The eloquence of voters

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Tom Henry, Mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana
Tom Henry, Mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana

Mayor Tom Henry’s election Tuesday wasn’t quite a landslide. But he won over Republican Mitch Harper by a comfortable margin. I was pleased by the outcome but not surprised.

Lots of good things have been happening under Tom’s leadership. I don’t mean just the exciting, visible stuff in the downtown. But work crews have been busy all summer and fall throughout the neighborhoods. That includes mine. The progress shows.

Voters here in Fort Wayne, while re-electing a Democratic mayor, managed to continue to elect a mostly Republican council. I don’t believe it’s because we like divided government. The main issue is that some years back, the city annexed growing suburban neighborhoods. That boosted the city’s tax base. It also brought in thousands of Republican voters. For Democrats, that proved to be a problem.

When I served on The Journal Gazette’s editorial board, I had the privilege of interviewing, I’d guess, hundreds of candidates for public office. To be sure, I’ve been retired for 15 years. But I still remember a few of the candidates who ran in Tuesday’s city election.

I got to know Mayor Henry when he represented his district on the City Council. In more recent years, I joined him and other friends to drive to Indianapolis to a Colts football game. I recall the Colts won.

The great thing about elections is simply this: They affirm our abiding faith in democratic government. People simply believe that their vote counts.

I’d like to think that the big group of non-voters still believes in our system. (More than half didn’t show, as always on an “off-year” election) You can be sure that when the presidential election rolls around in two years, they’ll be at the polls to cast their vote.

I wish every citizen would take the time to inform him or herself about the issues. Part of such an education should include reading one’s local paper’s editorials and opinion columns. I realize that Fort Wayne remains one of the few cities in the country with two, competing newspapers.

Even you live in a one-newspaper town, you can also get a variety of opinion through letters to the editor in your newspaper and the columnists. Often at election time, TV news shows will feature various candidates. Then groups such as the League of Women Voters often conduct public debates among the candidates.

My newspaper regularly offers extra space to letter writers around election time. We even invited readers to sit in on candidate interviews.

After the votes are counted, a citizen can find the results quite an education. What do people expect? How are the incumbents doing their job? What new faces would bring new ideas? Here’s another chance to become engaged in your neighborhood, in your community.

For my part, I just enjoy visiting with other voters in line and with those working the polls. It’s the only time of year I meet some neighbors. I leave the polls feeling good about voting and fortunate to live in such an open, free country.

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Salute to the fallen

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Robert Lansing in "Twelve O'Clock High"
Robert Lansing in “Twelve O’Clock High”

My earliest memory of Memorial Day takes me back to Defiance, Ohio, where I grew up.

It was called Decoration Day then. I recall that I rode my bike to the street next to the old high school. There I joined dozens of other kids to get our bikes decorated with red, white and blue streamers.

Somehow, we all got rolling together to the ball field across the river to hear commemorative speeches and honor those killed in America’s wars.

So much has changed since then. More wars. More deaths. More fallen to remember.

I plan to spend this Memorial Day reading on our back porch. No bike rides for me. My left foot is in a boot the podiatrist prescribed to give my heel a chance to repair itself. Meantime, I scanned the papers, first The Journal Gazette delivered early to our front door, and then the national papers on their web sites. Lots of tributes.

I was especially pleased that my former colleagues on the editorial page devoted a lengthy editorial to the memory of a young man who died in Iraq when his helicopter was shot down. I’ve been friends of his parents for years and visited the funeral home for the calling.

The holiday really began Sunday. During the day a race driver from Columbia won the Indianapolis 500. In the evening, PBS featured its annual concert from the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington. I didn’t recognize the performers. I guess pop culture passed me by some time ago.

In 1992, when my wife Toni and I lived in D.C., son John happened to be visiting over the holiday. So we all hiked down to the Capitol for the Memorial Day event. Last night, as I watched the program on TV, it looked so much like the event we enjoyed in person.

Either live or on TV, you just had to be moved as one of the two celebrity master of ceremonies recognized the disabled veterans in the front row. One especially touching tribute this year told a story of one fallen young soldier whose widow fought back tears as a video captured his earlier life on the huge screen behind the stage.

At intervals throughout the program, battle scenes from various wars also flashed on that screen. When images from the Vietnam War appeared, I recalled the headline of an editorial I had written at war’s end: “The war we lost.”

