A Life of Do
Kel Landis III personified civic leadership in small town and big city North Carolina alike. In the wake of his early death, what can his ethos of “losing yourself in doing” teach us about priorities in a reopened world? // Illustration by Carolyn Figel
Kel Landis III’s The Little Book of Do! was published in the summer of 2014 when he was 57 years old. Landis, a former marathoner who became a devoted walker, was healthy and happy. He had every reason to believe there was a long stretch of runway ahead.
Landis was good at getting things done. He was an Eagle Scout at 15 and president of a regional bank in his late 30s. Two decades later, he remained a high-energy businessman with a commitment to public service.
His book’s title was inspired by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who is credited (perhaps incorrectly) with saying, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.”
A spry 117 pages, the book is part self-help manual and part spiritual guide. With courage and planning, Landis wrote, you can do what matters to you and lead a fulfilled life. Achieving, he said, is not as important as the journey created by doing. “By doing,” Landis wrote, “you become.”
Landis acknowledged, almost grudgingly, that there are some things for which one cannot plan.
Four years after publishing the book, he was diagnosed with cancer. Landis died in January at 64 at his home in Raleigh, leaving behind friends and colleagues across the state inspired by his relentless positive energy and eagerness to get involved.
“Kel was always on a mission for good,” Gov. Roy Cooper, a longtime friend, said at his memorial video service. The animating force of Landis’ life was his belief that we can find ourselves if we lose ourselves in doing.
Landis with his wife, Nina Szlosberg-Landis, and grandsons // photo courtesy of the Landis family
Landis had a stellar business career. He was the CEO of RBC Centura Bank when it made important acquisitions, and he later co-founded Plexus Capital, a successful firm with offices in Raleigh and Charlotte that invests in small businesses.
From his 20s, though, Landis was determined to leave a broader mark. He was chairman of the United Way and YMCA in Rocky Mount, his hometown where he lived much of his life. He coached girls and boys basketball, volunteered in the local soup kitchen and homeless shelter, and led the fundraising campaign for Rocky Mount’s Martin Luther King Jr. Park. He mentored veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.
He served on boards at UNC-Chapel Hill, Elizabeth City State University, the North Carolina Community Foundation, and the NC Bankers Association. He was an economic adviser to Gov. Mike Easley. He was a key player—perhaps the key player—in raising money to build the North Carolina Freedom Park, near the state Legislative Building, to honor contributions of African Americans in the state.
Landis called himself a community servant and considered North Carolina his community. “Regardless of experience or background, we all have the capacity to give back to our communities,” Landis wrote. “The rewards for community service are different from those received from business or personal accomplishments. All feel great, but community achievements confer a deeper level of satisfaction.”
I knew Landis for 25 years. We were participants in a leadership program in the mid-1990s and stayed in touch. I was working in North Carolina as a journalist, and he was involved in so many aspects of the state’s public life that our paths often crossed. He was personable but intense. He acknowledged in the book, “By nature, I am tightly wound.” In typical Landis fashion, he had strategies to address that too.
Landis called himself a community servant and considered North Carolina his community // photo courtesy of the Landis family
We had our disagreements. Sometimes he liked our coverage in The News & Observer, where I was an editor till the end of 2018; sometimes he didn’t. He had strong opinions but he would listen—deeply and genuinely—to other views. He didn’t hold a grudge and always moved on to the next thing he was working on.
If you knew Landis, you admired his zeal to seize the day. His death, combined with some other recent events (including the death of a mutual friend of ours), prompted me to rethink how I was spending my time. I decided to leave an editing job in Washington, D.C., take some time off, and reassess the path ahead.
I had intended to write about Landis after his death in January. I don’t typically procrastinate, but I kept putting it off. Not surprisingly, Landis, a classic get-up-and-go, Type A personality who probably never dallied a day in his life, addressed procrastination in his book. He urged the reader to confront the stalemate by writing down the cause of the delay.
If I had done that, I would have written: I do not want to acknowledge that a person as physically fit, energetic, and public spirited as Kel Landis could be gone at 64. As far as I can tell, cancer was the only setback that ever slowed him down.
Landis always had a sense that the clock was running. At the beginning of chapter one, he noted that a 30-year-old has, on average, about 19,000 days remaining. A 60-year-old has about 9,000.
I had never seen anyone forecast life spans in terms of days, and I asked Landis about this when his book was published. He’d had heart surgery the year before. It was successful and he was in excellent health, but increasingly he was aware of the passage of time. “We do have a finite amount of time,” he told me. “You want to make the most of it.”
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Landis’ daughter, Dorsey Tobias, 35, has reread the book several times since his death. It sounds like the man she heard all her life. “When he was in bed at home in the final days and I was sitting beside him, I would read it,” she told me, “just so I could hear his voice.”
She is her father’s daughter. Tobias is executive director for marketing, communications, and strategy at Nash UNC Health Care in Rocky Mount, married with two young children and involved in her community. (Landis also is survived by his mother, brother, wife, and son.)
Tobias is proud of her father’s everyman style. He promoted causes, not himself, and worked to understand others’ predicaments and perspectives. He treated people from all walks of life equally.
Landis with UNC-Chapel Hill students. A Carolina graduate, he served in numerous roles, including as a university trustee and as chairman of the UNC Board of Visitors // photo courtesy of the Landis family
For his book, Landis interviewed Rev. Robert Seymour, the pastor at Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill who helped Dean Smith, then a young assistant basketball coach, integrate town restaurants 60 years ago. (Seymour died in October.) When The Washington Post’s John Feinstein asked Smith about this years later, he didn’t want to talk about it. “You should never be proud of doing what’s right,” Smith said. “You should just do what’s right.”
The anecdote made a big impression on Landis, and he retold it in his book. Before learning about Smith’s comment, Landis wrote, “I was quite proud of my civic and community involvements. Now, however, I view these contributions in a different light. I do my best to check my pride at the door.”
At his digital memorial service, Gov. Cooper and three former governors—Easley, Bev Perdue, and Jim Hunt—joined Landis’ colleagues, family, and friends in reminiscing about his gung-ho spirit.
Near the end of his life, Tobias told me, “He never made us feel anything [other] than he was at peace. He said, ‘You just got to keep doing what you’re doing.’ Even in his final days he was determined to stand up and walk ... and do all for himself. There was still that deep ‘do’ in him. He just kept doing and moving forward with all that was in him.”
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From 2013 to 2017, the writers James and Deborah Fallows traveled across America in a single-engine propeller airplane and visited dozens of towns. The national government, riven by bitter partisan differences and endless bickering, struggles to meet the challenges of the moment, they wrote in their 2018 book, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America.
But across the country, people of different political philosophies set aside their differences to work together to make their communities better. In doing so, the authors said, those people are reweaving the national fabric in a way that might not be apparent to us, given the rancorous spirit of the times.
Because of these “local patriots,” our country is becoming a better version of itself. Therefore, the Fallowses said, our transformation as a nation must start locally and regionally. They cite polling that shows while Americans are pessimistic about the country as a whole, they are optimistic that their own communities are moving in the right direction.
In each town, the Fallowses would ask, “Who makes this town go?” The range of answers varied widely. “What mattered was that the question had an answer,” they wrote. In our town of North Carolina, Kel Landis was one of the people who made it go.
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John Drescher is a former executive editor of The News & Observer and most recently was an editor at The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @john_drescher.