Uncommon Qualities 

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Editor

Richard Johnstone
Richard Johnstone

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 business.

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.



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