I was reminded too of a line spoken by the actor Robert Lansing in a long-ago TV series, “Twelve O’Clock High.”

Asked whether America was winning the war, set during World War II, the Lansing character, a bomber pilot, declared, “There are no winners in war, some just lose more than others.”

I didn’t serve. I was too young to enlist or be drafted for World War II and Korea. I was a theological student and therefore not eligible for the draft during Vietnam. Years later, I taught peace studies at the regional campus for Indiana and Purdue universities in Fort Wayne.

Still, my opposition to war doesn’t diminish my respect for those young men and women who have given their lives in defense of our country. Their sacrifice of family or career, of long holidays with loved ones, reminds me that America is about a lot more than about making money.

Indeed, Americans of all races, creeds and family backgrounds have stood up for their country when it counted. Today, on this special holiday, I salute them all.

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Sanctuary on Lake Avenue

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Carriage House, Ft. Wayne, Indiana
Carriage House, Ft. Wayne, Indiana

I’ve got to admit that this posting is personal.

It’s not just that I once battled depression myself and spent a few weeks in a psychiatric ward, back in the early 1970s. Or that my son John and daughter Robyn suffer from mental illness. Over the years, I’ve made so many friends who suffer and so many advocates that it’s like having an extended family.

That’s exactly the feeling I have about the Carriage House on Lake Avenue, here in Fort Wayne.

Yes, I have a special interest in this rehabilitation center. I’ve been on the board since the beginning, in the 1990s, before I retired writing editorials for The Journal Gazette.

Let me begin by noting that the Carriage House belongs to an international movement that has established hundreds like it worldwide. That includes cities such as ours throughout the United States.

The granddaddy of them all is Fountain House, on West 47th Street in New York City, which I’ve visited.

Clubhouses do their best to follow the international standards, set years ago. These standards have been proven to help persons diagnosed with a major mental illness.

For years, the International Center for Clubhouse Development has been sending my son John to other clubhouses to evaluate their work and to make recommendations to improve. He’s one of many throughout the country.

I should emphasize that the clubhouse model is unlike anything else that treats persons with a mental illness. As the directors of these centers will tell you, “You leave the illness behind when you walk through the door.”

You’re accepted for who you are not for what illness you’ve got.

Clubhouses don’t dispense drugs. Members receive their prescriptions from their family doctor or their psychiatrist.

Clubhouses don’t offer personal or group therapy, either. Members might or might not attend therapy sessions with a private counselor. They might or might not have a job.

A bare-bones professional staff at a clubhouse offers members a chance to help fix and serve a nice luncheon. Other members will help with office work. For years, one member has always made a financial report to the board.

Beyond these activities, you might find members cutting the grass or, in the winter, clearing the driveway and parking lot. Then there are the “T.E.” jobs: transitional employment. Our Unitarian congregation has employed a club member as the regular custodian since the beginning.

I believe we were the first employer in town for a club member.

The Carriage House is hard to miss on Lake Avenue. A large, converted private mansion, with a large addition, it’s set on a hill which day and night quietly announces its hopeful presence. Inside, it’s a different story.

Club members convene daily to discuss issues that arise in such a program that can see scores of people every day, Monday through Friday. Most of us on the board have a personal connection to mental illness.

In fact, several club members also serve on the board themselves.

I’ve been so impressed with how much the Carriage House has helped both of my children. Both of these middle-age persons have found new ways to contribute to their community.

Besides evaluating other clubhouses, John has taught nursing students about mental illness. Robyn, a long-time Spanish teacher, has been tutoring students on a private basis, often as a volunteer.

Countless other club members have found their way back into the mainstream, in jobs, completing schooling, supporting other family members who might have their own struggles.

But if I had to single out one thing that makes programs such as the Carriage House such a success, it’s the chance members have to develop real, accepting relationships.

I can speak from experience that mental illness can be so isolating. You can spend day and night ruminating. In this state, a person can easily fall deeper and deeper into depression and a sense of worthlessness.

Thoughts of suicide are too common.

A clubhouse takes a person out of him or herself and connects that person with others, with the world. I’m so sure it’s a great feeling to be so liberated. You can restore your self-respect. You can get back your sense of purpose in life.

