A Man Who Answered the Question: “Why Are We On This Planet?”

By John Hope Bryant 

founder, chairman and chief executive officer

Operation HOPE

I remember the moment like it was yesterday at 10am. I was boarding a flight, again, somewhere, and I got a special call on my cell. There, on the other end, was a booming voice rendered a bit more gentle and tender than usual, but none the less engaged, passionate, committed to the cause of others. It was my friend, mentor and board member Dr. Preston Martin, former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve System and financial pioneer in the space of financial empowerment of the poor, asking me how I was doing, and encouraging me to “do more” for others.

The odd aspect of this call is that Dr. Martin was only days away from passing from this place, and transitioning to another, stricken with an unforgiving and sudden form of cancer. And while the illness had claimed a number of physical victories, it had done nothing to impact either Preston’s utterly positive view on the world we live in, nor his view of our obligations to it. I think that being a giver literally extended Preston Martin’s life. It certainly made my life richer, and dreams possible.

You see, Dr. Martin, or “Pres” as friends called him, would ask repeatedly of most anyone he knew and considered to be a serious person this question, “what are you on this planet for?” I can hear him saying that now, with his finger lovingly pointed in my direction. Answering that question, in my life, became a clarion call of purpose finding over the decade and a half that Pres and I became friends; brothers committed to making the world better. ‘

Answering that question led me to found Operation HOPE, America’s first non-profit social investment banking organization, immediately following the worse riot in U.S. history, the Rodney King riots, and now operating around the world. As I answered that call, Pres answered mine.

I remember meeting Pres for the first time, standing beside his informal yet imposing “standing” desk in his city view San Francisco office. Pres, Dr. Martin, was an important man in the world, but I remember how he humbly and genuinely he took time with me. And it wasn’t mere charity, or some misguided sense that sympathy that guided Pres in these moments; he was making an investment in me. An investment of himself.

Over the 15 years we worked together, and grew as friends, he never once failed to take my calls, or make time for me or Operation HOPE. And making time, Pres did.

In Washington, D.C., Preston Martin was there for me.

I remember early on, Pres telling me that if I was going to be serious about making an impact in the area of empowering the poor with financial literacy, affordable housing and entrepreneurship, I needed to have a substantive relationship with and a good understanding of the Federal Reserve System, the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, and the presidents and key staff of the Federal Reserve Banks, around the country. “Yea, right,” I said. And “how, precisely was I supposed to do that,” I asked? Easy, says Pres, I will take you there myself. And so, Pres put me on a plane, and we flew together across the country to our nation’s capitol, where Pres literally walked me in to see the then vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, Roger Ferguson, now a friend of HOPE. It is noteworthy as well that Roger was the first African-American to become a vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, and it was because of his leadership that America averted a financial crisis in the days following 9/11. Pres only knew top notch people, and he always shared his friends and knowledge, when and where it could help.

I remember walking through the imposing Federal Reserve building in Washington, D.C., as Pres enthusiastically pointed not to acknowledgements of his own leadership there, as he also served as vice chairman there, but to paintings of his beloved and multi-talented wife, his “Genevieve,” as he called her. Paintings by Mrs. Genevieve Martin still adorn that imposing building, and Preston’s pride, once again “in the works of others,” said a lot about his character and what was truly important to him. Giving.

Today, Operation HOPE holds the unique distinction of having taken then Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan into an inner-city Washington, D.C. classroom, teaching a Banking on Our Future course in financial literacy
to low-wealth youth with high-wattage dreams. We have done the same with almost all of the Federal Reserve Bank presidents around the country since, and in 2006, Operation HOPE hosted the new Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke, where he gave a policy speech on the viability of our urban, under-served, inner city communities at the first ever Anacostia Economic Summit, in a low-wealth and often overlooked community of dignity, right outside of Washington, D.C. And while my friend at the Fed, Sandy Braunstein and others there deserve their own acknowledgement of leadership here, I would not have known even them, without Pres opening that first door. Our strong, substantive and ongoing relationship and partnership with the Federal Reserve System is the living legacy of one Preston Martin.

In communities of color, Preston Martin was there for me. I remember asking Pres to travel the nation with me, at his own expense mind you, talking to the media and government and private sector leaders about Operation HOPE, and the viability of our urban, inner city and under-served communities. Tour, we did.

You see, I presumed that leaders would expect me to say what I did about these communities, but they would never expect, and could not easily discount, the same or more being said by a Reagan era conservative who was the former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, the former chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank System, innovator of Freddie Mac and “responsible” adjustable rate mortgage lending, the founder of Neighborhood Housing Services of America, and the California banking regulator when Ronald Reagan was governor. They could attempt to discount me, assigning my interest to the liberal agenda of one born in the under-served communities I and we now serve, but not Pres Martin. He was a stand up guy, and he was “standing up” for the poor, the under-served and those left behind.

Pres traveled with me around the country, and one time in particular I remember that we stopped off in Philadelphia, PA. I remember Pres and I sitting in a round table session at a modest church and community center in the inner city of Philadelphia, sharing our vision for the future. Few showed up, and less acted on what they heard, but Pres encouraged me not to give up or give in. He told me that this was how all great things began, modestly, and with “mustard seed” size support. He told me simply to remember “what I was on this planet for,” and to keep moving forward. Well, I did and we did, and today Banking on Our Future, Philadelphia has educated more than 12,000 inner city youth, has recruited more than 120 HOPE Corps volunteers from our lead partner there, PNC Bank, amongst others, and is active in more than 20 schools, as well as the community center Pres and I once visited there. Banking on Our Future, Philadelphia is Pres Martin’s living legacy, and it is only appropriate that this year we will formally rename this office Banking on Our Future, Philadelphia, in honor of the life and living legacy of Dr. Preston Martin.

Yes, over the years Pres had many titles and honorable distinctions, but the greatest of these was service leader. “Pres,” Dr. Martin, Federal Reserve Governor Martin, Regulator Martin, Chairman Martin, Founder Martin, Father and Husband Martin, was a giver. One of the world’s greatest.

Thank you Pres, for helping us all understand what it means to ask, and to answer, the most important question of our lives, “what are we on this planet for?”

You answered it Pres, and in so doing, you have inspired a nation, and a world better. You inspired me.

Preston Martin was “promoted,” at the tender young age of 83, on May 30, 2007, in San Francisco, California.

We love you Pres. Your life work lives on.


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