What kind of a guy buys a lighthouse? What kind of a guy can buy a lighthouse?
I was thinking of that recently as I sat on a South Shore beach, listening to excitement rise in Joe Castiglione’s radio voice as a home-team fly ball cleared the bullpen wall at Fenway.
In the near distance, like a stony sentinel a mile off Cohasset, Minot’s Ledge Light rises out of the Atlantic, beaming its famous sequence – one flash (pause), four flashes (pause), three flashes (pause) – charmingly decoded as “I love you.’’
Fine. But who owns the thing? I had read that the government had auctioned it off in 2014 and I tracked down the new owner at his sprawling apartment suite overlooking Boston Common.
So who buys a lighthouse?
The same guy who purchases a meteorite that fell from the heavens in Ghana and places it in a little red wagon in his living quarters. His own piece of the Big Bang sits near the Harley-Davidson motorcycle that music legend Sting gave him as a gift, not far from a bathroom ripped from a Boeing 747 and reconstructed high above Tremont Street.
“Fun?” Bobby Sager says, repeating my question. “Yes. Otherwise I wouldn’t do it. We’re all here for such a short time. I want to live the fullest possible life.’’
And with that, the discussion about lighthouses and meteorites was over for the moment. Let’s talk about something more serious, more substantial, suggested Sager, 62, sporting a gray T-shirt, dark slacks, and stocking feet.
First, a little background: Sager grew up in Malden, where he met and married his high school sweetheart. He studied economics at Brandeis and has a master’s degree in management from Yale. He and his partner made their fortune by transforming a small Boston jewelry liquidator into a worldwide financial advisory company.
In 2000, he’d had enough. “I thought that spending my time making more money wasn’t going to make my life better,’’ he told me. “It was kind of redundant.’’
And, with that, the Sager Family Traveling Foundation and Roadshow was born. He and his wife pulled their two children out of school and traveled the world. Nepal. Sri Lanka. Rwanda. South Africa. Pakistan. Brazil. Australia. Their goal? A brand of on-the-ground and up-close philanthropy that assesses needs and then fashions programs to meet them.
Along the way, he’s fostered micro-lending in Third World countries, befriended the Dalai Lama (“A great sense of humor”), sat with Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa, and replaced the ragtag soccer balls used by African children with brand-new indestructible yellow ones. The message: “I don’t do charity. I only help people who help themselves.’’
He’s courted controversy, once sending a supportive email to a top adviser of Syria’s dictator before candidly acknowledging “I was certainly wrong.’’
Sitting at a table just steps away from where Hillary Clinton recently appeared at a fundraiser, Sager said he’s driven by a counterintuitive impulse: a kind of altruistic selfishness.
“I’m not doing this because I was touched by an angel, or because I feel guilty about making too much money,’’ he said. “The only reason I ever wanted to make money was to be able to make choices. Be selfish. Go help someone.’’
His globetrotting children, now 25 and 22, have learned this important lesson: “Poor people are happy with almost anything.” Rich people? Sometimes nothing makes them happy.
But he is. Renovations on Minot Light, for which he paid $222,000, begin in earnest next summer. Among other things, the lighthouse needs to be repointed and sealed up.
He plans to knock down one ceiling to combine two floors into one, transforming it into a panoramic conference room — sort of a majestic aquatic meeting space.
He imagines his family gathering there on sultry summer nights, the reflection of a full moon dazzling like diamonds on the Atlantic.
He also envisions it as a place where representatives of societies that wage war against each other, that commit unspeakable atrocities, can sit across from each other and find common ground.
High above them, Minot Light’s signature 1-4-3 beacon will spread its simple message across the sea: I love you.