To be sure, persons with a mental illness can find a way through other kinds of program. A few even get back into the mainstream on their own. For me, it was resigning from public school teaching.

But I know of nothing that addresses so many different issues and has helps so many persons with mental illness in so many ways. I just hope that more people who suffer in our town will find their way to that big white house on Lake Avenue.

It’s likely to change their lives.

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Bloody Sunday march

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civil rights protestI suppose if there’s one theme to my quarter century writing editorials, it would be civil rights.

During the Rev. Shelly’s sermon Sunday, she even mentioned me by name and my role in advocating for school desegregation.

So in the afternoon, following the annual congregational meeting, wife Toni, daughter Robyn and I joined hundreds of people, black and white, to walk to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama.

The film, “Selma” recently depicted what happened when demonstrators attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Rather than protecting these hundreds of the peaceful marchers, police confronted them with tear gas and billy clubs. Scores fled bleeding, some badly injured in what historians consider one of the darkest moments in our nation’s history.

Now, so many years later, we marched to remember. The crowd gathered at North Side High School on a sunny day with temperatures in the low 40s. Police and emergency vehicles guarded our path along the St. Marys River, to the Martin Luther King Jr. bridge. As we walked, I read the┬áslogans chiseled along the bridge’s sidewalk such familiar slogans: “Peace with justice,” “equality for all.”

Unfolding along the bridge echoes the great sermons of the past for civil rights. But I can’t linger. The crowd carries us onward. A mile or so into the march, we reach the eastern side of Fort Wayne’s downtown. Moments it seems later, we’re on Main Street and Freimann Square. We assemble around bleachers. The crowd grows quiet as we await words from the speakers.

One of my favorite preachers, the Rev. Bill McGill, presides. First up is Jackie Joyner-Kersee, a black Olympian and Fort Wayne native. We cheer her and her brief remarks. Mayor Tom Henry welcomes the crowd. Finally, Rev. McGill reads the very words of Dr. King’s address in Montgomery, Alabama. I’m reminded once more of King’s eloquence. What league, Lincoln, FDR and King!

After visiting with friends, we walk to Hall’s Gashouse restaurant for an early dinner. I’m reminded of how much has changed in our country since Bloody Sunday 50 years ago. In every state of the South, you can find black officials. Under President Johnson’s Voting Rights Act, black and other minority citizens can and do vote, if not in the numbers I’d hoped to see.

I imagine that many citizens of Selma must have taken note this past weekend that the celebrity who came to their city to commemorate Bloody Sunday was a black man, President Barak Obama.

No doubt lots of people at such marches noted that the country still has a long way to go before we say we practice racial justice. They can readily cite recent incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, Cleveland, Ohio, and New York City. These recent tragedies expose our many shortcomings.

Yet like Dr. King, we’ve seen the Promised Land. So we lock arms. So we march. So we remember. So we pledge ourselves anew. So we go home to work for justice. Yes, this is a different America.

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Not just mind games for these minds

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Carriage House, Ft. Wayne, Indiana
Carriage House, Ft. Wayne, Indiana

I thumbed through the minutes at the board meeting. I lost my place a couple of times. Director Andy Wilson gave his report and an update about the status of the bid to get regular funding through the state.

Then we heard from a new Carriage House member who related her personal story about a long struggle with mental illness and how the Carriage House has helped her. That’s when I was reminded why I was there and what this program has meant to so many hundreds of people in our community afflicted with this disability.

Without a doubt, it’s been a lifesaver for my son John.

Years ago, they made me a founding board member. I wrote editorials for The Journal Gazette to promote the Carriage House. As a founder, my tenure on the board has no set term limit. I’m there until I get too obnoxious and they kick me out. But I keep myself in check. I’m just so grateful that nearly 20 years ago, Dr. Steve Glock and his wife Joyce took the lead in locating the huge property on Lake Avenue and brought the clubhouse and this amazing rehabilitation program to Fort Wayne.

Like the hundreds of other such certified programs in the world, our clubhouse helps those who battle mental illness find work in the community, develop lasting friendships and study for the GED or prepare for college classes.

Just keeping the house going has provided work experience for hundreds of members. They prepare and serve lunch, keep the building clean and the property as neat and care-for as the professional office building next door.

