What Can Still Be

Letter to the editor sent to The Herald Weekly, Lake Norman Citizen, and Business Today – August 28, 2010

Wouldn’t it be nice to pick up a paper and read only pleasant headlines for a change? The news in Washington this week is that we have retired the national debt, unemployment in North Carolina has sunk to it’s lowest levels since 2006, and a group hug broke out in the streets of Baghdad. Unfortunately that’s not the headlines we read.

According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the annual difference between what our federal government collects in tax revenue and what it spends will be $1.3 trillion this fiscal year alone. Combat troops are leaving Iraq, however, we are still a stretch from a tension free region. Closer to home, North Carolina’s unemployment rate dipped to 9.6% in July and has declined for five consecutive months but still remains higher than the national average of 9.5%.

Bill Russell, Jerry Broadway, Sally Ashworth, N.C. Secretary of Commerce Keith Crisco, and NC Rep. Thom Tillis

North Carolina’s Secretary of Commerce Keith Crisco visited the Lake Norman region recently and reassured business and community leaders while we’re far from being out of the proverbial woods, families and businesses are relocating to North Carolina because they have faith in our regional economy. Crisco went further and pointed to the local expansions at Microban, Newell Rubbermaid, along with the new Davidson business incubator, the Project for Innovation, Energy and Sustainability (PiES). The incubator has announced four new start-ups and is a great example of regionalism that Secretary Crisco pointed to as a real success story. PiES is one of several collaborative efforts in the Lake Norman market bringing together the Town of Davidson, business leaders, CPCC, the Lake Norman Chamber, Lake Norman Regional EDC, and UNC Charlotte. PiES is the result of Kathleen Rose, a local economic development consultant, and the Town of Davidson coming together in a collaborative effort to offer green start-ups advice, technical assistance, and office space.

Sen. Richard Burr

Senator Burr, who was also visiting the Lake Norman region on the same afternoon, met with employees of Microban in Huntersville. The Senator was asked what is the most pressing need facing the American economy, and he was quick to point out “business” needs certainty when it comes to regulation and taxes; both of which fluctuate wildly at the whims of Congress. Senator Burr also took aim at the implementation of the new health care costs facing small business and Corporate America. It is estimated health care costs will rise 8.9%.(according to a survey of the National Business Group on Health) and many businesses are already freezing employment in anticipation of these costs.

Omar Khayyam in The Rubaiyat writes, “The moving finger writes; and having writ, moves on: Nor all your piety nor wit shall lure it back and cancel half a line, nor all your tears wash out a word of it.”

As our community and business leaders shared with Senator Burr and Commerce Secretary Crisco all the things we have done to assist small business and our larger corporations, I was struck at how much there is still to do. While there is nothing we can do about what has been done, and once done, cannot be undone, particularly when it comes to failed national policies on the economy and national security, there is still much we can do.

The poet John Greenleaf Whittier once wrote, “For all the sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: It might have been.” When we look to those challenges ahead, and there are still many, we do so with both our elected leadership and business leaders working together in a collaborative and regional effort.

I cannot help but believe that given the talent, commitment, and energy of our community leaders we will see those challenges as opportunities – not what might have been, but what can still be.


The many labels we choose to wear

Mama and me showing off our swimwear in 1967 - I'm the one with the slight attitude

Labels – we wear them with pride, use them to identify who we are, and sometimes hide behind them when times get tough.  But do they really tell the story about who we are or do they separate us from one another?  When I was a child my mother went grocery shopping and came home with a surprise she said I would love.  I was a third grader at Finley Road Elementary in Rock Hill.  Mom had purchased me a new notebook with a Minnesota Vikings Football helmet on the cover.  The only problem I was a die hard Green Bay Packers fan and Minnesota was and still is their biggest rival.  Distraught was not the word for it as I tried to convey how I couldn’t possibly carry that to class.

Not long after that, the big rage in school was black high top Converse tennis shoes.  I begged and begged for a pair and one afternoon mom came home with a present.  It was a pair of tennis shoes she had purchased from Family Dollar.  They were black…and they were high tops and that’s about the end of the similarity.  They had tread like a tire, a cloth emblem on the ankle where the Converse logo would appear, and the kids on the bus referred to them as my “moon boots.”  I was crushed.

Years later, in Junior High School, all the kids at Rawlinson Road were wearing blue jean jackets.  My mother went shopping and she came home with a present – a red blue jean jacket.  I think I was the only kid in school with a denim jacket that was red.  She said that made me “special.”  Now, more than thirty years later, she was right.  Actually it was mom herself who was really special!

Bill Russell & Sarah (MOM) last fall

Looking back, I know my mama loved me (still does!) with all her heart and back in those days it was all she could do to take care of us kids on the salary that dad brought home.  Dad was never one to spend money he didn’t have and so mom never charged anything.  She bought what we could afford.  One thing was for certain – we weren’t going to buy anything just because of the label.    The package wasn’t important, it was the present inside and the thought that counted.

