The Vanguard Group


  Telltale Hearts


Remarks by John C. Bogle, Founder, The Vanguard Group
Before the Nicholas Green Scholarship Fund Luncheon
Investment Company Institute
Washington DC

May 17, 2000

I can’t think of a more apt title than "Telltale Hearts" for my talk today. For I will indeed tell you a tale of two hearts. Both of them continue their unremitting beat, as regular as the seconds that tick away on your watch (if a bit faster), but both of them are also—behold a miracle!—"thumping away like native drums" in human beings with whom they had not yet been united just six years ago. One is the tale of a heart given by a young American boy. The other is the tale of a heart received by an aging businessman.

Fitting as the title is, I confess that I borrowed it from a "Talk of the Town" piece I read in The New Yorker only a week ago, perhaps inspired by Edgar Allen Poe. Hearts have been in the news, and that brief essay (which included the wonderful metaphor about native drums that I quoted at the outset) talked about the heart of the Dauphin of France—Louis XVII, had he been crowned—and the fossilized four- chambered heart of a dinosaur, recently discovered in South Dakota. "If the Dauphin’s heart ends one legend," the essay noted, "the dinosaur’s amazingly modern heart feeds another . . . yet within these two hearts beats one story, for the truly odd thing is that we care so much . . . We want a heart to be a heart," Adam Gopnik’s essay continues, "the final thumping vault of our deep, permanent incurable folk vitalism, the summer house of the particular spirit. Le coeur est mort, vive le coeur!" The heart is dead, long live the heart!

Telltale Heart #1

But I want to tell you the tales of two other hearts, those I mentioned at the outset. The first tale is of young Nicholas Green, an extraordinarily gifted seven-year old American boy who was murdered by thugs on a highway in Italy five and one-half years ago. It was a brutal tragedy, redeemed only by a gesture of extraordinary grace by his parents; an act of love—under circumstances to which, I fear, few of the rest of us could rise—so sweeping in its nobility as to defy our own humdrum, self-centered imaginations.

A few weeks ago, I read again The Nicholas Effect, the beautifully-written story of young Nicholas’ life and death, and the role of his organs in the rebirth of seven Italian people. I felt the same overpowering sense of tragedy and triumph, of sadness and hope that I felt when I read it a year ago, a gift from Reg Green, the author and Nicholas’ father. I couldn’t avoid tears as Reg recounted the story of his happy family vacation, hiking in the Alps, then on to Southern Italy. His son is a seven-year old boy thrilled by the stories of classical "heroes risking their lives for the common good . . . and puzzled by the cheap tricks of gods who know better;" an imaginative boy who dressed up and emulated the swashbuckling deeds of Robin Hood; a typical boy who liked spaghetti and Parmesan cheese, but wouldn’t eat his crusts; a sensitive boy who on his last night of life told his father, "when I was in the water, some sea splashed in my face. When I licked it off, it tasted really good."

And then tragedy. On the autostrada near the Italian coast, late at night, the two children asleep in the back of the car, evil strikes. A car draws next to the Greens, malevolent men screaming at them to pull over. Petrified and having no other sensible choice, Reg increases speed. Explosions blow out the car’s windows. The Greens speed away. The outlaws’ headlights gradually disappear. All is well. Fright subsides, and the Greens are mightily relieved.

But when they stop, little Nicholas, in the back seat, is not moving. The police are called. An ambulance comes. The boy is taken to the hospital, but only after Reg puts in his hand the little shred of sheepskin Nicholas takes to bed with him. The next day, "the small shoots of hope wither away." The bullet has lodged at the base of his brain. Another day of hoping for a miracle, and then, "I have bad news. We can find no sign of brain activity." Nicholas Green has died.

