AN HOMAGE TO DECENT PEOPLE

The word “decent” isn’t used much these days. Somehow, it has receded into the past as so much of our vocabulary has. I want to clarify its usage by eliminating other words that have come to replace it and not come close enough to be a synonym. Let me say that the following words are not what I mean- good, kind, charitable, religious, pious, benevolent, hardworking, etc. The closest word is mensch, a Yiddish word that literally translates into “person.”

I believe that I can only clarify the word “decent” by description. Here are a few. Lester was my maintenance supervisor when I was a school superintendent in Pennsylvania. He was an obvious Pennsylvania Dutchman with a really great accent. When the time came for speaking in Dutch, he put it on as thick as peanut butter. I do speak some Dutch and he even surprised me when was speaking to some of his friends or community residents.

Lester did not lie, nor tell stories, nor did he offer up his services for other people. He did all of the work that he had to do and did it well. He never complained and never bragged about any of his accomplishments either as a civilian or a 4 year navy veteran. He was plain spoken, a clear eyed father to his children and a wonderful husband to his wife Anna.

You always knew you could count on him in a pinch. My children loved him. We had a teacher strike during my tenure as superintendent and I worried about them being in town. I called Lester and asked if they could stay with him and Anna. He told me that he would be right over. Lester was the consummate decent man.

Tom was my attorney when we sued the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on behalf of 214 rural school districts. Tom worked for an upscale law firm that took the case on a fee for service and eventually, when we ran out of money, pro-bono. Tom was the lawyer for most of that time.

To speak with Tom, even now, is a treat to my ears. In his expansive role at this high class firm, in which he is now of counsel, he always answers my calls and seems to be happy to speak with me. We have gone through some tough times together.

Tom spent lots of time keeping me at an even keel. He taught me whatever I have learned about forbearance. His quiet and thoughtful ways enabled me to see clearly how we might proceed with our pleadings. In some ways, he would caution me about going out on a limb. It was never a direct statement, but some kind words in my ears.

Eventually, our Supreme Court said that our case was none of their business, even though the constitution was clear about how the state should proceed with funding. Tom had warned us that might occur, so even at the beginning of the case; he created a 501C4 corporation that cold lobby the legislature.

He was correct, our lobbying was successful and we were able to increase the state’s share of school funding to rural schools. I don’t remember Tom ever raising his voice to direct us. As a matter of fact, in the 27 years that I have known him, I have never heard him raise his voice beyond a conversational tone. He is a truly decent man.

When I came to be the executive director of a regional education service agency in western Pennsylvania, I found the financial part of the organization in a shambles. By Buck Day (hunting) in November, I fired the business manager. We then proceeded to go through the process of hiring someone to fill that position

There was something about Andy (Andrea) that struck us all in the interview. She was a plain spoken person who came from the area and had worked in the accounting department of a large company. Even though she was not familiar with public school finance, we hired her.

What we did not know at the time was that this wonderful salt of the earth person would help us make the organization a vibrant and expansive entity. I don’t believe that I can tell you the extent of her improvements, not only in the business department, but in our relations with the seventeen school districts we serviced.

Andy never pushed people to do their jobs. Her calm and plain spoken words came through to people, including school superintendents. She set up a health program for our organization and the seventeen school districts. She helped the business offices in many of our districts. It appeared that she could just about do anything.

There was something that occurred on a regular basis that made all of us understand how she dealt with problems. Our executive staff, five of us, exclusive of Andy, had all been in education. Our once a week staff meetings were education oriented. It became obvious to me that we were speaking in a language that Andy was not conversant with. One day, a few weeks into her tenure, Andy came to see me.

She looked at me and said, “Arnold, I have no idea sometimes what we are talking about at staff meetings.” She suggested that we go out for dinner once in a while, drink a glass of wine, and answer her questions. I was both flabbergasted and delighted.

We did go out for dinner a number of times at the beginning of our working relationship. After a while, Andy knew what we were talking about. That symbolized Andy. She was bright enough to understand that she needed to solve that problem. Her demeanor was one of quietude and Western Pennsylvania speech.

Of all the folks that I worked with at that time, I miss her the most. Unfortunately, the year that I left, a stroke felled her. She was unconscious for 3 months. When she awoke, she was unable to speak, read or write or do anything computational. At that point, she and her boyfriend of many years married. He took care of Andy and still does to his very day.

I think of her often these days. She was the quintessential decent person.

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