With the Summer Olympics upon us, thoughts (and
prayers) turn to Greece. One of the many gifts that Greece has given us is
a long list of words we use in everyday English. From Air to Zoo,
literally thousands of words come to us from the Greeks. One of my
favorites is Mentor, who in Greek mythology was the friend and counselor
to Trojan War leader Odysseus, and a teacher to his son, Telemachus. Thus,
from the mists of ancient Greek storytelling, a great noun was born,
describing (according to Webster’s) “a wise, loyal advisor” and/or
“a teacher or coach.”
Many of us are fortunate to have someone who is
serving or has served us as a role model or life instructor. Often, this
is an older person who inspires and encourages us to look beyond ourselves
for service opportunities, and to reach within ourselves for the fortitude
to achieve a goal. I’m one of a lucky few who had a mentor who was first
a wonderful teacher, later adding the role of wise advisor, and ultimately
and foremost becoming a close friend.
My mentor, Bill Dietrick, passed away five years ago
this month, after a stellar career in public relations and teaching, and a
stellar life filled with service to his country in Korea, a long and happy
marriage to wife Rosemary, and the difficulties and delights that
accompany the successful raising of three fine sons. Bill was a teacher of
mine in college, a colleague on some community service activities, a sly,
insightful writer of this magazine’s “The Last Word” column for
several years, and an inspiration till the end.
One of Bill’s strongest qualities was his
integrity, practicing daily what he preached. But his preaching wasn’t
preachy; it was practical and low-key and bull’s-eye on target. He often
talked to his students about the importance of practicing “The Common
Denominators”: Common decency, Common courtesy, Common sense. “Treat
the cleaning lady with the same respect that you treat the big boss, and
you’ll be successful,” he counseled those of us in his public
relations class. And he was right.
But as with any life lesson in any classroom, when
Bill shared this wisdom there were more students than nods of
understanding, more nods than believers, more believers than
practitioners. Common decency, common courtesy and common sense, after
all, are anything but. Which is exactly why Bill stressed their
importance, knowing through his life experience that values are what give
life, and lives, meaning and power.
And yet, while the common denominators often seem
rarer than a cool breeze in August, or good news on a daily’s front
page, they’re there, in the early birdsong of an August dawn or the
teaser at the bottom of page one. If you’ll just scratch a bit beneath
the grimy surface of grim headlines and dire warnings, “reality” TV
and “music” videos, network newsmagazine profiles of psychos and
misfits, e-mail garbage and accounts of road rage, you’ll find the real
America. The one with civic organizations and church groups and community
associations and neighbors working together, in small but powerful ways,
to improve their lives.
Which is exactly why, and how, electric cooperatives
were formed in the first place, about 65 years and three generations ago.
Only 10 percent of rural people had electric service in 1935, when the
federal government encouraged communities across the land to form and
build their own utilities, using low-cost federal loans, to provide
themselves with a service no one else would.
As we all know, the world of 2004 bears only a faint
resemblance to the world of the ’30s, in technology, in transportation,
in access to news and information, in the amount of leisure time most
families enjoy, and in sheer affluence. But both the cooperation needed in
the 1930s to start a utility and the cooperation needed in the 21st
century to keep it going require roll-up-the-sleeves, hands-on member
involvement: in attending the annual meeting, in electing board members
and approving bylaws changes, in providing feedback to the local folks who
serve you, and generally in taking an interest in what is truly your
It’s a business that returns any profits — called
margins — to you, and that answers only to the thousands of local folks
such as you who own it and whom it serves. And yet, in the big world of
utilities, we’re relatively small, with the nation’s 900 electric
cooperatives serving only about 10 percent of the U.S. population.
But being smaller and more local than the big power
companies has even more advantages than those already listed. We’re not
reliable despite being locally owned; we’re reliable because of it,
because a local presence helps us to know and serve your needs best. And
we’re not competitive despite being a cooperative; we’re competitive
because we are, because as a cooperative we operate at cost.
And — maybe most importantly — we’re neighborly
because we try to make sure that the common denominators of common
decency, common courtesy and common sense really are common in the way we
treat you every hour of every day.