And now the triumph. A few moments later, either Reg or Maggie Green—they can’t remember which—says, "Now that he’s gone, shouldn’t we give his organs?" And the other says "yes." In his book, Reg tells us that, "it was the least difficult decision we have ever had to make; the boy we know was not in that body any more." The triumph begins with seven organ transplants—the heart to a fifteen year-old Italian boy who had spent half his life in a hospital, the liver to a 19-year old Sicilian girl in her final coma, the kidneys to a girl fourteen and a boy seven, previously ruled by dialysis machines. Pancreas cells to a Roman, and corneas for two Sicilians, restoring their sight. Seven human beings, some given an enriched life, the others given that miracle of miracles, a second chance at life.

The Nicholas Effect

And then the triumph soars. The whole world is electrified by the story of this tragedy, of American grace in a foreign land, and of the miracle of organ transplantation. Newspapers, magazines, radio, television, all cover the story and inspire an awakening of the staggering need for organ donors. This awakening becomes known as "the Nicholas Effect," as around the globe millions become aware of transplants and the monumental good that the families of those who die can bestow on those anxiously hoping to escape death, and to live healthier, happier, more productive lives. The largest hospital in Italy is now named the Nicholas Green Hospital. "Grazie, Nicholas," indeed. Pope John Paul II blesses the main bell for the Children’s Bell Tower erected in Nicholas’ memory in Bodega Bay, California, the Green’s hometown. And the world is a better place.

Reg Green speaks: "Transplantation is a leap of the human spirit that transcends mere numbers. Death we know has a necessary purpose, replacing the old and infirm with fresh life. But in its clumsy way death gathers up spring flowers too. Transplantation meant that we were no longer at the mercy of this arbitrariness. We had a say in the outcome."

Yes, Reg and Maggie, you did. And I claim the high privilege of saluting you in a way that few other mortals can. For I received my own second chance at life four years and three months ago, when the heart of a 26-year old man was transplanted into my chest. It is simply impossible for me not to liken the heart that departed the broken body of a young Nicholas Green in October 1995 with the heart that was implanted in the damaged body of aging John Bogle on February 21, 1996.

Telltale Heart #2

The link is more than merely the timing. Reg Green has been a mutual fund industry colleague of mine since the 1970s. He tells part of my story in his book. After saying some generous words about my reputation, he writes:

"Jack Bogle, chairman of the Vanguard Group, wore a pacemaker when I first met him in the 1970s and played tennis with the punishing energy he brought to everything. "That’s going to kill him," I thought. But no, he went on increasing in influence, fathering index mutual funds and conducting his crusade against anything he thought smacked of laxity. To him, the fiduciary responsibility in handling other people’s money is an almost sacred trust.

More than twenty years passed and at last even his battling heart was ready to give up. He was saved by one of those five thousand families in this country who, with no idea what the results will be, make their gift to the world. I wrote to him to say I couldn’t think of a better result of transplantation than that it could save a man of his ethical and intellectual stature. His reply was typical: generous praise for donors, a sense of hope for the world, and a copy of his latest speech castigating mutual fund fees that he felt were too high."

I’ll comment later on those three elements that Reg sensed in my reply: Praise for donors, hope for the world, and continuing my mutual fund mission. But first I’ll tell the tale of my heart. I was born with a rare genetic heart disease called right ventricular displaysia, which first manifested itself in 1960 when, playing tennis at age 30, I suffered what was then believed to be a standard heart attack. Six weeks in a local hospital, but an elusive recovery. Periodic bouts of ventricular arrhythmia, normally entailing a late-night mad rush to the hospital, became more frequent, and I was warned that my life might be short. In 1967 I went off to the Cleveland Clinic for treatment. The doctors there decided that a pacemaker—then brand-new, and large!—would relieve my symptoms. The operation very nearly terminated my existence, and when I returned home the arrhythmia’s continued to interrupt my life.

I sought the finest cardiologist in the nation, and in Boston found Dr. Bernard Lown, one of the world’s truly great physicians, skilled, yes, but a superb humanist, too. Without his care, I doubt I’d be alive today. While he was confident that the initial diagnosis was wrong and the pacemaker unnecessary, he could not identify the disease, and put me on a heavy dose of anti-arrhythmia drugs. While my problems continued, they did not appear life-threatening, and he agreed to allow me to continue my active business career. I had become head of Wellington Management Company in 1967, and also served as ICI chairman in 1969-71, an extremely active participant in the fund industry. He also allowed me to return, after a seven-year absence, to tennis and squash.

