To the rest of the world, Michael Hammer, who died at 60 last week from an apparent brain hemorrhage while bicycling Aug. 22 in the Berkshires, was best known as a management consultant, if not guru, and co-author of the 1993 best-seller, “Reengineering The Corporation.”
The book sold two million copies, revolutionized the business world and led to his being named by Time magazine in 1996 as one of “America’s 25 Most Influential People,” along with the likes of Al Gore, Martha Stewart, Frank Gehry and Oprah Winfrey.
But to the Jewish community of Annapolis, Md., he was the legendary native son who made it big in the real world, the boy genius who went on to consult, teach, write and lecture around the world to
top government and business leaders, while staying loyal to his deep Jewish roots.
To me, he was my oldest friend, a centerpiece of my earliest memories, because we grew up together in a small town with one synagogue, where Michael’s dad was the cantor and mine was the rabbi.
We were the only two Sabbath-observant boys our age in that community and we spent more time with each other in our formative years than with anyone else, starting at the Annapolis Elementary School, where Michael skipped first grade because he could already read (highly uncommon in those days).
As the story goes, when his disbelieving teacher wanted to test his claim on the first day of school, she asked Michael to pick a book from the classroom shelf and read to her.
“Where should I start?” he asked.
“From the beginning,” she said.
“Alright,” he shrugged, opened the book and began, “Copyright 1952, Houghton Mifflin…”
After six years of public school, we were classmates at a Baltimore yeshiva through high school, coming home to Annapolis for weekends. Then Michael, a Merit Scholar, headed off for MIT, where he earned a bachelor’s in math, a master’s in electrical engineering and a doctorate in computer science. He taught at MIT and received tenure there before becoming a management consultant in 1987 and writing four books on his radical theories about rethinking the way businesses should operate.
Growing up, I got used to congregants, who always saw Michael and me together, asking, “Are you the smart one or the other one?” In fact, I often tell people that as a kid, I always knew Michael was smarter than me, but I realized as an adult that Michael was smarter than everyone.
Over the years, as we each married and raised families and he settled in the Boston area, we maintained a lifelong connection anchored by boyhood memories and experiences, some of which have been chronicled in these pages, and include early teen pranks like standing up at arbitrary times from our first-row seats during the High Holiday services and watching 400 worshippers follow our lead, or flaunting our free clergy passes to the three local movie theaters.
When we were in 11th grade, the congregation relocated from the heart of Annapolis, with its 17th-century brick streets, to the modern suburbs, about two miles away. Our parents built homes directly across the street from the new synagogue, so Michael and I became next-door neighbors in the only two houses on the brand-new, dead-end street.
I can recall many a summer night in our high school years, the two of us sitting on the curb in front of our houses, no place to go, not a soul around, but having a fine time, telling stories, imagining our future lives and how someday we would enjoy telling our children just how pathetic we were as teenagers. And mostly laughing.
Indeed, Michael’s absurdist sense of humor and sharp wit were key elements of his public speaking style, and were cited time and again by students he taught and top executives he counseled, perhaps making his extremist recommendations more palatable.
In the 1996 Time profile, Michael described his life’s work as “undoing the Industrial Revolution.” To him, reengineering was a radical concept that encouraged companies to improve their effectiveness not by tinkering or even reorganizing but by starting from a scratch, thinking how best to do the work they do.
That often meant fewer workers, but while critics said reengineering was a new way of saying “lay people off,” Michael countered that the term was misunderstood. Mastering “process” and giving tasks more value, he said, “is the work of angels.”
Michael’s writings and lectures led to great changes in the way American companies thought about and operated their companies.
His subsequent books expounded on his theory, and at the time of his death he had almost completed a new book to be called “Better Faster Cheaper.”
When asked a few weeks ago to describe the essence of the book in 25 words or less, he paused for a moment, then smiled and responded: “Efficiency.”
That was Michael — a man of innovation, intellect and wit, and described by friends and family as driven by a self-imposed discipline to do more of everything that interested him.
And he seemed to be interested in, and deeply knowledgeable about, everything, from math, science and business to art, music, history, photography and Talmudic study.
Throughout his life he made his mark by challenging assumptions, not only in how U.S. businesses operate, but also in how the rabbis of ancient days compiled a legal system and how the organized Jewish community functions today.
(No doubt he had more success in effecting change in the business world than on Jewish institutions, many of which remain resistant to bold, visionary ideas.)
But Michael, the only child of Holocaust survivors, gained from his parents, the late Henry and Helen Hammer, the value of integrating Jewish and Western ideas, of recognizing that Judaism has never been separate from the world. And he sought, supported and helped create organizations that shared that concept — particularly educational institutions in Israel, like Elul, which bridges the secular-religious gap, and Yeshivat Maalei Gilboa, which harmonizes academic and traditional studies and is unafraid to grapple with serious ideas, affirming that one can live an authentic Jewish life that is intellectually honest.
Michael funded a new beit midrash at Maalei Gilboa, and dedicated it to his father’s memory.
Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Jewish federation of Boston, notes that Michael was a major supporter in many ways, including “showing his belief in free speech … by giving free speeches” to Jewish groups in Boston and around the country.
Rabbi Benjamin Samuels of Newton’s Congregation Shaarei Tefilah, which Michael helped found, noted that Michael hosted and often led a Shabbat Talmud class at his home for close to 30 years, and that he found spirituality in the intellectual jousting of ancient rabbinic luminaries.
Among other Boston-area activities that Michael was involved in establishing were the Gann Academy, a community Jewish high school, and the New Center for Arts and Culture, where he was vice chairman.
The list goes on, but the common thread is that Michael was deeply engaged in projects where he felt he could make a difference, and where he believed the scope of traditional Judaism could be broadened. As Shrage noted, “the pursuit of truth without sentimentality was what Michael’s life was all about.”
Michael felt especially blessed to have four independent and talented children — Jessica, Alison, Dana and David — with his loving wife of 35 years, the former Phyllis Thurm.
He would have been so proud of his children, each of whose remembrances brought out distinct qualities of their father, reflected in their own personalities, as they described his voracious intellectual appetites, but more importantly his compassion for others and personal connection with each of them.
“He taught us how to think for ourselves, because then we could do anything,” one said, and another noted that Michael’s favorite and most persistent question was “why?”
That’s what so many who knew him are asking now. But leaving the shiva house the other day, a longtime friend told the Hammer family she thought of Michael as a meteor, or shooting star: lighting up the sky with its brilliance, thrilling to behold, but gone all too suddenly.
I have no answers, but I do know it’s a special gift to have a lifelong friend who knows everything about you and is still your friend. I just wish I had been able to tell Michael what a blessing and comfort it was to have someone to share so many memories and experiences with, even as I pledge to do my best to honor and hold on to them.
May his family and friends find comfort in all he accomplished, and may his memory be a blessing.
Portions of this column are from the author’s eulogy at services for Michael Hammer on Sept. 5 in Boston.