You might find a club member working at Parkview Hospital, doing office chores at a business, stocking shelves at the main library downtown or sorting mail at a law office. At the oldest transition job at my Unitarian church, a club member does the custodial work, making sure the building is clean, the chairs in the sanctuary and social hall properly arranged each week.

To just hint at the numbers of people with this disability in our town, consider that since the Carriage House was established in 1997, it has served over 1,500 clients. Daily attendance runs around 65 to 70.

This is one program where a member can drop out and still be welcomed back months or years later as a full-fledged member. Paid staff don’t order people around. Everyone, staff and members, are regarded as equals. That’s the clubhouse philosophy. House meetings discuss the issues of the day and everybody is invited to contribute. Decisions are by consensus.

It’s impossible to do justice to the Carriage House story, no matter how many times and in what venues I tell it. There’s the “Dancing with the Stars” fundraiser in the fall, modeling after the hit TV show. There are the overnight visits from other clubhouses to learn why the Fort Wayne program has such a good reputation. There’s the support from other agencies such as Park Center, our community mental health service, as well as the local chapter of the National Alliance On Mental Illness.

Years ago, my son John was selected to join the International Center for Clubhouse Development, which dispatches him to other clubhouses to evaluate and make recommendations for ways to improve. The ICCD even has sent him to Hawaii for one site visit. All in a good cause, but I’m sure the trip was a boost to his mental health.

As I sat through the Carriage House board meeting the other day, I felt proud to be a part of such a program, if only on the sidelines. But it’s hard to be at a meeting or enjoy the huge “Dancing with the Stars” gathering at the Grand Wayne Center and not be reminded that our clubhouse only reaches a fraction of those who suffer from mental illness.

There’s nothing like it. I’ve visited the granddaddy of clubhouses, Fountain House on West 47th Street in New York City where it all began. That visit told the most important story: a clubhouse saves lives.

I’ve seen it in our town. I’ve seen in it in our family.

I don’t mind a bit sitting through an hour-and-a-half Carriage House board meeting.

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I remember Dr. King

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The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. kicks off a voter registration drive at the Dallas County Courthouse in Selma, Ala., on Jan. 18, 1965, flanked by the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, left, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and the Rev. Andrew Young. File photo by Ed Jones from The Birmingham News. (Ed Jones/The Birmingham News)
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. kicks off a voter registration drive at the Dallas County Courthouse in Selma, Ala., on Jan. 18, 1965, flanked by the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, left, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and the Rev. Andrew Young. File photo by Ed Jones from The Birmingham News. (Ed Jones/The Birmingham News)

You’d think Fort Wayne’s religious community could come together once a year to celebrate the life and ministry of Martin Luther King Jr. We have for many years. This year there were two main services, one sponsored by the Associated Churches, I’m sure the more conservative, and the second the one my granddaughter Tanya and I attended.

Indeed, for a quarter century, we seemed to be all gathering at Plymouth Congregational Church downtown around King’s birthday. I only missed one service, the year my wife Toni and I lived in Washington D.C.

Through most all those years, you’d have to say the service was reasonably interfaith. That is, if you only invite a Unitarian to read Scripture it’s interfaith (That was me one year.)

Some services even featured a pretty progressive preacher, such as the black woman from a UCC church in Michigan and another year, an old friend during school desegregation battles, the Rev. Dr. Dick Hamm of the Disciples of Christ.

I even attended when the preacher seemed to think the service was a come-to-Jesus revival meeting, not so much a commemoration of the life and ministry of Dr. King. Even at that, I just loved singing the old Gospel music, the Heartland Chamber Chorale specials and, during the social hour, visiting with friends. I’m also sure to see so many friends from battles we shared for social justice and peace in our town. I endured the sermons.

I thought the service this year was the best, so focused as it was on remembering King. The readings were his words. My old buddy, a black minister, The Rev. Bill McGill of Imani Baptist Temple, sounded so much like King I teased him during the social hour of being related to the civil rights legend. Our Unitarian Minister, The Rev. Misty-Dawn Shelly, had a part.

This year’s musical highlight was baritone Carver Cossey’s singing, with the chorale, throughout the service. Later, I told Carver that he had such incredible breath control he’d never have to worry about drowning. He just laughed. Then, he explained that he had just learned not to rush the music.

