A Yankee Notebook, Columns

It’s Up to You to Contribute

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by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – Almost every day I treat myself to the blog of Heather Cox Richardson. I consider it sort of a stroking of my biases, which by this time of my life hardly need affirmation. But I learn stuff, too. In one of this week’s daily pieces Ms. Cox describes the remarkable career of Frances Perkins, who served as FDR’s Secretary of Labor during his extraordinary long tenure as President. Look her up on Wikipedia.

She was a horrified witness to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which killed 146 garment workers trapped by locked doors to exits. Thus, in response to FDR’s offer of the position as Secretary – she was the first woman cabinet member ever – Perkins presented a list of the priorities she wished to pursue (Can you imagine having to lobby for a 54-hour work week for women?). Social Security, inaugurated the same year as I, was one result; every time that payment shows up in my bank account, I silently thank Frances. The Fair Labor Standards Act (1938, over the objections of employers) was another of her creations.

You can look all this stuff up. What has stuck with me is something she said once about her lifelong efforts to help those unable to speak for or help themselves: “There is always a large horizon…. There is much to be done. It is up to you to contribute some small part to a program of human betterment for all time.”

It’s a message that all of us have heard since the days of our early education. Our singing sessions at Sunday School in the ’30s invariably included “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” and as we approached the age of adulthood at, say, eight, we learned “Let the lower lights be burning; send a gleam across the wave. Some poor fainting, struggling, seaman, you may rescue, you may save.” (Can you believe that Johnny Cash recorded that one?)

Still later, the Boy Scout oath adjured us to “help other people at all times.” Some of us did, and many of us didn’t; life intervened, and there were just so many other activities and priorities competing for our time. The job of caring for our fellow creatures often became somebody else’s responsibility,

All of this came into sharper focus during the worst of the recent pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of us could no longer go to work in our usual situations. Luckily, the internet had arrived and matured enough to enable those legions to work from home, which for many has now become the norm.

But then a new term came into common usage: essential workers. They’re the people without whom our systems can’t function, and suddenly we were aware of them. Firefighters and police, of course. And medical professionals. But what about the field workers who harvest our lettuce, milk our cows, and dig our potatoes? Some of the lowest-paid workers in the nation became crucial to our way of life.

While the hospital operating theaters continued to perform necessary surgery, their professional personnel were famously imperiled. But likewise were the folks who handled the laundry and the waste, who in many cases worked for just above minimum wage. Without them, the hospitals couldn’t have functioned.

The list goes on – mechanics, plumbers, garbage men. You can put off a dental procedure (usually), but you can’t live with a stopped-up toilet. Remember the old story about the eminent surgeon whose loo was hors de combat with a house full of company on a weekend? He’d gotten a plumber to give up his Sunday off, but then, looking at the bill, complained that, even as an eminent surgeon, he didn’t make that much money.

“I know,” said the plumber. “I didn’t either when I was a surgeon.”

That’s off the subject. The people I really want to celebrate are the volunteers who give their time and talent, often even for years, to make sure the hungry are fed and the homeless housed. Jimmy Carter is the most famous example at the moment, but there are at least hundreds of thousands of them. They not only provide services that otherwise would not be available, but their caring impulses are the glue that binds human society together. Politicians talk and enact laws intended (sometimes) to benefit the needy; preachers often remind us of our duty; but it’s the little, anonymous, essential people who make the salads and the soup, who make sure everyone gets a helping of love with the sandwich, and clean the kitchen afterward who are the heroes.

There is much to be done. It is up to [each of us] to contribute some small part.

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