Farewell, Dick Wagner

"Ladies and gentlemen, you are embarking upon a journey of epic proportions. It will require all that you have to give and all that you are. You have come here with a brain full of mush. And if you survive...you will leave--thinking...like a CFP."

In 1990, a (then) middle-aged brilliant scholar changed my future, and the future of the profession of financial planning. He wrote "To Think Like a CFP," as relevant today as it was nearly 30 years ago. Dick Wagner would go on to become my friend and mentor. He passed away, suddenly, this past weekend. I'd like to take this opportunity to reflect upon some of the lessons he gave us.

First, financial planning is noble and good. It is important. And it is difficult. We carry a great burden as we sit around a small table, heart to heart, eyeball to eyeball with you. For an amateur, financial planning doesn't seem complicated. Mostly it's a math question. How much money do you need and when? What do you have and what does it take to get there?

But the real world is scary and the emotions, namely elation and fear, that drive most of what we enjoy about life, kill us financially. And there is no calculating for the psyche.

Dick became my friend after he saw me on TV. I had the nerve tell a complete stranger to "Get real! Get a job!" This father of two and husband was about to risk his family's only money on a get-rich-quick scheme, because the economy was bad and he couldn't easily-enough find meaningful work.

Dick made me feel on top of the world when he sung my praises in front of a room full of my peers. That ability--to build people up--is something all of us can do, and he did better than most.

The opposite is also true. Dick didn't tolerate fools. When I had a bad idea, he let me know it in no uncertain terms. Like those emotions I was talking about a minute ago. I once said, "Dick, I'm not qualified to talk about this person's feelings! I'm not a psychologist! Look at my degrees--they are all logic and numbers and look at my Certified Financial Planner test--it's all about the laws and the calculus. I can calculate the CAPM (don't ask) in my sleep, backwards, but when grandma says she's afraid to put her grandson's college money in the stock market, because it might lose money over the next 18 years, my math just comes up short."

"Get real," Dick said, "that's your job. Who else is going to do it?"

Work harder. Stop excuse making. Be honest, all the time, and let the cards fall where they may.

My memories of that man fill me with laughter. That guy cut me down, once, with just a look--like death lasers from his eyes--when I wanted him to introduce me to one of those "famous" people who adored him. Dick generously shared his wisdom. He usually listened to us kids. And he challenged our thinking--all of us--regardless of how smart or successful we each thought we were. Dick was just a little bit smarter.

Perhaps my best memory came a few years ago when I was President of the Colorado Financial Planning Association. I had the opportunity to return to Dick Wagner the same praise he laid on me. In front of a packed room full of our peers, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of his seminal essay, linked above. When I asked Dick how he wanted to be introduced, he gave me the line: "Dick, a legend...at least in his own mind."

Dick had a huge mind, and his impact on the financial planning profession is greater than I can do justice in this brief Periscope. My hope is that we can all follow Dick's lead, by building up others and creating a legacy that outlives us.

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