I’m sure the Associated Churches’ service at an inner city church featured singing and maybe even preaching I would have found uplifting. I’m sorry that there seems to be any kind of rift over how to remember Dr. King properly here. But I’d bet that we’re not the only city in the country that has watched such divisions develop. Throughout his ministry King understood that too well friends and allies disagree.

This year’s service at Plymouth, as always, stirred poignant memories. I’ll never forget my visit to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The doors were chained that day. I stopped nearby at the reflecting pool where Dr. King’s casket seems to float. In recent years, this has become part of a 35-acre complex known as the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical site. The U.S. Park Service runs it. Thousands, black and white, visit every year.

Yes, memories. In another year, on a reporting trip to Memphis, I had my taxi take me to the Lorraine Motel. I climbed the stairs to the second floor. I stood at the door of the room and stared for some time at the bed Dr. King was said to have slept in for the last time.

Just a few paces away, I stepped onto the balcony where he stood talking with The Rev. Jesse Jackson when James Earl Ray shot him. Just the day before, he said he had been to the mountain. Like Moses, he had seen the promised land.

In our racially integrated public schools here and elsewhere you do get a glimpse of the promised land. But we’re not there. Racial divisions survive in jobs, income and poverty. The numbers of blacks and Hispanics locked up in prisons mocks any claims to equal justice.

I’m so gratified that my granddaughter Tanya wanted to join me for Plymouth’s King memorial service. You know, it’s in our own families where dreams of equal justice take form. It’s in our families where we keep King’s memory alive. It’s with those closest to us that we set the example for how to treat others, respecting and celebrating the differences.

Every year, we set aside a holiday to honor the founder of our country, George Washington. We set aside a day to honor Abraham Lincoln, who freed the slaves. How fitting then, that we’ve set aside a day to honor the memory of Dr. King who pointed the way for us to grant full freedom to every person.

Next year, I’ll be at Plymouth Congregational Church once more. I’ll rededicate anew myself to that dream.

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Policing – the way forward

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Boston Police - Special Operations Officer
Boston Police – Special Operations Officer

These recent stories simply are heartbreaking. First to make national news was Ferguson, Mo. Police officer Darren Wilson shot to death an unarmed teenager Michael Brown. A grand jury declined to indict the officer. Thank goodness, he resigned from the department.

Then we heard about a Staten Island officer acquitted in the choke-holding death of an overweight, middle-age, unarmed black for selling cigarettes on the street. Actually, we got to see this on videotape. A United Nations panel of human rights expects expressed shock that the officer, again, wasn’t indicted.

There’s been even more news about police conduct. An 18-month Justice Department study of policing in Cleveland found a pattern of cruelty and routine violation of citizens’ constitutional rights.

In his column this Friday, the Washington Post‘s Eugene Robinson cites a pervasive pattern of racism that persists throughout the country and infects police departments. Indeed, dating back generations, official reports have lamented the great racial divide in America. This divide can been seen in housing patterns, employment, segregated schools. As the Koerner Commission might have put it today, we remain two nations, separate and unequal.

Policing just happens sometimes to illustrate the worst side of that racial divide. But another side greatly complicates the picture. These recent stories brought to mind my own experience. I got to ride one night with a decorated Memphis police officer almost 20 years ago. I had joined two Fort Wayne officers to get a close look at the Memphis model program for officers encounters with mentally ill persons.

After a banquet honoring a number of Memphis officers, I climb into Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) member Tony Mullins’s patrol car. Shaved bald, husky, wearing black gloves, Officer Mullins was no cop I ever wanted to encounter in a dark alley. But what I witnessed that evening was a highly trained officer who handled those people on the street late at night with extreme patience. He didn’t yell at citizens. He didn’t order them to go home. Rather, his conversations involved his mostly listening to the person.

Like police departments throughout the country, Fort Wayne and the country departments here adopted the Memphis model of policing. Since then, police have made far fewer arrests of mentally ill persons. The CIT here had been such a model that our officers are now invited to instruct other departments on this highly successful form of policing.

As I suggested, the tragic encounters recently in the news represent part of the story about how police in this country treat citizens, particularly minorities. But CIT programs point the way to more just and effective policing everywhere. First, CIT officers are carefully screened even before they can start training. They receive hours and hours of additional classroom and field work. Then they’re supervised in the early days they’re formally regarded as CIT officers.

