Alvah H. Chapman Jr. Leadership Lecture Series — Miami

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The text of a speech on Sept. 12, 2012, at the first annual Alvah H. Chapman Jr. Leadership Lecture at Florida International University in Miami.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a privilege to be here…to speak in the memory and example of our community’s singularly great leader of the past half-century…to do so with his beloved Betty, daughter Dale and grandson Brey in the audience. None of us — and Alvah Chapman would be the first to say this — achieves anything alone. Betty Chapman is as good an example as I know of a supportive, collaborative partner. She reminds me of my own mother – short in stature, great in goodness. In my own growing-up-and-beyond family, all nine of us Lawrence children would have told you that my father was the “strong one” in our home. But in my mother’s widowhood of 20 years, we discovered that our mother was much stronger than we thought – full of extraordinary faith and the greatest values. That, too, is Betty Bates Chapman. I love and admire her, and daughter Dale, too.

Alvah H. Chapman Jr. and his leadership is the theme of this evening. I spoke to that at his funeral service now almost four years ago. About the life he built from the greatest Biblical lessons. His appetite for plain speaking nurtured by compassion and fairness. His deep understanding of right and wrong. His insistent efforts on behalf of “the least, the last, the lost” in our midst. To say that Alvah was strong-willed would be to understate the matter. In my almost four decades of knowing him, I frequently thought — and I am not kidding you — that if Alvah decided that far wall ought to go down by the morning, and it had to be done by telepathy, it would be somehow achieved.

I am not Alvah Chapman. None of us is. But each of us does have within us the power to “get things done” — good things, meaningful things, things that can transcend our lifetimes.

You will find what I have to say tonight laced throughout with the “personal” because what I have to share is what I have learned in life. I grew up on a farm — a chicken farm, which just might be the least glamorous form of farming. If I know how to work hard — and I do — it is because of that. By the time I was 9 years old, I was driving a tractor and selling vegetables to neighbors. Five days a week, before we were picked up by the school bus on the dirt road in front of our home, the older children, of which I am No. 2, helped slaughter and gut and “dress” chickens that, in turn, were sold to area grocery stores. We didn’t have a lot of money, but never considered ourselves “poor” in any way. Dinnertime, all of us around the table, was presided over by my father who quizzed us on the news of the day and politics and government generally. We had a newspaper at home every day except Sunday when we had two. We were never brought up to believe that we were better than anyone else, but we were brought up to believe that we had an obligation to “make something” of ourselves. My father used to warn us about trying to “save the world,” but at the same time he and my mother emphasized to all nine of us that we were very much obliged to make a difference in this world — not only for ourselves but also for those who were less fortunate than we. At 8 each evening we all knelt down for prayers.

Reading is fundamental to what I am sharing this evening because it is so central to whom I want to be, to what difference I can make, and to what I want for every child. Going back two-thirds of a century to when I was 4, I can remember my mother reading “The Little Engine That Could.” (” I think I can. I think I can,” goes the book, and it turned out that the little engine could, which seems to me a metaphor for the possibilities within each of us.) I started first grade (we didn’t have kindergarten where I lived) with “Dick and Jane.” Books as gifts came every Christmas. In 1953 when I was 11 my parents bought a whole set of the World Book Encyclopedia; we children looked things up, but also read the encyclopedia — page after page — because learning was fun. Seemingly all my life I’ve read a book or more every week. In 35 years at seven newspapers, reading gave me more insightful questions and more understanding. It gave me the confidence to interview the likes of the dictator of Cuba and the President of the United States. Reading leads to more meaningful conversations and more meaningful relationships.

My reading has centered on biographies and history, especially American history. In recent years I came to think that I should read more literature, and I am not talking James Patterson or Danielle Steele or, for that matter, “Shades of Grey.” More likely, it would be the likes of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” or something by Mark Twain, a man I love because he grew so much all his life. Mr. Twain makes us smile, and think — and both are important.

Reading is a “connector,” often in ways I might never have imagined when I picked up the book. Thus, in recent weeks I read “Great Expectations,” written a century and a half ago, wherein Charles Dickens tells the story of “Pip” who is raised by his much bigger and big-bully sister. Here’s a paragraph in which Pip speaks, reminding us that the basics are timeless:

“My sister’s bringing up had made me sensitive. In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice. It may be only small injustice that the child can be exposed to; but the child is small, and its rocking horse stands as many hands high, according to scale, as a big-boned Irish hunter. Within myself, I had sustained, from my babyhood, a perpetual conflict with injustice. I had known, from the time when I could speak, that my sister, in her capricious and violent coercion, was unjust to me. I had cherished a profound conviction that her bringing me up by hand gave her no right to bring me up by jerks.”

My own lifelong sense of justice and injustice, fairness and unfairness continues to be deeply informed by my reading. God and family and good teachers have given me the lifelong capacity to become interested in almost anything. Reading deepens my understanding of what has gone wrong in the world, and what has gone right, and who has done good and who has done bad – and why. We all need “role models”; I find them all the time on the printed page.

