Gluten-Free Alumni Network

I recently
attended an informal and delightful gathering of my former colleagues from my previous life as an alumni director at UCLA. It had been about 15 years
since we had all seen each other. I learned early in each of my careers: seek out the
influencers, the leaders, and the potential mentors in the industry. Connect with the people who will facilitate your education in that field. Alumni work was no
different. I found a group of remarkable mentors. These gentlemen continue to be industry thought leaders and helped me
define my life beyond my stint in alumni work.

Theodore at Yale
: He taught the importance of understanding your institution's
history. He characterized alumni work as continuing a great conversation.

Grafton at Michigan
: He taught me that nice guys do finish first. And how to
honor traditions and evolve beyond them.

Bill Stone
at Stanford
: Bill mentored me in many ways, but the value of the words we use
to articulate mission may be the most lesson. He also told me, “never have
people who make less than you on your compensation committee.” 🙂

Dibbert at North Carolina
: Generously shared his wisdom with me. He humbled me
to enjoy the journey more than my career aspirations. Sage advice.


Doug, me, Steve, Bill and Eustace


We ended up
meeting up at Roy’s Restaurant in San Francisco where Bill’s wife Debbie Duncan
joined us. I opened the menu and saw that they had a gluten free menu. We have recently
come to expect this offering as we have become hyper aware of food allergies
and celiac in particular. This menu triggered a conversation about Debbie’s
gluten allergies, and the precision or the lack thereof, with these “gluten-free”
offerings. She warned us that relying on the special menu needs to be
accompanied with instructions to the kitchen to insure a more gluten free meal. For those with an intolerance for wheat, gluten can be dangerous.

reminded us of a story about Bill and Debbie’s daughter Molly.
Molly has endured gluten allergies her entire life.

Gluten freeMore than
20 years ago, when celiac and gluten were not in our vocabulary, Bill was
commiserating with me about the fate of his daughter Molly. Molly was very
sick, not able to eat and was dangerously losing weight. He was a bit emotional, and I could tell that he
feared the worse. He asked for my help.

The week
before I was at a picnic with some UCLA alumni and a couple of parents were
talking about their daughter and how she was not able to eat and lost a lot of
weight. They found out that she had “a wheat intolerance”. Once they removed
wheat products from her diet she gained weight and was back to normal. I saw her
little daughter running around the park as proof of what seemed like a minor
miracle to these parents. Never heard of anything like it before.

Back to my
distressing conversation with Bill about his “emaciated” daughter Molly. I
said, “Bill, I heard about this ailment of “wheat intolerance” over the
weekend. I am just repeating what I heard but it sounds strangely like what
Molly has.” Bill was desperate to give the stumped Stanford Medical Center team
any new leads. “I am going to tell them to check it out.”

Long story
short, it was “wheat intolerance”. Today, Molly is a “perfectly healthy” 23 year old.

Debbie turned to me during our dinner, “You saved her life.”

Soon after Molly’s diagnosis, Debbie wrote a MY TURN column in Newsweek
entitled, “What’s wrong with my baby?” This was one of the beginnings of the
awareness of celiac and the seriousness of gluten allergies. She later wrote a
best selling book to help siblings cope with an ailing brother or sister–When Molly was in the Hospital: A Book for Brothers and Sisters of Hospitalized Children.

I did what
any friend would do. Tried to help with anything I had—even a bit of well-timed

The lesson for me is to speak up and share what I know. Lead by helping people. Connect prople to other experts. Don’t
pre-judge what you know or what others know.
As Debbie pointedly described in
her column, it was hard to believe that the battery of tests conducted at
Stanford did not uncover the allergy.

My little
water drop of seemingly innocuous advice was one of the many influences to push
Debbie to write and help thousands of others—perhaps thousands of Mollys.
Ocean drop

I am
constantly reminded how much people help me with insights and “obvious” advice.
How I try to help others with the same. Very little is universally understood
and most people are unaware of where they need help.

I am
constantly amazed when people write me or mention words I said that made a difference to them.

When your
network asks for help you respond. You give and give generously without

Say what
you are thinking, don’t hesitate. Yes, try to package it in a way that is
digestible and palatable. But share what you know and what you see. This is how
we help each other.

It could
save or change a life. One thing is certain, it will change yours.

Thanks for
reading. John

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1 thought on “Gluten-Free Alumni Network”

  1. John,
    I sent this on to Molly who (drum roll, please) is working as a counselor at a camp for celiac kids the next two weeks.
    Debbie saw it just before heading to KQED to record one of her “Perspectives” on (guess what?) celiac disease and the new challenges for genuine celiacs posed by the current gluten free fad. I will send you a link to the editorial when it has aired (Thursday, I think).
    Many thanks.

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