To be sure, part of the problem in many departments is racial prejudice among officers. How to deal with that when so much of the general population harbors those feelings? Surely for starters, you can’t have a department that doesn’t reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of the community. Ferguson, Missouri, has only a handful of minority police officers out of a force or more than 50. This is just asking for tragedy. Beyond that, I hope community leaders, in light of the recent news, would examine the experience of towns and cities that have excellent records of police-community relations.

The good news is that these highly-publicized tragic encounters between police and citizens have sparked calls for reform from President Obama and other political leaders. Nobody can be proud of the tragedies, least of all police.

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Vets and peaceniks

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antiwar_peace_rally03_618So what if only a few peaceniks showed up at Fort Wayne’s Courthouse Green on Veterans Day. They held up signs with anti-war slogans as traffic whizzed by on South Clinton. Mostly, the signs called for the end of U.S, involvement in Mideast wars. I knew one couple there from the Peace and Justice Commission I belong to. Another person there I’ve known for years because he’s written a lot of letters to the editor. All thoughtful, caring people.

When my wife Toni and I lived in D.C. in 1992, I showed up at some huge peace demonstrations and marches down Pennsylvania Avenue. Mostly, I was there to write about the event for the Fort Wayne paper. But my sympathies were with the demonstrators.

I imagine most of my peace advocate friends hope their cause will prevail and the United States will withdraw from whatever war our country happens to be fighting at the moment. I’ve never been optimistic that the demonstrations and letters to members of Congress would end a war.

I’m reminded that the Vietnam War ended with the North Vietnamese Communists routing the South Vietnamese and American troops. Our last remaining folk had to be rescued by helicopters lowering ladders to the rooftop of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. The anti-war movement itself hadn’t changed a thing.

A peace demonstration on Veterans Day may seem odd timing. After all, if you go back to the holiday’s origins, you’ll see that it wasn’t intended to glorify war. President Eisenhower signed the bill in 1954 only to honor veteran of all wars Americans had fought in. Veterans groups had lobbied for it.

At first that day of recognition was held in October. But lots of people complained, thought it was confusing. So President Ford signed the bill moving Veterans Day to November, supplanting Armistice Day. Of course, that switch didn’t make champions of Armistice Day happy. Every November 11 you’ll hear of a peace group or two calling on Congress to restore the original name and meaning of the holiday.

I imagine that’s another lost cause. Still, surely Americans who celebrate Veterans Day don’t mean to neglect honoring their great grandfathers and great uncles who fought and died in the First World War. To be sure, in Europe, it’s observed with grand parades. November 11 finds London festooned with poppies.

I doubt that my great Uncle Fred, an American officer during the Great War, would have minded casting a broad net to honor all veterans on November 11. I inherited his letters back home to Van Wert, Ohio, to my great Aunt Dora. Showing careful penmanship, his letters are quite touching, newsy and humble. This wasn’t a man worried about national recognition. He just wanted to get home in one piece.

Meantime, I’m glad to see the peace advocates still speaking up and speaking out, even when few people show up to wave a sign. No peacenik I ever knew hates Americans in uniform. That’s not the issue. The issue for peace advocates has always been the judgment of political leaders who lead the country into ill-conceived wars.

Even if they don’t keep our country out of wars, I’ve always reminded peace advocates that they must keep raising their voices. Those voices help protect Americans’ time-honored right to dissent. Americans can be terrific dissenters. Sooner or later, our political leaders will listen.

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Election day, your day

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vote2014“Why vote, the elderly Kentucky woman said, “it only encourages ’em.”

With the mid-term elections just days away, I find myself remembering that line. I think I saw it in The Wall Street Journal.

During my years at The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, I wrote lots of editorials and columns urging people to vote. Of course, I did want to encourage the candidates to put their best foot forward, too. More than that, I hoped to challenge readers to exercise their right as citizens in our democracy.

This isn’t the year we vote for president of the United States. It’s an off year you’ll hear those who follow politics closely say. This not only means that the president stays put for the next couple of years. That it’s an off-year also means the turnout will be low Election Day. In some jurisdictions, fewer than half of the registered voters will make to the polls.

In some democracies you’re required to vote or pay a fine. Even if that were a great way to get people to exercise their constitutional right, I can’t imagine any such law passing. Americans aren’t all conservative by any means. But we don’t like change.

