Michele Flournoy’s Eulogy of Shawn

Shawn Brimley backpacking before cancer

Below is the eulogy that Michele Flournoy gave at Shawn’s funeral.

Shawn Brimley was an extraordinary human being. A devoted husband and father. One of the country’s most brilliant and respected defense intellectuals. An innovator and institution builder. A truly beloved colleague, mentor and friend. And an example for us all.

He was in his prime, his sun still rising in what seemed like a bright blue sky. He died too young and too suddenly, and we – those who loved him — are left behind in shock, heartbroken, bereft.

But if Shawn were here, he would want us to complement our grief with a celebration of his life.

For Shawn LOVED life.

He loved HIS life.

And he lived every day with gusto, purpose, creativity, kindness, a sense of humor, and particularly at the end, with incredible grit and grace.

As most of you know, Shawn was born in Ontario, Canada in 1977. He grew up there with his parents, Sheryll and Bill, and his sisters, Sarah-Jane and Suzanne. After graduating from high school, he decided not only to pursue his BA at Queen’s University, but also to serve his country: Shawn served for 5 years in the Canadian Army Militia as a 2nd Lieutenant.

After completing his military service, he went to Japan to teach English, and there he met his wife Marjorie. So began a great love story and a new and defining chapter in Shawn’s life. Shawn and Marjorie were married in 2004 and made Washington, DC their home.

I first met Shawn almost 15 years ago when he applied to be my research assistant at CSIS. He was a 20-something “eager beaver” who started the interview by announcing that he had prepared by reading everything I had ever written – a form of torture I would not inflict on my worst enemies!

He was clearly whip-smart and a go-getter, so I hired him. As I’d come to realize later, in a way, Shawn had actually hired me.

That’s because Shawn quickly went from being my research assistant to being a close collaborator, to being my right hand, to being a full-fledged partner in all things professional.

When Kurt Campbell and I left CSIS to co-found a new think tank, CNAS, Shawn was the Center’s first employee. When I left CNAS to serve in the Obama Administration as Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Shawn was the first person I asked to come with me.

When I returned to CNAS, Shawn was there leading our research staff and program.

We worked side by side, again and again, in job after job.

And I can tell you this: There is NO ONE who I was more honored to work with

– NO ONE who was a more trusted and valued colleague than Shawn Brimley.

Most mornings, Shawn would arrive in my office doorway, Venti Starbucks in hand, and boom his customary greeting: “Helloooo, Flournoy! What’s happening?!” and then we would get to work. Frankly, it’s been hard to start the day without him.

Although he was only 40, Shawn lived a life richer and more consequential than most 80 year-olds can ever hope for.

He was a thought leader, with ideas and the experience to put them into effect.

He was a practitioner, who operated at the highest levels of national security, in the Pentagon and the White House.

He was a visionary, who aspired to make his adopted country stronger, more secure, and a “force for good” in the world.

He was a devoted American, who believed deeply and genuinely in our country’s founding ideals.

And Shawn was seized by a sense of mission, envisioning a world in which U.S. engagement and leadership makes things better for all people, everywhere.

Let me tell you just a bit about Shawn’s remarkable contributions to the national security field and to our country.

When he joined the Obama administration, this newly-minted American citizen helped to draft the Quadrennial Defense Review, which sets U.S. defense policy and priorities, as well as the U.S. national security strategy.

He later helped conceptualize a strategy for maintaining America’s military’s edge – a strategy that three Secretaries of Defense in a row have followed.

He was widely published, with his articles appearing in outlets like Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The New York Times, and War on the Rocks. He authored dozens of in-depth CNAS reports and policy papers. He testified repeatedly before House and Senate committees, and was widely sought out for his sage advice and counsel.

…And all this with only 15 years in the field!

And Shawn was recognized for his remarkable public service not only by his peers and close colleagues, but also at the highest levels.

I’d like to share with you a note that President Obama sent to Shawn when he heard that Shawn was fighting cancer:

“Shawn – I just learned of the challenges you are facing, and the tremendous courage you are showing.

