For heaven’s sake, join our democracy!

Dr. Anson "Andy" Shupe
Dr. Anson “Andy” Shupe

I was saddened the other day to read the news that Anson “Andy” Shupe had died at age 67. Too young, my first thought.

Retiring to Bloomington, Indiana, he had been a professor of religion for many years at the Fort Wayne campus of Indiana University and Purdue University.

He had written a lot of books. He was regarded as a national authority in his field. I must have something of Andy’s on my shelves.

I mainly knew Andy as a frequent contributer to the letters column of the paper where I served as the editorial page editor. The day the paper announced his death they ran a news story and an editorial page tribute to this prolific writer to the paper’s letters column.

News of Andy’s death brought back memories of other regular contributors to our letters column.

In the early years of my career at the paper, we often received so many letters that we didn’t have room on the editorial pages. Some days, we opened up space on opposite editorial page and published a dozen letters more.

How well I recall Emma Newington, an evangelical Christian who always managed to get a religious message into her comments on otherwise secular issues. I got to know this kind lady in the early years of my newspaper career.

I recall, too, Tom and Jane Dustin, avid environmentalists, both fine opinion and letter to the editor writers.

I recall with warm feelings Fort Wayne-South Bend Bishop Bill McManus whose letters to the editor managed to avoid dry theology. Instead, he wrote about more public issues. No wonder, some years before he had served as the spokesman for the National Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.

As I look back, it sometimes seemed as if a entire parade of letter-writers would troop up the stairs from Main Street to the paper’s newsroom on the building’s second floor. Straightaway, they’d head for my office in the corner.

So many years later, I can picture them now – teachers, retirees, a spokesman for the city school district, the head of the local Chamber of Commerce, the president of the labor union, the director of the Women’s Bureau.

They represented a cross-section of jobs and positions in the community. More than that, these writers were exercising their rights as citizens in our democracy.

Sometimes, they were mad at me for an editorial the paper published favoring gun control or abortion rights. Or, they wanted to second the paper’s editorial stand on some community issue. It was only when the writer made personal attacks on an individual that we refused to publish the letter.

My policy in dealing with letters that took issue with our editorial was to give those letters prominent space on the page.

I’m sorry to note that these days the paper publishes so few letters to the editor each day. A copy editor I often see in Foster Park explained that the paper doesn’t receive as many letters to the editor as in earlier years.

I’m not surprised, though I’m disappointed.

A decline in letters likely reflects two related trends. One is the decline in newspaper subscriptions. The other trend is that people who follow the news are more likely to read it on-line, on the newspaper’s web site.

In any case, a lot of readers are missing a great opportunity to get their views into the public forum for debate. To flourish, our democracy depends so much on citizens’ active participation.

Otherwise, we leave policy to people with a lot of money to contribute to candidates and to those with narrow and not always public-minded viewpoints.

It’s always been people such as Andy Shupe who make our public debates informative and our policies in the best interest of all citizens.

Maybe the extra coverage the paper gave to his passing will inspire another citizen or two to sit down and write a good strong letter to the editor.

Andy believed that when you live in a democracy, once in a while you should show up.

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