Alex Sheen had a simple idea to memorialize his father. It caught on-and then caught fire when a 23-year-old drunken driver asked Sheen to help him confess on video.
Alex Sheen is now well-practiced in telling a reporter the story of Because I Said I Would, though the idea and its companion website are little more than a year old. He tells the story efficiently, completely, but not casually; he is still grieving his father, a pharmacist who was diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer on July 4, 2011, and the inspiration for what Sheen considers a social movement.
Wei Min "Al" Sheen died Sept. 4, 2012, despite initial good response to treatment. His obituary read, "Before he died, Al was asked if there was a message he wanted to share with the world. His only advice was: 'Don't smoke.' "
Alex, called on to give the eulogy at his father's funeral, struggled to find a message himself. At work the day after his father died, Sheen had an epiphany. He suddenly understood why his father would get so frustrated with his son when he didn't follow through on simple promises, like using a check his father had sent to pay college tuition.
"Because it's a simple thing," says Sheen, a Powell native who graduated from Olentangy High School and now lives near Cleveland. "Just live by what you say, and you don't have to do much else."
This is how Sheen decided to pass out small cards to mourners at his father's funeral that stated, simply, "because I said I would." Sheen encouraged friends and family to write down promises, from the life-altering to the mundane, in tribute to his father's simple value: Fulfill your commitments, because you said
In short order, Sheen had launched a website spreading the message. He would send a packet of 10 promise cards to anyone, anywhere. People connect with Because I Said I Would through the website, Facebook (the page now has more than 35,000 "likes"), Twitter and Instagram, where people post photographs of themselves with their promise cards.
Sheen expected to receive promises like, "I'll go to all my kids' Little League games." Instead, "These things are heavier than I could possibly imagine," Sheen says.
And this was all before Matthew Cordle clicked "send" on a Facebook message to Sheen.
"I can get 1,000 messages in a day. I hear a lot of promises," Sheen says. But he can recite almost all of Cordle's message from memory. Cordle wrote that he believed it his duty to confess, face punishment and beg others not to drink and drive.
Just after 2:30 a.m. on June 22, Cordle, who is 22 and lives in Powell, left a bar on Park Street. He took an exit ramp onto I-670 and headed down the highway in the wrong direction. Near Third Street, his truck struck a Jeep driven by Vincent Canzani head-on. Canzani, a 61-year-old photographer and son of former Columbus College of Art and Design president Joseph Canzani, died at the scene. Cordle, himself critically injured in the crash, was combative with doctors at the hospital, where a test showed the amount of alcohol in his blood was well beyond the legal definition of drunk.
Sheen says he spent weeks getting to know Cordle. Sheen wanted to know whether it was possible for Cordle to get a more lenient sentence by confessing on tape, he says.
"I started researching what you do to get out of a DUI. What you shouldn't do is exactly what Matthew did," Sheen says. "I got on the phone with his attorney, and the lawyer said, 'Do not do this. There is a time and place for this, and it's not now.' "
Sheen says he saw remorse in Cordle's face, his voice, his eyes.
"Yeah, he could have faked it, but I talk to him every day still, and I hear the conviction in his voice," Sheen says. He considers himself Cordle's friend.
"But I'm not in the business to defend him," Sheen says. "Even if he was my best friend, we both have the same belief that he does deserve to be brought to justice."
Despite the lawyer's warning, the two decided a video would be the most effective way to send Cordle's message. It has been seen more than 2 million times since it was posted on Sept. 3 and the national media seized on Cordle's story (he had yet to be sentenced when this article was written).
Sheen, though he sounds poised, seems awestruck by the swiftness of change in his life.
"I think the way I look at the world is very different," he says. "I was a very happy person. I was no saint or anything. If anything, I measured my life in dollars."
He wanted to make his father proud, he says. The elder Sheen arrived in the U.S. from Hong Kong in 1974. The airline had lost his luggage, compensating him with $400 in cash. He made his way, becoming a pharmacist, raising two boys. "He did pretty well for himself," Sheen says.
Sheen did, too. He worked for a software company earlier this year, when he quit to work on Because I Said I Would full-time. It is a terrible business model: The cards and postage cost money. The items in his online store won't make him rich. He loved his software job but says he has moved beyond the material gain it brought him. "When a teenager messages you she cuts herself, that is something that opens your eyes," he says. He has also received a promise from a heroin addict, to seek treatment so he can raise his unborn child.
Since founding Because I Said I Would, Sheen has appeared on "The Steve Harvey Show." He was scheduled to speak at TedX Utica in October. He's been invited to appear on Japanese television. And he's declined pitches from TV producers for a reality show about Because I Said I Would.
"I have a mission to serve the betterment of humanity, and I've never seen a TV show that does that," Sheen says. "I'm not going to spend my time trying to be a celebrity. I hope one day I'm no longer the face of Because I Said I Would. I hope it's faceless."