, the INVESCO team sat at chairs of equal heights looking for consensus rather than worshipping the pedestal where last year’s biggest producer sits.

That approach made Paul’s INVESCO group the world-wide leader in their field. More importantly, it allowed employers to keep those retirement promises to millions of public servants. I would call that paying it forward in the highest order.

EMPTY NESTING.

Leaving Home.

Last year Paul retired from INVESCO at a relatively young age. Not many champs leave at the top of their games so I was curious about the timing. Again, that pay it forward ethic surfaced. Paul looked around the room and saw a bunch of guys 50 years and older; he looked at the cubicles and saw young talent, drive and diversity. Paul realized that his INVESCO experience graced him with incredible professional and personal opportunities. In 38 years in the business he accomplished everything he wanted to do. He could pay it forward by letting that young talent have their shot, secure in the knowledge that he had built a culture that protected his clients. Plus, he could claim an almost singular feat for his generation: from college to retirement he only needed on resume’.

Paul’s timing, for once, was inauspicious. Active travel is chief among the Michaels’ passions. Freedom from day-to-day responsibility was supposed to supercharge their adventures. The best laid plans…. Paul’s plan for leaving home turned into a plan for staying home.

Lee’s Challenges.

Meanwhile, Lee’s focus was with a unique set of challenges. Lee loved her PTA experience as Kate and Lindsey made their way through Highland Park Schools in Dallas. For those unfamiliar, Highland Park is an “island school district” in the middle of Dallas, comprised almost entirely of affluent families. To be clear, no one in the Highland Park universe complains about the absence of parental involvement. Parents used to getting their way freely offer their “opinions” on how things should be. Successfully negotiating your way in that environment requires one to understand how organizations and people work.

Lee, of course, was built for the job. Eventually, sitting members of the board approached her about potential interest in serving as a board member. Always the corporate lawyer, Lee did her due diligence through a stint as a regular citizen on the finance committee before running unopposed for a three-year term.

Lee's tenure on the Highland Park school board has been eventful.
Excellence is expected at Highland Park Schools, in all endeavors. How many high schools have their own exhibit at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame? One. Photo Public Domain

As with all levels of American government, school board membership has changed over the last decades. For better or worse, the citizenry stands hyper-ready to challenge every decision made by our leaders. At Highland Park, that opposition can be fierce, reflecting the resources of the challengers and everyone’s commitment to their vision of quality education. Lee’s board tenure includes controversies over censoring books from the high school library; oppositions to bond elections; debates over G.P.A. algorithms; fights over drawing attendance lines for elementary schools; and, of course, a firestorm over how to handle the pandemic response. At times, the fierceness turns personal and board members get to practice turning the other cheek.

Paying It Forward Through Service.

Lee’s service on the school board has at times been difficult, but just like her legal career, she has no regrets. She ran for and was re-elected; she is close to completing her second term. Lee served based on a desire to pay forward the education given to her girls; she believes deeply in the need to prepare responsible leaders for tomorrow. Lee successfully navigated the controversies based on individual talent and because she had a base of community service. Paying it forward is not so much a conscious decision for the Michaels; instead the ethic is an imprint on their joint DNA.

Paul and Lee have been generous to a fault with their time, talents and treasure. All part of paying it forward.
When it is time to get serious, the Michaels trade their bike outfits for more formal attire. They have been prodigious fundraisers for some of Dallas’ leading charities.

Lee and Paul are long-time workers at the Vickery Meadows Food Pantry and Clothes Closet and jointly chaired CARE fund raising breakfast to fund education and awareness initiatives in the battle against substance abuse. Separately, Lee co-chaired the Vogel Alcove Luncheon (creating educational opportunities for homeless children) and the Beacon of Hope/Grant Haliburton Luncheon (raising funds and awareness for battling mental illness in children and young adults). Paul is active in a variety of Jewish causes, serving on five boards, including his home synagogue Temple Emanu-El, the Anti-Defamation League, Legacy Senior Communities and as President of Legacy Willow Bend. Just writing about it is exhausting.

The Michaels use a team approach to their service, regardless of which or both names appear in the publicity. Just as Paul enjoyed the “IQ compounding” that came from inclusive decision making at INVESCO; the charities and boards benefit from the Michaels’ combined energy and intellect.

Culmination.

The Michaels’ marriage is interfaith, and they meld their traditions. Most recently, the couple has become supporters of the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum. Founded in 1984, the Museum serves as more than a reminder and explainer of the Holocaust, as important as that mission is. Instead, the Holocaust serves as the fulcrum for teaching and exploring a broad array of human rights issues. The museum combines special exhibits, innovative curriculum, trained docents, and thoughtful speaker and discussion events to combat the most pressing of topics.

The Michaels first major involvement with the museum was their joint chairmanship of the museum’s Hope for Humanity dinner. The more they learned, the more they wanted to give of themselves.

Lee is in the midst of an eight-year commitment to the museum’s board that will see her serve as chairman for two years. That commitment means less active travel after the pandemic lifts. Given the nature of the museums’ work, there may be controversy and public comment. Almost certainly there will be issues to deal with, their shape and content unknown today. Fifteen months ago, who would have thought pandemic planning was crucial?

Whatever comes their way, Lee and Paul will move forward the things they care about. Lee with her southern manners and sunny, yet precise intellect; Paul with his ability to serve by bringing out the best in those around him. I always understood fierceness to be a visible characteristic. Writing this piece taught me that fierceness can lie beneath the surface as an implacable will to get done what needs to be done.

In many ways, the museum is a perfect endeavor for the Michaels. They never shy from big issues, yet always approach them with inclusiveness. Lee and Paul have always directed their talents to the places that impact the lives of others. Lee’s eyes lit up when she told the story of a young Cambodian immigrant’s visit to the museum; in its walls the child saw that her personal story of escaping genocide was important in a global sense. The hopeful power that comes to a young girl from knowing that tremendous suffering and fear has a more powerful enemy is more than enough to fuel the Michaels. Enough to keep them paying it forward, fiercely.

Lee and Paul Michaels, paying it forward, fiercely.
Lee and Paul Michaels. Paying it forward.

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