But labels don’t just stop with products that we buy.  We label ourselves.  I’m a Republican.  Not just a Republican but a Conservative Republican.  Heck, I’m a Reagan Republican.  I am proud to admit to being a Christian, a protestant at that – Presbyterian.  Is that Presbyterian Church of America or USA ?  Mine is USA.

Perhaps the labels I struggle with the most are church labels.  I have a really difficult time believing  if we all make it to Heaven, St. Peter is going to form a line for Baptist, one for Methodist, and another for Catholics.  I cannot imagine Peter’s going to say, “Hey you Catholics, park it here, Associate Reformed Presbyterians, I’m not real sure what we’re going to do with you, and Latter Days Saints, you guys wait outside.  Oh, and is there an Ernest Angley here?  Gabriel down the hall is looking for you buddy!”

I love watching reruns of Billy Graham’s Crusades and went to one myself when he was here in Charlotte.  I can still remember Billy talking about how you can enter the gates of Heaven through Christ.  But does that mean someone who lives a wonderful life, who gives of themselves to those less fortunate, and who believes in a creator who makes all things possible – but does not subscribe to a Christian faith or in the God we all consider as our Holy Father – is their soul doomed?

As a Christian I believe in the Holy Catholic Church.  But I wonder if we took all the wealth of the church – all the paintings, statues, trappings, and acted on the words of Jesus himself when he said, “to give up our worldly belongings and follow me.”  If the Catholic Church sold all of that and still placed it in public hands so all the world could still enjoy its beauty and took that money and spent it on the poor and downtrodden, those who suffer from disease or malnourishment, would that not be a better use of those resources?

Bethesda Presbyterian Church - McConnells, SC

Sometimes I think the Good Lord is looking down wondering how we could take something so simple and make it so difficult.  I suppose I’m the very last person who has an answer when it comes to theology.  But after half a century on this earth I figure at the end of the day we’re going to be judged on whether we lived a good life, left this old world better than we found it, and believed in a force greater than ourselves.  I believe that force to be God, who sent his son to die for my sins.

And that’s a label I’m proud to wear.

Will the “Millennial Generation” Hear the Lion’s Roar?

This past week, I was speaking to Benny Ellerbe,  Executive Director of Optimist International.  Ellerbe is the chief executive officer of that non-profit service organization with roughly 100,000 members worldwide.  Prior to assuming that role, he served Junior Chamber International as their Secretary General.  It is through the Junior Chamber that I met Benny about 30 years ago.    We were both lamenting a report from the Service Club Leaders Conference (consisting of many of the nation’s service and civic organizations) which continued to show a marked decline in membership among organizations such as Kiwanis, Elks, Rotary, Jaycees, Lions, and many of our other clubs.

Participation in civic organizations, service clubs, and political involvement has decreased dramatically over the last three decades.  According to a report I read a few years ago, the average age of someone participating in a community service organization is 47 and the leader of the club is typically 53.  The average new member joins at 33 with a gap of 20 years between the new member and the leader of the organization.    Why the decline in civic service?  Most service clubs were, generally speaking, very successful from 1910 to 1950 when: a) business was more local; b) people lived where they worked; c) and there were not many options for civic engagement.

According to research on today’s “Generation Y or Millennial Generation,” most aspire to be self-employed and do not desire the leadership or personal interaction provided by clubs.  They demonstrate a neoliberalism approach with an increased use and familiarity with communications, media, and digital technologies.    Robert Putnam documented this phenomenon a decade ago in his book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.”  It is a fascinating look at the disengagement of our young population over the last few decades.

In 1992 – 1993, I had the opportunity to serve as the president of the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees), the largest young people’s organization in the country.  The membership of the association when I was president was approximately 140,000.  Today, it is less than 50,000.      I was taught by my parents that civic service was not a hobby but a responsibility we had and the debt we repay to those countless individuals who paved the way for the freedom and livelihood we enjoy today.

Lake Norman Chamber Interns, Georgie Wackerman, Chelsea Davis, Lauren McAlexander and De’Mon Brookes are pictured speaking with Bill Russell, the Chamber President and CEO

On a very positive note, this past summer the Chamber has employed a variety of Chamber Interns who are all active in their area high schools.  They are members of the  DECA Club, involved in Church activities, teach basketball in youth leagues, and a variety of other service projects.     Last month, I met with a group of young professionals who had re-chartered the Lake Norman Jaycees and we discussed a variety of projects they were implementing to make our region a better place to work and live.

America is facing challenging times.  While it is still up to many of us to serve as mentors and train our successors to lead this nation, America must feel the power of her young people.  I can see a sense of civic duty and responsibility in the faces of our young interns, the young professionals I met with weeks ago, and the countless young volunteers who recently helped out with Big Day at the Lake.    As the generation which will pass this torch of leadership to the next, we must instill in our young people that earth’s great treasure lies in human personality, and that service to humanity is the best work of life.