The arrhythmias continued, albeit with less frequency, and on each occasion I’d be off to Boston for two or three weeks in the hospital, where I tried new drug protocols, took scores of stress tests on the treadmill, and determined to press on and let nothing disturb my pace. (Parenthetically, in 1974, amidst all this activity, I was fired by Wellington, but before the year was out had founded Vanguard.) Even a cardiac arrest on the squash court in 1980—when my opponent saved my life by pounding on my chest—couldn’t slow me down. But I did begin to carry a portable defibrillator around with me for protection. Inevitably, however, time took its toll. More cardiac arrests, one in a school auditorium in 1986 (I was revived by two doctors doing CPR); another in a railroad station in 1988 (I think my tumble to a hard floor jarred my heart into starting), forced me to slow and then cease my athletic endeavors, and by 1992, it was clear that only a heart transplant would keep me alive.

Still on Watch

Within a year, I could barely climb the stairs, and I was placed on Status B on the waiting list for a transplant. But you have to be Status A to get top priority. Good news (in a sense) my condition deteriorated! I was placed on Status A in the summer of 1995, and was admitted to Philadelphia’s Hahnemann Hospital on October 17, 1995. Just the day before, an optimistic omen: I received in the mail a wristwatch from a devoted shareholder in California. On the dial were printed our Vanguard logo, my name, and a phrase that was an indication I was still looking out for our shareholders: "Still on Watch." It was also an outrageous pun: "Still on Watch." Confident that it would be my rabbit’s foot, I put the watch on my wrist, where, having proved itself, it remains to this day. (Yes, I knew about the $50 limit on gifts. So I checked the catalog for the price. It was $14. Talk about value!)

Shortly before I was admitted, only the left half of my heart was beating. Conscious both of my duty to our shareholders and the possibility that a new heart might not arrive in time, I turned my chief executive responsibilities over to my successor, with his and the Board’s agreement that I’d remain as Chairman. The long wait began, and I was placed on life-prolonging drugs for the duration, carrying my bag of intravenous fluid with me on a pole whenever I walked around the floor. My guardian angels—the physicians and nurses at the hospital, led by Dr. Susan Brozena—kept me alive, as day after day we waited. There is no favoritism in the transplant arena. (I’ve described it as "democratic as a traffic jam.") We are all, in essence, date-stamped in priority. A healthy heart—usually the survivor of a violent accident that leaves its owner brain dead—arrives sporadically, two months of drought, then two hearts in three days, and so on.

Unlike nearly all of those who watched and waited with me, I worked at my Vanguard duties each day, usually starting at about 10:30 a.m. after the doctors’ rounds were over. Our Annual Report season is long—August through January fiscal years—and I wrote, as was my career-long practice, each one. Daily visits from my wonderful wife, usually around 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., broke the pace. When she’d leave, I’d go back to work until 10 p.m., read the papers until 10:45, then get a sleeping pill, tackle The New York Times crossword puzzle, and fall into a fitful sleep about 11:00, but only after reading the 23rd Psalm and saying a prayer which always ended, "not my will but Thy will be done."

"You Have a New Heart"

The doctors and nurses thought I was daft, but the time passed with reasonable ease. At last, after 128 days in the hospital, I was awakened at about 2 a.m. on February 21. My new heart had arrived! I called my family with the good news, tried to finish what was my final Annual Report, was prepped for the operation, and, as is the custom, was given a rousing sendoff by the others awaiting transplant as I was rolled out to the elevator. The next thing I remember is waking up in what seemed to be blackness, doctors hovering over me. I was frightened that something had gone wrong, and then heard the most wonderful words imaginable: "Congratulations. You have a new heart. And it is young and strong."