The best leaders are eager to learn from the past. We live in times when so many Americans have precious little respect for, and understanding of, the lessons of history. On this state’s FCAT you will find no section on “history,” meaning, I suppose, that the state has decided that history is not important enough. If that be so, it is shortsighted stupidity. Nowadays too many people make up their minds that what happened heretofore was a long time ago and, hence, not very meaningful now.

In our home, beyond books, my wife and I read two newspapers a day. (I don’t like to go to work without knowing what is happening, especially in my own community.) All the while, I worry about the erosion of real journalism in print…worry because there’s much we should know that we would not know if The Miami Herald didn’t tell us. These days way too many people think they are informed if they get a snippet from a BlackBerry or a cable TV rant labeled as “news.”

That I lead an optimistic and idealistic life is among my greatest blessings. So, too, is that I also lead a mostly simple life, and that I appreciate and love my wife Roberta even more than when we were married almost 49 years ago. If she and our five children and their children and spouses are okay, then I am basically okay. For both of us, reading good books is among the truly great pleasures in life.

People not infrequently suggest I “slow down.” Others use that awful word “retirement.” No doubt I should slow down a bit, but “retirement” still seems unhealthy and unwise. There is simply too much to do that I like to do, and I am not saving my energy for the next world. To be sure, I am “driven.” But please do not label me with the pejorative “workaholic.” Truth to tell, I never wanted to miss “work” because I never thought it was “work.” To this very day I remain “driven” by an eagerness to learn, “driven” by what remains to be done, “driven” by injustices and inequity. I also had my priorities straight enough to be sure that any events with our children – sports or plays or anything – were on my calendar, and attended.

What I have shared thus far speaks directly to tonight’s topic and yours and my ability to further human progress here or anywhere. “Love” is central, too. That’s a word so many people, especially men, hesitate to use. But I find myself increasingly using that word. The fact of the matter is that each of us needs to be respected, wanted, needed, fulfilled – and loved. Love, in fact, is an extraordinary motivator. It’s worth telling you that I was managing editor of a daily newspaper by the time I was 27, with a management style that involved “ordering” people to do things. As I learned subsequently and quickly, that was a dumb way to motivate. A kind word is a powerful motivator. (I was struck, in that spirit, by a “funeral notice” I read 10 days ago in The Miami Herald. Marge Hartnett had just died at age 95; she was someone I knew and admired for years. Her closing words in that death notice made it clear that she would have no “memorial service or funeral.” Instead, she wrote, “please do something nice for someone who doesn’t get much attention.” Now that is genuine wisdom, and none of us ought to forget such.)

Most of my love is for people. But I also love Miami (without suggesting it is the easiest place we have lived). Love Miami because what we are and what we can be. Love Miami because a newcomer can do anything here. (Unlike everywhere else we have ever lived, you don’t have to wait for years to pitch in to help; indeed, you don’t have to wait at all – which is why The Miami Foundation’s Sunday report on the low level of community involvement here is so discombobulating.) Love Miami because we are the biggest “small town” in America. (Avoid insulting anyone here because within 18 hours you may well find out that you have insulted someone’s close friend or relative!) Love Miami because we are on the cutting edge of American pluralism and can preview for the rest of the country, by example, how the diverse people of one community can learn about (and from) one another, come to understand and respect our differences, celebrate what we have in common, and do good things together.

Now, I don’t want to get carried away with how good and special we are because I have no sense we have arrived at the “promised land” of progress. I give you two examples of what worries me mightily:

  • For one, good people are increasingly not putting themselves up for public service, nor encouraging and helping other good people to run for office. What a mistake. I certainly don’t want to be insensitive to anyone, but I’ve read enough and heard enough about the history of Cuba to understand that too many good people decided politics was “dirty,” and therefore didn’t get involved. The result was the likes of Machado, Batista and Castro. My point here is not about the history of Cuba, but rather of the lessons of history for all of us – and my concern that the ethos of unselfish and elected public service is being diminished in our own community and our own country.
  • Number two, we lead far too separate lives. We are certainly not a “melting pot,” nor really is anywhere else in America. At our best we could be a tasty salad. I would ask, as one test, for each of us to ask ourselves: Whom did I have in my home in the past year? We talk a “good game” of diversity yet too often remain most comfortable with people like ourselves. To overcome that – and be an example to America — we must confront ourselves.

As you know, my focus for a considerable number of years now has been children, especially in the early learning years when 90 percent of brain growth comes to pass. I have come to believe, undergirded by research, that the smartest possible investment we could make in the future of our beloved country is to get children off to a good start in life and in school. It deeply worries me that we are slipping in profoundly significantly ways as a country – most especially in being truly educated. In a country where 90 percent of all children go to public school, as I did, what does it say about ourselves that 44 percent of our third grade public school students are poor readers or cannot read at all? What does it say about us that three of every four 17 to 24 year olds cannot enter the American military because they have an academic problem, a criminal justice problem, a substance abuse problem, or a physical challenge? Surely an educated populace is fundamental to the national security of a country we love.

