Life-giving leadership is not being in control so much as persuasion of others to offer their best selves to that which matters the most.
I got an email from former classmate, Vicki Butler, now in the Advancement Office of my old college, Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tennessee. She was in town and wanted to visit with us. I do this in my work as a Pastor, so I know that institutions need money. I have moved from being a disdainful idealist as a teen to a reluctant fundraiser to a committed realist.
So my wife Vickie and I met Vickie in the lobby of her hotel. She told us what Carson-Newman College is facing and how they hoped alumni would help out. I was preparing my protests: (“Do you know how much I gave last year? The TaxCut preparer always flags my giving. Americans don’t give this much!”) But our conversation moved on to how things are going, how the school has adjusted to hard times, and to what a great mission it has.
We were at Carson Newman from 1972-1976. Vickie and I married early—Christmas of our sophomore year. I was 19, she 18, and in love. That this did not pay bills had not yet occurred to us. We lived in the little house right behind the infirmary in 1973 and began our life together. Fourteen months later, during our junior year, our firstborn came along. She is now the mother of our grandchild.
We worked every job we could and went to school. I had a part time church position on Sundays at the Methodist Church. I worked in bridge construction on I-40 which, at that time, had not been completed. Some of those bridges are still there. And we both worked in the cafeteria, breakfasts mostly, so we could go to classes. They were hard but happy times. The local people who worked with us—Blanch, Elnora, T-bone, who never wore his teeth while in the dishroom, and a host of others, were our family.
Vickie was on the register, since she was fast, had great manual dexterity and a ruthless sense of eagle-eyed justice. At that time, you charged for extra butters, jelly and other small items, and she would nail the boys trying to sneak extra items into their pockets and ring it up while they were still coming down the line. I was usually on the serving line. Many fellow students worked with us—Rick Lane, all the Brunson kids, a ton of MKs and nearly all the international students on workstudy. So I worked alongside Oliver Chukwu and Jonas Ijiomah, who were Ibo tribesmen from Nigeria, and Liberians and many other nationalities.
If working at a cafeteria at $1.60 an hour doesn’t seem like fun, you just can’t understand: we were family. So, even when the baby came, up I’d go at 5 am and go get breakfast and then serve it. Miss Mac, as we called Pearl McHan, would have been a drill instructor at Paris Island had she not turned to food service work. She was unyielding in her requirements for cleanliness and responsibility. But under that was also a heart of gold for her “kids” who had to work to go to college.
When we got married, she told Vickie, “You come and eat every time you work. You and the baby need lots of nutrition,” even though we tried to cut corners for our meager budget. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it. You eat when you work.” And we did.
When our baby, Heather, was born, it was a great day, like all baby arrivals are. But nothing compared to the shock that awaited when we arrived home. We walked into the house, and my mother-in-law was like a child at Christmas. “You just won’t believe it,” she said. The good people of that cafeteria had come and filled our pantries, refrigerator, shelves and just about every space we had with food and gifts. We ate for months on what they gave us. Those were the kind of people we worked with, and the woman we worked for.
I have so many formative memories of Carson-Newman. My professors—Ben Philbeck, Buddy Shurden, Dan Taylor, Bill Steeger, Gary Farley, Bill Blevins, Henrietta Jenkins, Ray Koonce, to name only a few—changed the course of my life. We stood next to them and watched as old Henderson Hall burned to the ground and took most of their libraries with them and then got reorganized and kept classes going.
What a place this is, and what memories tumble forth of the gifts it gave us. We met at Dr. Wood’s house at a social during orientation and on the way back to campus I asked her out for the first time. It never occurred to me that alumni and supporters made this possible through their giving. So, as we remembered, I realized that we had not given in quite a while. Life got busy, I stopped keeping up as much, and there are so many excuses. But I owe that place a lot. Our life together began there. I found my vocational stride. It deserves to survive and thrive.
She told me when I asked that only 7% give anything to the school and that foundations want that to be up around 13% to consider other investments. Not the amount, just the involvement. So we took out our checkbook and wrote a small check, what we could. It’s not much to ask for a wife, a vocation, and the memories we carry of those people who gave us so much by who they were. I’d like to think that some young adult is there, now, about to have their life open up as ours did for us, by the simple gift of being able to spend time in that wonderful place we call Carson-Newman College
I posted this on facebook a few days ago: “Our leaders and would-be leaders tell us what they will do for us or what they will do to fix what they will do for us. What does it say about our time that they cannot seem to tell us what is required of all of us and ask for it?” As I listen to the political non-conversations of this moment, it is striking how much channeling is going on and how little real engagement with the deepest that is in us all. Every university, every institution has a story of sacrifice and hard work. This is what is needed most for this hour–not merely what someone else can do to make it better, but what can be asked of us and how we can join together for the privilege of being responsible for this moment in time.
Life-giving leadership is not being in control so much as persuasion of others to offer their best selves to that which matters the most. Appealing to our selfishness, our dependency, our fears and our suspicions of one another is not nearly so appealing as a call to shared sacrifice. I’m ready. Call on me. I want to help.
In the very moment when everything says, “Shrink back. Hold ’em. Let others do it,” it is time to step up. Maybe your old school, some great scholarship, a charity or your church or community organization needs some help. Volunteer. Go on the mission trip. Attend the interfaith dialogue. Don’t wait. Get your checkbook and your calendar out. This is the moment to do it. The best time to give is now. America needs some reinvestment from the American people. Colleges, universities, charitable institutions. Get out your checkbooks and do something good.