One issue up for a vote this year in our country is whether to adopt a single executive office, rather than the three-person commission that now runs the day-to-day business of county government.

I haven’t seen any polls on the issue. My old paper ran a thoughtful, persuasive editorial in favor of a single county executive office. The arguments sounded awfully familiar. They should have. I made them a dozen times in editorials myself. I know exactly how this
decision will turn out. The vote to abandon this 19th Century relic of local government will go down to defeat.

My daughter Robyn called to ask for my advice about the local candidates. I could only recommend a Superior Court judge up for another term. I’ve know Stan Levine since high school and know him to be a highly ethical and capable jurist. Beyond that judge, I told my daughter to simply follow the recommendations of the paper.

It’s not just out of loyalty to my old employer. I happen to know the members of the editorial board, including the writers. I know they carefully weigh each candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. I also know they’ve personally interviewed the person seeking office. No question they’ll make their endorsement without regard to party affiliation.

After interviewing a dozen candidates or so, you can begin to feel exhausted. But I believe a newspaper performs no more important service for the community. I take my hat off to the current publisher, editor and writers of The Journal Gazette. Hats off also to the scores of daily newspapers that still invest the time and resources to offer editorial endorsements.

Among the newcomers to the political game and the old-timers, I’ve always enjoyed interviewing some especially talented, even wise candidates. For example, visiting with former U.S. Senator Richard Lugar was invariably a rich educational experience. I guess the conservative Republicans in our state found the senator too liberal and voted for his opponent. More like it, Lugar was too fair-minded and thoughtful.

Former Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith, another Republican, proved a delight to interview. He’s a very sharp guy who was just fun to debate. He seemed to relish the lively exchanges with our editorial board members, too.

By contrast, a husband and wife both seeking the same office, very nice people, just seemed out of their league. As an expression of thanks for the interview, the woman brought her favorite cake recipe to share.

There’s no substitute for meeting a candidate in person. Whether you end up voting for that person or the candidate’s opponent, you’re in the game. Your invested in something greater than yourself.

We all know that the TV ads for candidates slant the person’s story. That’s the way it is with any commercial for a car or a carpet cleaner. But attend a fund-raiser to meet a candidate’s supporters or even him or herself. Attend a rally. Send a few bucks of a donation to the candidate of your choice. You’ll be hooked for good on American politics.

Then no editorial will have to remind you to get out and vote.

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First freedom on review

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Tom Henry, 35th Mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana
Tom Henry, 35th Mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana

Sunday afternoon’s interfaith “Prayers for the City” service, the second annual, wouldn’t have happened in Burma, China, North Korea, Cuba or Iran.

To be sure, some of these countries even have freedom of religion written into their constitutions.

In this country, we mean it.

Mayor Tom Henry convened the event at the University of Saint Francis Performing Arts Center in downtown Fort Wayne.

The program featured leaders from a number of religious traditions. That included a Jewish rabbi, a Catholic nun, a Baptist preacher, the UCC minister, a Muslim imam, a Sikh, a member of the Miami Nation and my Unitarian minister, Rev. Shelly.

An interfaith chorus set just the right tone with “Unity,” taken from the Psalms. The verse set to music declares “How good and pleasant it is for kindred to dwell together in unity.”

Sister Kriss led the congregation in a prayer of Pope Francis that petitions God, “Grant us peace, teach us peace…”

We heard a Buddhist chant. A beautiful young Hindu girl danced, often on one leg, to Eastern music. Her peaceful pose helped reinforce the theme. She had everyone charmed.

The interfaith chorus sang one of the favorites my college choir often did, “The Prayer of Saint Francis.”

Local clergy took turns leading the congregation in a responsive reading. At the close, as we filed out to the Performing Center’s lobby for the refreshments, I was struck by how friendly, even energized everyone seemed.

I studied in colleges and a seminary where you often heard there was one church and you were in it. There was none of that at Sunday’s interfaith service. There was no narrow, bigoted spirit to be found in that center, that day. Yet there are lots of places in the world where your beliefs, practiced openly, can land you in prison or get you killed.

In this country, an interfaith service such as Sunday’s in Fort Wayne is as common as an interstate highway or the 11 o’clock news. We practice religious freedom here every day and don’t give it a second thought.

Thank you, Founding Fathers.

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