The Set of Our Sails 

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Editor

Richard Johnstone
Richard Johnstone

I tend to go on binges. No, nothing illegal, immoral or unethical. Healthy binges. Reading binges. (It is a sin, though, how many mysteries feature as their only puzzlement why they were published, or how many “thrillers” offer as their most exciting moment the reader’s catatonic delight at reaching the last page, but that’s another story.) In short, I’m an unabashed bibliophile. 

And like most avid readers, I go through genre “spells,” with an appetite for a few weeks or months for books in a specific “corner” of the library. Then, the appetite for that genre having been satisfied, I’ll move on to another corner, usually involving a distinct change of pace. These spells go something like this: novel, novel, novel, novel. Biography, biography. Mystery, mystery, mystery. Light comedy, dark comedy, farce. Western, western, western. Natural history, nature essays, seasonal celebration. Religious history, religious commentary. Travel, travel, travel.

And — lately — it’s been history-mystery, history-mystery. As it happens, both books have been about the still-unexplained abandonment in mid-Atlantic Ocean of the

Mary Celeste, an American sailing ship found wandering in early December 1872 between the Azores and Portugal, by a passing British brig. Members of the British ship’s crew boarded the Mary Celeste, found her seaworthy and were puzzled as to what might have happened to her party of 10, who were never seen or heard from.

Several crew members from the passing ship then sailed her on to Gibraltar, and into history as one of the most tantalizing maritime mysteries of all. With scant to no evidence of either foul play or foul weather, there has never been an adequate explanation to account for the sudden abandonment of the ship, with its crew of seven and its captain, who was accompanied by his wife and baby daughter.

In the book I’m currently reading, Charles Edey Fay’s Mary Celeste: The Odyssey of an Abandoned Ship, a chapter-opening verse from a poem by 19th-century American writer Ella Wheeler Wilcox caught my attention:

One ship drives East, and one drives West,

By the selfsame wind that blows;

It’s the set of the sails, and not the gales,

Which determines the way it goes.

Those lines summarize better than I ever could the difference between cooperatives and other types of businesses, specifically electric cooperatives and other utilities. A lot of gales have been blowing through the electric utility industry in recent years, with the California crisis, the implosion of Enron, the bankruptcy of several large power companies and marketers, and the Northeast blackout last August. Troubling events, at a troubling time in our national life. These events contributed to a growing distrust of large corporations among average citizens, and led Congress in 2002 to adopt the Sarbanes-Oxley Act to instill more discipline in, and oversight of, the boardrooms, accounting firms and CEO offices of America.

But below the constant chatter of televised commentators and the loud clatter of splashy front-page stories recounting these problems, a different type of utility has quietly, steadily continued to operate the same way it’s operated for more than 60 years, in over 900 small towns, suburban communities and rural havens across this great land. With local staff serving local customers, who own the utility and elect their own neighbors to serve on the board of directors. With a not-for-profit structure that sees it operate at cost, provide service that consistently receives some of the highest satisfaction ratings in the business, and return any “profits” to the customers who own it.

We’re not the biggest utility around. But we’re convinced that we’re the one best suited to meet your electric needs today, and next week, and next year. For more than three generations, your electric cooperative’s sole focus has been, and will always be, to provide you with the most reliable possible service at the lowest possible cost.

It’s the set of our sails. And the gales blowing through the world, the nation, and the electric utility industry won’t change that.



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