Across the age divide, across the racial divide, across the gender divide, Bruce Dayton reached out to a rising leader named Laysha Ward.
Ward, then 31, had just been put in charge of the Target Foundation, which carries out the Dayton family’s legacy of returning profits to the community.
In sinuous cursive script, Dayton wrote to wish Ward well in her new responsibilities and invite her to lunch.
“I have to admit, I was nervous,” Ward said of their first meeting at the Minneapolis Club. “I was young, a Chicago transplant and wasn’t the traditional Norwegian or Scandinavian. But he put me at ease.”
A black woman 50 years his junior, Ward understood the power of meeting at the venerable downtown Minneapolis restaurant, a longtime gathering place of the city’s business, civic and political elite.
“By doing that he said, ‘You belong here.’ ”
For the next 15 years, Dayton became an important mentor as Ward rose to be Target’s executive vice president and chief corporate social responsibility officer.
They kept an annual lunch date, and he always picked up the tab. They talked on the phone when she needed a “quick brainstorm.” He continued to send handwritten notes. In recent years, as he grew frail, they met at his Orono home.
“He was a cheerleader in good times, and would catch and support me during the inevitable fall,” Ward said. “He’d say that if you’re not falling down from time to time, you’re not taking enough risks.”
The vast differences between them were “strengths and assets,” she said, “not detractors.”
“He had a way of instilling confidence and courage to do the job well. But to do it on my own terms. As he would say: I don’t expect you to be me.”