Jim Balassone, Bulamu Healthcare Co-founder, Remembered
Like many of you here today, I first met Jim about 55 years ago at Princeton, where we became good friends. I always enjoyed his positive, upbeat, and usually loud personality. After graduation, I could count on hearing from Jim every five years, about 6 months in advance of our major reunions. He had a way of pushing me beyond what I’d intended to give because of his good-natured persuasiveness.
Besides Reunions, I didn’t have much contact with Jim until the last ten years of his life when I got to know him much better. He was working for the Markkula Center at Santa Clara University at the time, where he headed up a Partnership of the leading ethics officers of Bay Area firms—general counsels and CFOs from companies like H-P, Apple and Intel. The group met quarterly for a full-day seminar on how to avoid ethical failures in business. In 2008, Jim invited me to be their guest speaker. What struck me about that day in Santa Clara was how professional Jim was in leading the meeting. The 30 or so Silicon Valley executives obviously liked and respected him and were happy to follow his lead.
Now let’s fast forward to the summer of 2016, when I got a call from Jim enthusiastically describing this NGO he had just started up with a Ugandan nurse whom he’d met while recovering from prostate surgery. He’d struck up a great friendship with this guy, whose name was Gerald. Over the following weeks, the two had talked at length about Gerald’s dream of starting a non-profit organization that would provide free primary healthcare to the rural poor of Uganda. To check out the feasibility of this idea, Jim traveled with Gerald to Uganda, where they met with government officials and visited a medical camp that was poorly organized and had to turn 800 people away. Jim told me about Thomas, the young boy whose earache pain was relieved by a few dollars in antibiotics, which Jim identified with because he had earaches when he was a boy. He returned from Uganda determined to join with Gerald and start a new organization, called Bulamu Healthcare, which would be properly organized so it never turned anyone away.
When I heard that story, I immediately agreed to send Jim a check. I responded again last February when he called to say that the first three camps had been a remarkable success. Now he was concerned that his network of family and friends was just not big enough to keep Bulamu growing at its current pace. They would soon be out of funds. He asked me if I happened to know Dennis Keller ’63, one of Princeton’s most generous benefactors. I told him that Dennis was a close friend, and that we would be staying at his house a few weeks later. Dennis turned out to be receptive, but before making a major gift he would have to see a Business Plan that laid out Bulamu’s operational model and financial forecast. Jim asked me if I would write such a plan, and once again, I could not turn him down.
In early April, I sent the completed Business Plan to Dennis. When Jim and Gerald read it, they invited me to join the Bulamu board. It was only a few weeks later that I got a call from Jim’s daughter saying that he was in the ICU with an obstructive lung disease. Gerald was also very surprised to learn this. It was an even bigger shock on April 26 when Jim wrote the board an email saying that he did not expect to be getting out of the hospital. He thanked us for our friendship, wished us Godspeed, and said he’d instructed his daughter to make a donation to Bulamu next January “if it is still a viable financial entity.”
On May 1, I received word from Dennis Keller that he would be making a substantial gift to Bulamu, enough to ensure its survival. I passed this great news on to the Balassone family, and they told me the next day that when Jim heard it, he gave them a big smile and thumbs up! He now knew that his last great fundraising effort for a cause he was passionate about would endure. A few days later, on May 6, Jim passed away.
I have now taken Jim’s place as board chair of Bulamu. To frame the success of what he and Gerald started just two years ago, in 2018 Bulamu will treat more than 50,000 poor Ugandans who would not otherwise be receiving healthcare, at a cost of about $5 per patient served. None of this would be happening if it were not for the happy coincidence that brought Jim and Gerald together in that hospital room. And it also might not have happened without the follow-on coincidence that brought Jim and me together for reasons that had nothing to do with Princeton, so I could take the baton from him and make his and Gerald’s dream my own as well. For that, and for being able to call Jim Balassone a friend, I will always be grateful.