SSDP’s backbone has always been the courageous students who dedicate their time and energy to speak out against the War on Drugs on their campuses and in their communities. Yet the work of these students, and the dedicated national staff that supports and empowers them, would not be possible were in not for the generous support of the organization’s financial donors, particularly those who provide as much advice and guidance to SSDP’s leadership as they do financial contributions.
Few people embodied this spirit better than Dave Padden, an SSDP donor, supporter, friend, and mentor. I was deeply saddened when I recently heard the news that Dave passed away from a heart attack in October at the age of 84. Dave Padden was a man whose love of liberty and freedom guided his every move, including his generous support of SSDP and drug policy reform.
As executive director of a national non-profit like SSDP, raising money was always the most important part of my job. It was also the most stressful and nerve-wracking. As an organization that has always made the most out of a shoestring budget, failure to raise adequate donations would mean not having funds to support the important work of our chapters. On a personal level, it could mean having to lay off staff members who were not only crucial to the organization’s success, but whom I considered close personal friends. SSDP has never been just another non-profit organization whose employees are replaceable. SSDP’s staff has been so effective because they come from the ranks of our most successful activists. As executive director, I felt a deep obligation to ensure we could keep the staff paid and employed.
Fundraising can be scary and intimidating, but donors like Dave Padden made it an enjoyable experience. During my tenure as executive director, I would travel to Chicago three to four times a year to meet with Dave, and the experience was always pretty much the same. Dave would greet me with a warm smile and a firm handshake. We would walk to the kitchen for drinks, a diet Coke for him and ice water for me, and he would laugh that a “youngster” like myself didn’t drink soda.
We would then sit in his immaculate office, full of libertarian, historic, and sports memorabilia, and chat for a couple of hours. His assistant would bring us sandwiches from the local sandwich shop. And no meeting with Dave Padden would be complete without a moist brownie for desert. Sometimes I wondered if he took my meetings just as an excuse to break out the brownies, delicious as they were.
There was something incredibly comforting about this routine. It felt like visiting with a favorite uncle, instantly relieving the anxiety of knowing I was about to ask someone for a donation. And in fact, I rarely ever got a chance to ask him for one. At the end of each meeting before I could ask, Dave would walk to his checkbook, tell me how happy he is that a group like SSDP exists, hand me a check, and tell me he wished he could do more.
Conversations with Dave Padden always felt different than a typical funder meeting. Perhaps it was because I never felt as if I had to “sell” him on anything. We always settled into a very natural conversation about the state of drug policy reform, student activism, and politics in general. He loved hearing about the work SSDP students were doing on their campuses. As I told him stories of successful campaigns to enact life saving Good Samaritan policies on campuses, his eyes would swell with pride.
Dave was a staunch libertarian with a radical streak. He often envisioned a national day of action, where every cannabis consumer in the country simultaneously turned themselves in to the police. He loved the thought of completely overwhelming our criminal justice sweep in one fell swoop, so that the powers that be would have no choice but to end the War on Drugs. He laughed when he thought back to his university days, when marijuana didn’t exist on college campuses. And proclaimed how fortunate today’s young people are to have a much safer alternative in marijuana.
Over the years I developed a friendship with Dave Padden that went beyond drug policy reform. In 2007 he invited me to attend a Heartland Institute benefit dinner, as a guest at his family’s table. It was an eye opening experience. While I can’t say I agree with all of the libertarian principles celebrated that night, I left the event with a newfound respect for the intellectual honesty in which their principles are based. And of course, the Padden family were good-hearted people, proud to be a part of their family patriarch’s life work.
And Dave Padden loved his Chicago Bulls almost as much as he loved freedom, as I found out when we attended a Bulls game together in 2009. He knew the names of just about every person in his section, including the section’s usher with whom he loved spending time talking basketball.
My meetings with Dave Padden through the years made me a more confident fundraiser, and a better executive director of the organization. He often told me that he was so proud of SSDP’s work because he knew there would be a generation trained to carry on this important work when he was no longer around to see it. If there is such thing as an afterlife, I am sure Dave Padden is watching the work of SSDP activists all across the globe with great pride and admiration, knowing that the current generation of SSDPers is larger, stronger, and better organized than any that’s come before, and prepared to carry the torch of drug policy reform into the future. And should I be so lucky as to meet him again in another life, I’ll bring the brownies.