After some terribly difficult times during the year that followed (none enough to slow the busy pace of life to which I had returned), I’ve had a truly remarkable recovery. I’ve had 32 heart biopsies, all marked "zero" in my body’s effort to reject the priceless heart I’d received—the approximate equivalent of a pitcher with a perfect game about to start the 33rd inning. The only match required in a heart transplant is blood type (I’m an "O", which means the longest wait), but my donor’s body chemistry must have been quite similar to mine—a special break, since it enabled me to quickly cease use of the meanest anti-rejection drug of the bunch—prednisone. I still pop almost 20 pills a day (down from 55), but they’re all pretty benign.

It turns out too that older recipients are less likely to experience problems because our rejection mechanisms aren’t as powerful as those of the young. That fact has allayed, to a small degree, my fear that I was not as deserving as a younger person with a long life ahead. My recovery has also been enhanced, I think, by my willingness—my eagerness, really—to adhere to a rigorous, virtually fat-free, salt-free, anything-you-truly-enjoy-free diet, and my unalloyed delight at being able to exercise to, well, my heart’s content. My wife and I do lots of walking and some biking; we climb an occasional (if small) mountain in the Adirondacks; and I’m back hoisting the sails of my ancient 15-foot O’Day Javelin, Blue Chip, and sailing her around Lake Placid. And, yes, I’m back playing squash, which poses absolutely no heart risk whatsoever. In short, I’ve got it made!

Almost everyone I meet tells me how well I look, and I always respond that, "I couldn’t possibly look as well as I feel." Telephone callers seem surprised at the power of my voice. Of all the compliments, however, my favorite took place a year after the great day, when I was standing outside a lecture room at Princeton, waiting for an alumni seminar to begin, my name badge on my jacket, but without my class numerals. An alumnus walked by, turned, looked at me, and said, "oh, John Bogle. How’s your father doing after his heart transplant." Go ahead, make my day!

Continuing My Mutual Fund Mission

Now, how I should use the truly incredible energy and enthusiasm I enjoy in my new lease on life is an issue that perplexes me. Through Vanguard’s Bogle Financial Markets Research Center, I’ve simply stepped over the boundary, as it were, between Greece and Rome, where each ancient god had the same name—then Zeus, now Jupiter. I’m carrying on my quarter-century-long mission of doing my best to insure that all 80 million mutual fund investors get a fair shake, though so far my progress has not been notable. I’m traveling, largely around the U.S., writing incessantly, speaking to groups frequently, and working a business day that I honestly think is surpassed by few of my Vanguard colleagues.

My second chance at life has also given me the opportunity to write another best-seller, Common Sense on Mutual Funds. And this September McGraw-Hill will publish my third book. It will be the first volume of their new series Great Ideas in Finance, entitled John Bogle on Investing: The First 50 Years. Why 50 years? Because it includes my Princeton senior thesis on the mutual fund industry that I began to write in December 1949 and completed in April 1951, published at last. Even back then, as you’ll see, I was calling on this industry to operate in "the most efficient, economical, and honest way possible." The more things change, the more they remain the same, I guess.

I can’t really explain the dauntless, indefatigable attitude I’ve had through all those 40 years of physical challenge, nor my failure to fall into the slough of despond, nor my passion to "press on, regardless"—the classic family phrase that is the title of the last chapter of my new book. But an article that I read in The New York Times a few weeks ago may explain it:

"When confronted with a life-threatening disease, most people want to do precisely what they were doing before that awful day when the doctor gave them the news . . . some collapse under the pressure, but most want to be the way they were. George Bernard Shaw called it a life force—what you experience as a human being, a determination to get back into life, to be a part of life."

And yet today I have doubts. Why have I been so blessed? "Why me, I ask," a question I’d never asked during the dark days. Is continuing my mission my best and highest use? Is that what the Lord expects of me? Have I outlived my use to the company I created and into which I’ve put my heart and soul over all those years? Am I being fair to my family—my wife, my six children, my twelve grandchildren? But my "press-on" attitude is so strong that while these questions trouble my mind, usually in the wee hours of the morning, they quickly pass away, and I’m back to my old self. In fact, I have but a single post-transplant regret: Despite the miracle that has given me a second chance at life that has to be seen to be believed, I fear that I am pretty much the same deeply-flawed human being I’ve always been. But, by golly, I’m determined to be better!

