Something about death makes me, and probably at least a few others, consider the sheer scale of human existence.
There are just over eight billion people alive in the world today, and the best available estimate says that another 109 billion have come and gone over the course of human history. Of those 117 billion people, how many funerals does the average person attend during their life? How many people intersect with any individual on a deep enough level for them to be seen off into whatever comes next? One hundred? Maybe two hundred for the extremely connected?
Some people find our relative insignificance reassuring, like former Cleveland Browns head coach Sam Rutigliano, who once quipped that “a billion Chinese don’t even know we played today” after a playoff loss. Others see the opportunities lost – maybe a billion Chinese don’t care, but wouldn’t it be better if they did?
All of that is a long-winded way of saying that I didn’t know Pete Granson, a prominent Cleveland State booster who passed away last month at the age of 77, very well. To put it much more bluntly, he probably wasn’t in my two hundred.
Really, he was just a guy who happened to end up in a lot of the same places as me. I’d see him at basketball games. And volleyball matches. And soccer matches. And just about everything else involving Vikings athletics in some way. Pete would generally be as close to the action as possible, easy to locate with his full head of white hair on a tall frame, and always by himself, but never alone.
Eventually we were introduced, and I joined the steady parade of people who would greet him on sight and perhaps offer a casual “team’s looking good,” or some similar low-cost air filler, but that was pretty much the sum of our relationship. I learned that Pete passed away, not as his family and friends did, but two days later when an announcement was made prior to a CSU men’s basketball game. In fact, less than an hour earlier, I had been in the freshly-renovated academic center above Woodling Gymnasium for a women’s basketball postgame press conference, while completely unaware that the guy whose name was on the wall had died.
I immediately felt guilty for not engaging with him more.
As much as anything else, that’s what caused me to wake up early last Saturday and drive through an unseasonably warm, but gray and drizzly, morning to Sagamore Hills for his celebration of life. Something about Pete made me feel like my life was supposed to intersect with his more than it did. And if, as they say, funerals are for the living, I was going to take full advantage of my opportunity to at least know him in death better than I did in life. Perhaps I wasn’t alone. By the time a busload of Cleveland State student-athletes, coaches and staff showed up, the funeral home employees – who have surely prepared for services of all sizes before – gave up on the idea of adding chairs to the double room. Like Pete perched just behind Bethany Yauch on court two during one of the many tennis matches he attended, a bunch of people were destined to stand the whole time.
Through three speakers, I learned the broad strokes of Pete’s biography. He was from Dayton originally, before leaving to study at Indiana and serve in the Air Force. Though his father was a doctor, he decided to go into business, primarily with Reynolds and Reynolds, which provides forms, software and professional services to (among others) the Big Three automakers. Pete’s career also took him to ADP and Chicago, and from all available evidence, he was fabulously successful over his 40-year professional life.
All of that was good to know, but what really caught my attention was a barely-noticed looping video playing in the back corner of the double room, where a procession of kids and teachers said things like “thank you Mr. Granson, we love you” and “we’re going to miss you.” After seeking out some context, I learned that after he retired, Pete went to Legacy Charter School in Chicago every day for eight years as if it was his job. Except it wasn’t his job. He volunteered his time and helped wherever help was needed, whether that was office work or simply listening to the students.
Eight years, five days a week, for free. I couldn’t stop thinking about that.
Pete had plenty of money. He had the opportunity to do just about anything he wanted with his remaining years after leaving corporate life. An avid golfer, he could’ve traveled to play the world’s great courses. If he wanted to feel like he made a difference, he simply could’ve written a check and went back to his bucket list. He was very generous with his money as well, of course, but fundamentally, he was a man who lived the idea that, as the philosopher Theophrastus said, “time is the most valuable thing a man can spend.”
His world transformed when his wife JoEllen passed away in 2020, which resulted in a move to Cleveland and his becoming an almost larger-than-life figure in the community of the city’s Division I university within only a couple years.
Learning that last detail caused me to consider my own story for a minute. I became a widower around the same time as Pete, in 2019. Then, a year later, perhaps seeking some sort of new reality, I moved into a tiny apartment and began pursuing an MBA at Cleveland State. It was important to me to avoid being a typically-apathetic commuter grad student, so I decided to start following the school’s sports teams. One thing led to another, and here I am in my third season as the CSU women’s basketball beat writer for HoriZone Roundtable. I’ve been privileged to do some really cool things in that time, like sit courtside at the NCAA Tournament (and spend some one-on-one time with Mel Greenberg in a media room afterward) and visit every school in the Horizon League, while meeting tons of student-athletes and coaches from all over the place – all because I simply decided to invest time in my surroundings.
So maybe I knew Pete better than I realized.
I left that day thinking that, just maybe, he had figured out the meaning of life. I had perhaps stumbled on it as well, but my glimpse was accidental, while for Pete it was an entire state of being.
See, for all that he accomplished in a material sense, what really drove him was the idea of offering his most valuable commodity to those located wherever circumstances had placed him at a given moment. The power to change the world is in every one of us, simply by giving some measure of ourselves to improve things for the people in our lives or the physical spaces around us. Pete understood that intuitively, and while he performed plenty of larger-scale acts, like his work at Legacy Charter School or volunteering in the academic center at Cleveland State, he also understood that simply showing up to watch a sport that doesn’t get a ton of mainstream attention can bring joy to people and make them feel like they matter.
Throwing around a lot of money will always get anyone a seat at any table they want, but the return for the quiet donor isn’t the same. Sure, they’ll get their name on things, be consulted as key decision makers, and get treated as a VIP at every turn. But money, by itself, doesn’t lead to hugs and high fives from players exiting a tough game or tearful schoolchildren losing a friend, nor does it cause the distraught text I received from a CSU parent on the night we both learned of Pete’s passing. What he gave the world is far more permanent and less easily duplicated than what most can offer.
From the stories of his assistance to up-and-comers in the workplace, to his later years supporting educational institutions, Pete Granson used his time to make an impact on everyone in his orbit, people who are, without exception, better off for having known him. That headcount didn’t quite reach 117 billion, but he came about as close as anyone ever has.