Built from such realities — propelled by the drive and the values I have heretofore described — I spend most of my energies on the imperative of “school readiness”: That is, high-quality early care, development and education. From that vision, accompanied by evidence and energy, has come the passage of a constitutional amendment that makes pre-K available and free for all 4 year olds in Florida. (We are one of only three states with pre-K available and free for everyone.) From that vision we made the case for The Children’s Trust in our own community, meaning this year alone an extra $123 million to invest in high-quality early intervention and prevention. (Just imagine: The people of one American community, our own, voted to raise their taxes on behalf of everyone’s child.) From that vision, we have been building The Children’s Movement of Florida, with already 325,000 followers pushing to make children — all children — the No. 1 priority for investment in our state.

Accompanying all the intellectual underpinnings of this work is old-fashioned outrage. All social progress has its roots in outrage — the sort of outrage that led to women having the right to vote and Social Security and Medicare and the civil rights and women’s movements, the sort of outrage that should remind us, for example, of the idiocy and illogic of our state using our money to spend a piddling $2,383 on a pre-K slot for a 4 year old, and a 21-times-larger $50,000 to incarcerate a juvenile. The New York Times columnist David Brooks reminds us: “The problem is not that America lacks resources. The problem is that they are misallocated.” By way of example, remember that we have spent more than $500 billion these past 11 years to bring democracy to Afghanistan – perhaps a noble cause, but not one especially likely to succeed – while at the same time more than 12 million citizen children of our country have no health insurance and 46 million Americans live in poverty. We need to be a better people than this. As we Americans struggle over so-called “Obamacare” and other matters, remember that what seems “radical” in one generation becomes the foundation of American equity in the next.

No progress in human history has been achieved (with the exception of science and medicine) with anything less than vision accompanied by courage combined with pushing and shoving. People of goodwill are vital, but progress also requires insistent, sometimes unpleasant energy and what George Bernard Shaw called “unreasonable people.” The great American Frederick Douglass told us: “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has, and it never will.”

It is, of course, nigh onto impossible to know where you are in history when you are living it. One of the books I remember from my high school years in Bradenton, Florida, was Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” He told us five centuries ago: “There is nothing more difficult to conduct, or more uncertain of success, than to take the lead in the introduction of the new order of things.” Doing right by children, I am sad to report, remains a mission barely begun and deserving of being central to “the new order of things.”

What could be more “American” than that every child have the real opportunity to succeed in school and in life? The children of Miami and America are nowhere close to being a real and major priority. The same principles of health and education and nurturing and love that our five children received – and, now, their children – deserve to be the fundamentals for all children in a society that seeks to be good as well as wise. That is not “socialism,” but rather so very “American.”

To achieve the best for Miami and America requires an insistence on justice for all. It means you and I need to speak up far more often than most of us do. It means each of us ought to use the “bully pulpit” available to everyone. I am most certainly not advocating the crude, angry, I-can-outshout-you voices that pass these days for public discourse on blogs and broadcast. But I do mean that we citizens need to be speaking up more often about what we think is right and good. It seems to me rarer than ever these days for our elected leaders – in Miami and Tallahassee and Washington – to use their platforms to teach and inspire as my favorite President, Abraham Lincoln, did to the nation’s greatest benefit. We all need inspiration.

What I am about to say is not, I promise you, “political” but instead used as example. My greatest disappointment with our current President is a failure to use that pulpit as he did so remarkably four years ago. For example, the best speech I’ve heard on race in the past 30 years came from candidate Obama in Philadelphia back in 2008. Our country needs much more speaking-up wisdom – and much more inspiration. Our best leaders are teachers – in words and example.

Like you, I have no real power except the power of oneself, the capacity to convene good people to move toward common cause, blended with vision and the ability to build collaborative relationships and to raise resources. Power at its wisest is deeply invested in values accompanied by energetic, insistent purposefulness and a bucketful of common sense. The best leaders are comfortable with, and eager for, inclusiveness. Gathering the fullest range of perspectives and people leads to better decisions if – and this is a big IF — there is a genuine willingness to listen, especially to those who might tell us what we might well prefer not to hear.

How is each of us willing to use power, and for what good? How can each of us depart this life with the world in at least a bit better shape than when we entered it (and how will we encourage those who follow us to set their own examples to benefit the generations beyond)?

I like what the great educator Horace Mann advised graduates of Antioch College back in 1859: “Be ashamed to die before you have won some battle for humanity.” Alvah Chapman, may we always remember, won many great battles.

Alvah was genuinely humble, all the while being very purposeful in every chapter of his life – growing up, leading a B-17 bomber squadron through flak-filled skies over Europe in the Second World War, in his and Betty’s decision to marry and love each other all the days of their lives together and beyond, in raising a family of the highest human values, in insisting on the empowering linkage of sound business principles and great journalism, in the rebuilding of our community after Hurricane Andrew, in his nationally important leadership in diminishing the allure and use of drugs as well as what he did for the homeless that has since become a national illustration of best practice.

Alvah made a difference in small and kind ways, and big and good ways – in ways that transcend any one generation. We have no less an opportunity. A century and a half ago, Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, told us: “If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential…for the eye ever young and ardent (that) sees the possible.

That was Alvah Chapman. It is in that spirit that I have such great faith in what you — indeed, each of us — can do. And will do. Thank you…and God bless each of us.