Gratitude to the Donors

You’ll recall that Reg saw in my letter to him not only my determination to continue my mutual fund mission, but my generous praise for donors. How could I have not expressed my gratitude to Reg? Who is really to say that the donor of my heart wasn’t part of the Nicholas Effect, inspired by the Greens’ nobility to sign a donor option card? And of course I also expressed my gratitude to the family of my donor, who proved to be a young man, only 26 years of age. (This information was kept quite secret. I learned it by happenstance when I met the recipient of my donor’s liver—now a sort of cousin of mine, I guess—whose wife made the linkage when she read a news article about my transplant on the same date as his.)

It’s difficult to write a letter like that. Indeed it took me until Thanksgiving 1996—a thoroughly appropriate, if belated, day—to put down the words. "Thank you for the love and human kindness you displayed, I wrote in part, "by allowing the heart of your loved one to continue to beat in the body of another human being . . . it is a medical miracle, but a spiritual miracle as well, for I am renewed in body and in spirit." My note was never answered. It might have been that the family was too heartbroken to respond, or they decided not to reveal themselves, or could not read English, or perhaps there were no remaining family members. But I hope that, if there were, I gave them a moment of solace and peace.

I’ve also spoken to groups of donor families, surely the hardest audiences I’ve ever had to face. In 1998, as the "heart speaker" along with the recipients of other organs, I said, in part:

"We are unlikely to know the age, or sex, or race, or nationality, or religion of the person you have loved and lost, nor will you know those things about us. But we all can know, finally, that while the world in its ignorance magnifies those superficial attributes of who we are, none of those things truly matter. What matters is that we live the best lives that we can while God gives us life, and act with human kindness always, even when a life is over. That you have done, in an act of giving that is the noblest deed a family could ever do."

Shocked and grief-stricken in an alien land, yet unhesitantly donating young Nicholas’ organs, Reg and Maggie Green are the apotheoses of that nobility.

To donate a loved one’s heart is not an easy decision, even under circumstances when you might think it would be. At one meeting of donor families at which I spoke, I met a man with three ribbons on his lapel—two green, one gold. He’d received two organs, and had lost a family member whose organs were donated. It turned out that he had received two heart transplants, five years apart. A year later, his son died in an automobile accident. But the decision to allow his son’s heart to be donated, he told me, "was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make." I could only say, "God bless you."

A Sense of Hope for the World

Reg’s final words about my letter to him mentioned my sense of hope for the world. How could one not feel hope for the world in the majestic union of human nobility and miraculous scientific advance that transports the human heart from a body that has failed to a body that, absent the heart, will soon itself fail. In my hope for the world, I can only call your attention to the subtitle of The Nicholas Effect: "A Boy’s Gift to the World."

We celebrate and reaffirm his gift today. Through the Nicholas Green Scholarship Fund, each year we enable two or three young American students, gifted and promising and interested in international travel, even as was young Nicholas, to study abroad. As a judge, I’ve read, I suppose, the resumes of two dozen young people, and each one impressed me as extraordinarily worthy. It is our progeny who are our hope for a better world, and I urge each one of you and the fund groups you represent to make a gift to this fund in the same generous and noble spirit demonstrated nearly six years ago by our colleague of 30 years, Reg Green, and his wife, Maggie. Reg was born in Great Britain, but he exemplifies the American spirit of generosity to others, first noted by Alexis de Toqueville nearly 200 years ago, as well as any human being I’ve ever known.

Now, the two telltale hearts have told their two tales. We can go back to our own material worlds and ordinary existences. But I hope that these tales will inspire you in the listening as they have me in the telling—the tales of the heart that Nicholas Green donated, and the heart that John Bogle received. Carry that inspiration to the world out there! Le coeur est mort, vive le coeur!"

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