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Thursday, July 21, 2016 12:20 am

The burdens of office

Doing good by doing nothing

I know that my life makes you nervous
But I tell you that I can’t live in service
Like the doctor born for a purpose
— The Clash/”Rudie Can’t Fail”

Critical though I feel obliged to be of their decisions, at one level I feel a deep empathy with Misters Madigan, Emanuel and Rauner. I too have known the burdens of office. I never carried those burdens, but I knew them.

As I confessed in “My life of service,” in 1965-66 I was president of Springfield High School’s Interact Club, the service club for boys sponsored by the local Rotary Club. Becoming an “Interactor,” we were promised, would teach us the importance of 1) developing leadership skills and personal integrity, 2) demonstrating helpfulness and respect for others, 3) understanding the value of individual responsibility and hard work and 4) advancing international understanding and goodwill.

It was all the icky parts of the Boy Scouts without any of the fun in the woods.

If the adult Rotarians were looking to build their businesses through social contacts, we baby Rotarians were looking to build our college applications through service club membership that proved us to be “well-rounded.” Our commitment to service in short was to serve ourselves.

That explained why I joined Interact. But why did I run for president? I have no idea. Vanity, probably, or status-seeking. Maybe it was because Charlie Blanchard had been the club president before me, and I liked Charlie and wanted to be like him; that was like a plate wanting to be cheese, but the young are a hopeful lot. My “opponent” was Larry May, an outgoing, smart guy whom I liked. Larry recognized in ways I did not that this whole thing was a joke, and he made a speech in which he said pretty much it’ll be great and we’ll have a good time or something similar, which was a great platform – more than a couple of real presidents have won on it – and I voted for Larry myself.

Me, I made a speech, a proper, written-out speech. I was always doing something like that, taking stupid things seriously and dismissing important things as stupid. I probably just cribbed stuff from an Interact brochure – years, later I would make a living by doing such things and calling the result magazine articles. Anyway, I won, put over the top, I suspect, by that faction of the membership raised in Sunday schools and thus vulnerable to my rhetorical blend of sanctimony and moonbeams.

Achieving well-roundedness required that we – I here use the royal “we” – devote ourselves for a few hours now and then to at least two community service projects that embodied the Interact motto, “Service above Self.” I wanted to be of service to someone, preferably my comely classmate J., but Interact was above all that sort of thing. An Interact Club in Buenos Aires that year financed and ran a cafeteria that provided meals to 120 poor kids every day. In India they collected money to buy books for kids who otherwise wouldn’t have any. In Colombia, Interactors distributed emergency food to flood victims. In Helsinki, high schoolers repaired toys for orphans.

And in Springfield, Illinois? According to the 1966 yearbook of Springfield High School, our “year of service began at the sophomore orientation program and continued with the handling of the football concession at Memorial Stadium, College Day and the Homecoming bonfire. As the year progressed, Interact sold Cokes at the Springfield Theater Guild, served the sponsoring Rotary Club, and donated toward the cost of landscaping the front lawn of the school.”

All news to me. The yearbook also revealed that we sponsored the Christmas food baskets program for the needy and made substantial monetary contributions to Intra-City’s Can and Dime Drive – at least I can walk the streets of Helsinki with my head held high. But I don’t recall the sophomore orientation. (Surely orienting sophomores is better left to the professionals.) College Day? Bonfire?

All of this serving was done without any leadership at all from me. Electing someone like me president of anything will leave anyone deeply skeptical of the wisdom of crowds. (My own doubts about democracy, oft expressed in print, date from this event.) When it came to running the club, I played George W. Bush to – well, I don’t even remember who my Dick Cheney was. I know that things got done. But who organized the work teams? Who knew how to run a concession stand? Build a bonfire? Decorate a parade float? I suspect that Tom Hughes, our faculty adviser, played modern parent and “helped” us with our homework, so to speak.

I left office having become slightly more rounded than I had been. I learned that the secret of good leadership is having good followers, that a good leader does not try to impose an agenda on good people who are probably smarter than you are anyway, nor does he succumb to any ideology of leadership. Just do the work that needs to be done, and hope for the best.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.

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