I want to take this opportunity to thank you and Marjorie for the extraordinary contributions that you have made to our nation and its security.

All of us who worked with you benefited from your service; Claire, Austin and Tommy should be very proud of their Dad.

God bless,

Barack Obama”

Shawn was also an innovator and an institution builder.

When we started CNAS back in 2007, it was Shawn who helped define the unique culture that still makes it the best think tank to work at in Washington.

Later, when he returned to CNAS as Executive Vice President and Director of Studies, it was Shawn who played a leading role in putting the Center on a path to greater policy impact and institutional sustainability.

And most recently, it was Shawn who was ready to jump off the proverbial cliff with me once again to start Washington’s newest strategic advisory firm, WestExec Advisors.

Shawn was a founding partner, and central to defining the vision, offerings and culture of the company.

Always looking to be better, always looking for the next challenge, always game for a new adventure – that was Shawn.

And yet all these amazing accomplishments, all the energy and vision and intellect, hardly make the measure of the man.

Perhaps Shawn’s greatest and most enduring legacy professionally is not the profound effect he has had on national security policy and the institutions that support it…

but rather his extraordinary impact on his peers, and on the next generation of national security leaders.

Shawn was an incredibly gifted talent scout and a peerless team builder and mentor.

He personally touched – and helped to advance — the careers of dozens, maybe hundreds, of people in our field.

I want to share with you some of what I’ve heard from his colleagues:

“Shawn is the wisest person I have ever known. There is no one else whom I trusted more to give me good advice. ”

“CNAS is a special place.  It is that rare institution that people absolutely love working at and that also punches way above its weight. No one did more to build the collegial and collaborative culture of CNAS than Shawn.”

“Shawn was the therapist of the organization. Everybody came into his office with a problem and he would talk with them, listen and always have brilliant solutions. But this could only work because he was also a role model for so many of us from the most junior staff to the most senior in how to live your life.”

“Shawn’s selfless mentorship of those of us a few years younger than him is his greatest professional legacy.”

“There is no greater ideal than being a good husband, a good father, and a good public servant. Shawn was all of those.”

These are the kind of tributes one expects to hear about someone who has reached the end of a 50-year career, not someone who had not yet reached the apex of his own. But Shawn understood the importance and power of mentorship from his earliest days in Washington. He understood that one of the ways he could serve and make a difference was to enable the success of others.

And then there was goofy Shawn.

You all know that side of Shawn: that goofy, infectious, totally “out there” sense of humor.

The oversharing, borderline-inappropriate, hilarious Shawn that brightened every single day.

One friend wrote, “ Shawn was a serious observer of world affairs who never took himself too seriously. He was the life of the party.”

How many of you ever saw this side of Shawn?

Whether it was dressing up as Santa Claus at the CNAS Christmas party, sipping a beer and then insisting that Richard Fontaine, the Center’s President, sit on Santa’s lap to have a public conversation about whether he had been naughty or nice that year….

Or Shawn creeping up on his co-workers in the CNAS bullpen with a silly helmet and a nerf gun like a sniper in the jungle…

Or his propensity to start blasting music and dancing in his office…

Or his hosting our annual staff party at his own house, slinging hamburgers and hot dogs after he blew up the bounce house for the kids. Yes, he owned his own bounce house.

Shawn was a hoot. He was totally un-self-conscious and loved to make people laugh.

Even when he was in the hospital awaiting surgery to have the tumor on his colon removed, Shawn couldn’t help himself:

Many of you saw the photo he posted on social media that was reminiscent of the film Alien, in which it looked like an alien was bursting out of his abdomen from under the bed sheet—with, of course, Shawn grinning ear to ear.

Shawn also had an amazing ability to stay calm and focused under pressure. Perhaps the best example of this was the birth of his third child.

When Marjorie started feeling regular contractions, they grabbed the “go bag” and started heading for the car, so Shawn could drive her to the hospital. But they only made it as far as the foyer of their home. It was clear that the baby was coming, and fast.

