SOS Bob Buford

Bob Buford is chairman of the board of The Buford Foundation/Leadership Network.

 “Adios, Ross”

There I was, sailing happily through my constructive midlife crisis, hoisting my “one thing” up the mast into place, spinnaker billowing in the balmy breeze.

Then, without warning, along came a rogue wave that blew the boat over.

I had gone through life more or less comfortable with the idea that there are some things you know, some things you suspect, and some things you’re just never going to understand. No less an authority than Aristotle spoke to that when he said that the soul operates on two levels: the rational, which takes in what can be seen and measured; and the sphere beyond the rational, which defies human comprehension and belongs in the realm of the gods.

But this new development threatened to plunge me into yet another dimension: the realm of the despondent.

My son Ross—our only child—was a person of great promise. He was my heir, my successor, and, in ways that may seem odd to you but absolutely real to me, one of my greatest heroes.

After Ross graduated from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, he moved to Denver to take a job as an investment banker. It was preparation for the time when he would come back to Texas to join the family business and eventually take a leadership position in it. He made $150,000 his first full year of work in the deal-making business, and his second year—only barely begun—would likely have sent his income soaring to over $500,000. There was big money to be made in his line of work in the late 1980s. But far more important than his financial successes, Ross was a good human being—determined, energetic, caring—with wonderful people skills. He had many friends, and he loved life in all its pleasures and ambiguities.

On the evening of January 3, 1987, I received a call from my brother Jeff, who told me that Ross and two of his friends had attempted to swim the Rio Grande River, which separates South Texas from Mexico.

“I think we have serious trouble,” Jeff told me in a voice that meant it. “Ross is missing in the Rio Grande.”

It was a lark that led the three young men to the Rio Grande: They wanted to experience what it was like for illegal aliens to cross the watery border into a land of promise. Ross was twenty-four years old, and it was the last adventure of his life on earth.

My brother informed me that the Texas Rangers were coordinating the search for Ross and one of his companions; the third young man was alive and frantic about the fate of his friends. I flew down to the Rio Grande Valley to join in the search, arriving by daybreak the next morning. I hired airplanes, helicopters, boats, trackers with dogs—everything that money could buy.

By three o’clock in the afternoon, I looked into the eyes of one of the trackers and knew that I would never see Ross again in this life.

I remember walking along a limestone bluff perhaps two hundred feet above the muddy and treacherous river, as frightened as I’ve ever felt. Here’s something you can’t dream your way out of, I told myself. Here’s something you can’t think your way out of, buy your way out of, or work your way out of.

It was all too clear in this maddening solitude on the river bluff. This is, I thought to myself, something you can only trust your way out of.

The incomprehensible was breaking out all around me, and there was no way I could understand it apart from an eternal perspective. Albert Einstein once said that “what is incomprehensible is beyond the realm of science. It is in the realm of God.” This was truly in the realm of God.

I remember sending up a prayer that, in retrospect, seems to be the most intelligent petition I ever made to heaven. “Dear God,” I pleaded, “somehow give me the ability to accept and absorb whatever grace people might bring to me at this terrible time. Amen.”

The search for Ross and his friend continued, and grace abounded in my life and relationships. They found Ross’ body in the spring, more than four months later, about ten miles downriver. Before his body was recovered, we had found on his desk at home in Denver a handwritten copy of his will, dated February 20, 1986, less than a year before the river swallowed his body. Through that long winter of fear and uncertainty, his words were also a grace to me.

“Well, if you’re reading my will, then, obviously, I’m dead,” Ross began. “I wonder how I died? Probably suddenly, because otherwise I would have taken the time to rewrite this. Even if I am dead, I think one thing should be remembered, and that is that I had a great time along the way. More importantly, it should be noted that I am in a better place now.”

The will directed how he wanted his earthly goods distributed, and Ross concluded the document with this benediction: “In closing, I loved you all and thank you. You’ve made it a great life. Make sure you all go up instead of down and I’ll be waiting for you at heaven’s gate. Just look for the guy in the old khakis, Stetson, and faded shirt, wearing a pair of Ray-Bans and a Jack Nicholson smile. I also thank God for giving me the chance to write this before I departed. Thanks. Adios, Ross.”

As horrifying and sad as it was, and is, to have lost him, Ross’ disappearance and death also provided the greatest moments of rare insight and grandest gestures of immeasurable grace and joy that I ever hope to experience. Utter emptiness and brokenness left me feeling awful and wonderful at the same time. Close and silent embraces from friends, letters and phone calls of concern and empathy, and gifts of meals prepared and brought to our home were much-needed signs of love. One letter, in particular, showed us just how much Ross’ life had been a witness to those around him:

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Buford,

Ross and I were best friends. All that he had, Ross shared with me. He shared his thoughts and ideas, his pleasures and his pains; he shared a whole lot of laughter. But most of all, he shared his love.

Well, now Ross has a new best friend. And now Ross is with his new best friend. But just as before, Ross continues to share. Today, Ross is sharing his new best friend with his old best friend.

I thank the Lord God for Ross, and I thank Ross for the Lord God.


Despite the comfort of those words, I was forced to lean on God entirely in those dark weeks after Ross’ death, to think often of the Scripture verse “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not to your own understanding.” I learned that God truly is sufficient and that his strength is made perfect in weakness. I learned that in my life on earth, I live as:

A pilgrim not In control

A steward not An owner

A soldier not With security

There is a simple Quaker prayer about giving and receiving that I uttered the night after I lost Ross and that I pray often to this day. Because the Quakers use their hands as a type of religious artifact or symbol, the first part of the prayer is done with your palms up, visualizing yourself receiving all that you need from God. The second part is prayed with palms down, visualizing all your cares and concerns being left in the lap of a benevolent and loving God.

I used this physical prayer when I spoke at a church two and a half weeks after we buried Ross.

“God,” I began, “you have given my life into my hands. I give it back to you. My time, my property, my life itself … knowing it is only an instant compared to my life with you (and with Ross) in eternity.”

With palms down, I concluded, “Father, to you I release the cares and concerns of this world, knowing you loved me enough to give your only Son in my behalf. I’m a sinner in need of a Savior and, once again, I accept what you have done for me as sufficient. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”

In his letter to the Romans, Saint Paul wrote a comforting message that has encouraged millions of troubled, despondent, broken believers over the centuries: “We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28 nasb). All things really do work together, but not without an eternal perspective.

I live in two worlds. One is the world of distraction and busyness. It’s the world of deal-making and score-keeping, of stock market booms and busts. That world is like a cloud; it’s going to perish. The other world I live in is where Ross is now—the world of the eternal. And it’s the reality of that latter world that allows me to respond, with confidence: “Adios, Ross, for now.”

This eternal perspective has made me return, with soaring consolation, to George Bernard Shaw’s eloquent passion for life and the responsibility to use it up each day. “I rejoice in life for its own sake,” Shaw wrote. “Life is no brief candle to me. It’s a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to the future generations.”

One reason I place my dear Ross on a short list of great heroes is because he was, despite the few years of his life, no brief candle. He was a splendid torch—vital, charismatic, magnetic, attractive—full of the attributes that all of us wish we had in greater abundance. Ross used his gifts to the full each day. He didn’t shortchange himself, even though his days among us were so few. Ross’ death, while tragic, was an inspiration to me to burn brightly while it is day.

John Donne, a famous English poet, once wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Allow yourself to listen for the bell. And before it tolls for you, allow it to be your wake-up call.

Read more from Bob Buford in his book, Halftime.

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