Speaking to the men of the Community Presbyterian Church in Danville before Easter, Perry—now a senior Google executive—described how his grew up poor. His parents were assembly-line workers in Detroit and they routinely ran out of money before they ran out of month. There was little talk of God in their home—they went to church on Easter and at Christmas and that was it.
During one season, when both parents were laid off, finances got so tight that they were on welfare and had sold virtually all their furniture. Kirk did well in school and excelled as a wrestler, so he was set for college on a wrestling scholarship. Then he tore up his shoulder and there went the scholarship. Instead, he managed a fast food restaurant for 18 months to save up enough money to attend college.
He worked his way through school and along the way came to the attention of Proctor and Gamble. He joined the famous consumer goods firm and rapidly rose in the ranks. He was moved to Korea and Japan to run operations there when life struck hard.
While back home in the summer and on a business trip in New York, he received a phone message from his wife (this was pre-cell phones.) It took several calls before he finally reached his in-laws who told him his wife was at the hospital with his oldest daughter and he needed to come home. At La Guardia airport he reached his wife on a pay phone (remember them?) and learned his six-year-old daughter had kidney cancer. He said he hung up and was weeping with the awful news.
An older woman behind him grabbed him in a powerful hug that Kirk said he will never forget. Neither said a word and they have not seen each other again, but that embrace brought a sense of peace to him.
It was a rollercoaster ride with his daughter’s treatment. The doctors’ initial fears that the cancer had spread were wrong. It was contained to one kidney and the surgery went well. The recovery was something else as a few days later his daughter was consumed by horrible pain. Kirk finally called all the docs together and they prepared for a five-hour surgery to relieve scar tissue with the fear that her colon has burst spreading infection.
That again ended very well—the issue was limited—all organs were intact, and the pain was relieved. She made a full recovery and now is teaching school in the San Jose area.
One encounter in the hospital left lasting memories for Kirk. He was walking the hall and saw a girl propped up in bed with a funnel going into her head, so the chemo could be dripped directly on the brain tumor. Her dad, holding a bible, was sitting at her bedside. They talked, and Kirk learned that she had about a 5 percent chance of surviving, but her dad saw every day as a gift.
After this experience, he realigned his priorities completely, putting his family and his God where they belonged. As he did so, his career took off even faster. He was running a major North American business—after being the youngest vice-president—was one of the top 20 executives. As the company leaders started to groom him for a potential top position, a board member was assigned as his mentor and took him out to Silicon Valley for a series of meetings to learn more about how innovation drives that culture. His last meeting was at Google and a happenstance mention about a position that had been open for 15 months perked a bit of interest.
His wife dismissed the thought of moving to California, but agreed to let him check it out. That started a five-month courtship that ended when he agreed to take the new position. One key marker was when Kirk, by this time a leader in a larger Cincinnati church, sent the H.R. person recruiting him a copy of the message he had delivered the prior Sunday. His note said he strived to be the same person seven days a week.
After three days of wondering, he got back an email saying, “Google will love you and you will love Google.”
He said his first year as brand president was very difficult—new company and new role to create a new division; finding a new church, commuting from home for eight months. They got through it and then he faced his own health challenge: what physicians thought was stage 2 thyroid cancer. By the time he was finishing up treatment—he hoped—it was stage 4. When he received that word, he was at the end of the planned treatment with a final scan for iodine. Instead of a clear x-ray, his was lit up like a Christmas tree.
His family was out-of-town at the time and he went to his car and sat there screaming. A woman in medical scrubs tapped on the window and asked him if he was alright. He said yes—she said it didn’t look like it. She assured him that he would be OK and again he felt peace.
Two women he had never met who entered with a hug or words of comfort when he was feeling all alone.
When the follow-up scan was done three months later, it was completely clear.
His takeaways that evening: he sees himself as a missionary in the marketplace—that’s where he believes he belongs. Community is so important, particularly in our culture that celebrates lone wolves. Friends who can help him see the gap between where you are and where God wants you to be.