So Shawn called 9-1-1, told them what was happening, grabbed some dish towels and then proceeded to deliver his own son, Tommy.

Talk about a renaissance man!

And of course, with Shawn being the kind of person who likes to “share”…by the next day we all knew every minute detail of the delivery and then some. He sent around photos of the delivery and only a day later thought to mention that we probably shouldn’t circulate these TOO widely, since Marjorie is a high school teacher with students and everything. (Sorry Marjorie!)

Later, when Shawn went on a kick to get fit before his 40th birthday, we all heard the daily readout of each CrossFit workout, how he had changed his diet, how many calories he was allowed to consume, and how many pounds he had lost.

But his complete openness, his desire to share and connect with others – that is at the heart of what made Shawn Shawn. It’s also part of the reason why he was so beloved.

When Shawn decided to become a U.S. citizen nearly a decade ago, it’s not surprising that all of CNAS — every single person — went down to the Convention Center to witness his citizenship ceremony.

It was a great day for Shawn and his family, but also for this country that he so loved and served…

When Shawn was diagnosed with late-stage colon cancer at the end of November, we were all in shock.

How could this young, incredibly vibrant, fit person be so sick?

From the start of this horrendous ordeal, Shawn showed an incredible inner strength and faith.

I remember him telling me that he felt blessed – blessed — to find himself in the care of the head of surgical oncology at NIH within just a few days of receiving the diagnosis. Shawn’s faith and strength in the face of the illness that would take his life so quickly was amazing. Would that we all could show even a fraction of the grace and grit that he demonstrated over the past two months.

It’s hard to believe that Shawn is really gone, that he’s not going to walk through the door any minute.

We were all so blessed and so grateful to know him for the time he was on this earth. And we will miss him terribly.

But he will still be with each and every one of us in some lasting way. Because he changed our lives, and because he is so deeply embedded in our hearts. He always, always will be.

Shawn loved his work, his colleagues, and his friends, but above all he loved his beautiful family.

He would tell us this: that for all of the energy and enthusiasm he threw into everything he did, there was nothing – nothing – more important to him than his family. Marjorie and the kids were the sun around which Shawn orbited, the center of his universe.

His happiest moments were those he spent hanging out with Marjorie and the kids in their newly renovated family room (another Shawn building project), taking the kids hiking and camping, and shooting the breeze and maybe playing a little guitar with the family and friends he loved so much.

At the tender age of 40, Shawn had cracked the code of what it means to lead a good and meaningful life. He is a role model for us all.

So I will conclude by asking you all to join me in making one final promise to Shawn:

That we will wrap our arms around his family – now and for the long haul. They need us now, and also in the months and years to come.

One of the concrete things we all can do to help is to contribute to the educational fund that’s been set up for Shawn’s children. The link for online donations is listed in your service leaflet.

I’d like to close with a prayer:

Dear God, thank you for the tremendous blessing of bringing Shawn into our lives. We pray that you will rest his soul and bless his family: his parents Sheryll and Bill his sisters Sarah-Jane and Suzanne, his loving wife Marjorie, and his beautiful children, Claire, Austin and Tommy. Bless them, comfort them, be with them. Let your light shine upon them and on all of us, now and forever. Amen.

6 Replies to “Michele Flournoy’s Eulogy of Shawn”

  1. Sheryll Brimley says: Reply

    wow. So honoured & proud to be his mom. Dear God, I miss him! Thank-you for sharing this Marjorie!

    1. Me too, so much. And I’m so lucky that Michele let me share this – she so loved Shawn and thought he was, among many things, so brilliant. Sending love. xo

  2. Sheryll Brimley says: Reply

    and remember what I have said to you before Marjorie….behind every remarkable man, is a remarkable woman. Love you.

    1. Oh you are too sweet Sheryll. He made me a better person, that I know for sure. xo

  3. That is the most beautiful eulogy. It brought tears to my eyes. Blessings to you and your family.

    1. Thank you so much – I loved it then, and I love re-reading it now.

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