A MOST SURPRISING INVITATION
From high school…to a fiftieth reunion. Every one of us becomes someone new and different in the course of that time. Remembered impressions of one-time classmates, the ones we first formed as not-so-savvy youngsters, are out of date, and bound to create unproductive assumptions.
How about a dose of age-appropriate boldness .......a willingness to ask the right questions, to learn more about the person we scarcely knew all those years before.......Perhaps that would help defuse those misconceptions.
Promptly at one-thirty on Wednesday afternoon Chairman Bill Stanton called the biweekly meeting to order. The Tanner Hospital Foundation Executive Committee was in session. The committee was assembled in the hospital’s conference room, where the Chairman opened the meeting by introducing the group’s newest member, Elly Warren.
Except for Bill Stanton, who had been in her high school class, and Clint Harris, who was seated at the far end of the table, Elly had never met any of the committee members. Bill, however, had assured her that the community’s best families and most influential leaders were represented. Before he moved on to the business at hand Bill took a minute to recite Elly’s credentials as a fundraiser, as well as her connection to the once-prominent Beyers family.
The Hospital Foundation was a private, nonprofit corporation---formed in the 1980s to assist the county-owned hospital in its efforts to fund improvements. Since then, as the County’s taxing ability had become increasingly constricted, the Foundation’s role had been expanded to take on more expansive and expensive projects. Just three years earlier the group had raised more than a quarter-million dollars in grants and donations to modernize the hospital's Maternity Wing.
At its meeting two weeks earlier the group had, for the first time, discussed its most ambitious proposal ever---the funding of a new patient wing to the hospital. That initial review had included estimates, rough and undocumented, of a probable cost in excess of one million dollars. Now, as Bill Stanton moved the committee to the New Business portion of their agenda, it was their newly-minted expansion dream that took center stage.
Elly watched with interest as various members offered their personal visions of how to proceed. It took her only minutes to realize that the room was full of eager and inflated egos, each one with definite ideas to offer and a willingness to argue for their favored course of action.
“You’ve probably read about Twin Rocks and the new clinic they built,” one woman offered. “They raised most of the money with foundation grants and gifts from local families. But they also had school kids raising money with special projects. Everyone in town helped out in one way or another. We could do that.”
“Mary Ryan writes grants for the school district,” said another. “I’m sure she would be willing to help us.”
“My Gerald takes an internet class at the community college,” came yet another excited offering. “What if he asked his instructor to make it a class project---to find as many web sites as possible for foundations that make grants for community projects like a hospital expansion?”
The animated dialogue continued for nearly half an hour, with each new possibility spawning another round of even more hopeful ideas. Finally Bill Stanton rapped his gavel and called for quiet. “I’ll tell you what,” he announced. “I can just feel our energy and commitment. There’s no doubt. This is something we could do.”
Around the table heads nodded in agreement as he continued. “I believe we ought to schedule a town-hall meeting to get as many people as possible on board. It’s clear we’re going to need all the help we can get.”
The Chairman was basking in the euphoric affirmation of his excited followers. All around him he saw only nods and smiles---except from the old man at the far end of the table.
“How about you, Clint?” Bill asked. “You’re the only one who hasn’t spoke up. It’s hard to tell if you’re with us on this or not.”
After nineteen years on the Foundation Board Clint Harris was by far the most senior member of the Executive Committee. For sixteen of those years he had served as Production Manager at Birming Fabrication. As the highest-ranking local employee of the city’s largest private employer, he had originally been named as a de facto member of the Board---the ‘token blue-collar guy’ he called it.
Though he occasionally rebelled against the committee’s rigid agendas and was sometimes uneasy in the company of the group’s more openly elitist members, he remained on the board after retirement because he believed in the Foundation’s work.
“What do you think, Clint?” Bill Stanton asked again. “Are we on the right track?”
“You mean with the hospital expansion? Yeah. That’s a good idea. I’m sure it needs to be done.” Clint paused to note the approving grins and nods. “On the other hand,” he continued, “As sometimes happens we may be getting the cart out front of the horse.”
“What do you mean by that?” Bill asked.
“Well, if we’re going to ask people for money, or any other kind of help, we ought to know how much we need and what it will buy. Before we can know that we ought to be asking the hospital what they want. In other words, do we want to get the whole community excited about something before we even know where we’re going? Or should we do our homework first?”
“Well of course, everyone knows that has to come first,” Mrs. Steinkamp chimed in. “That’s obvious.”
“I’m sure it is, Alice,” Clint said, nodding his understanding. “And while we’re at it there’s something else we ought to look into---something that might require some legal fees.”
“We don’t need to get the damn lawyers involved.” Everyone in the room, except Elly, knew well Rodney Cumming’s passionate distaste for the legal profession. “They’ll only screw things up and fill their pockets with our money.”
“Rodney.” Clint was smiling politely as he carried on. “I’m sure you’ve heard of the laws that apply to Prevailing Wage Rates.” Without waiting for an answer he continued. “If we, as a private foundation, construct a new wing on the county-owned hospital, is that a Public Works Project? Is it subject to Prevailing Wage Rates, which are a lot higher than we’d have to pay for a private project? I don’t know the answer to that. But we’d better find out before we go much further. It could make a big difference in how much we’d have to raise.”
Clint paused to scan the assembled faces. “Look,” he offered. “This is a good idea. We just need to understand there’s a lot to do before we’re ready to make it a public issue and start rallying the troops. We want those folks to trust that we’re doing things right.”
Before anyone else stepped forward to debate Clint’s concerns, Elly raised her hand. In a matter of seconds she had watched the tide of energized enthusiasm drain away. Wide, enthusiastic smiles had turned to grumbling frowns. For the moment their exciting possibilities had been dampened by Clint’s blunt assessment. The Chairman nodded to her.
“Perhaps we could have those questions,” she began. “The ones Clint has raised, on the agenda for our next meeting,” she said. “It seems as though they ought to be addressed before we move ahead.”
Her suggestion was greeted with little more than half-hearted nods. No one seemed interested in further discussion. From all appearances the group had expended its energy. Their buoyant balloon had been pricked. Seconds later Chairman Stanton agreed to lead a renewed discussion of the topic at their next meeting, perhaps with an attorney on hand to address Clint’s legal concerns. With that the meeting was adjourned.
As usual Clint was the first to leave the conference room. While the others paused to socialize and revisit their discussion, he made a bee line for the door. When Elly was finally able to break away she hurried up the stairs and caught up with him at the front entrance. “Clint, could you slow down please?” she asked as she came along side of him.
“Well, hello there Elly,” he answered, surprised to find her walking beside him.
“Do you have a minute?” she asked warily. “You left in such a hurry.”
“I’m in no hurry. It’s just that I don’t have much to chat about with those folks. There’s not a lot of common ground, if you know what I mean. But why do you ask?”
“Do you have time for a cup of coffee?” She asked, nodding toward the small cafe next to the hospital pharmacy. “Just a few minutes.”
“I suppose so. Is something wrong?” There was no hiding his wonderment.
“Why, no. Nothing’s wrong. I was just hoping we could visit. That’s all. Is that okay?”
“I guess so.”
He held the door for her, then followed as she crossed the room to a window table. The waitress took their order and still Clint was trying to guess what she had in mind.
For her part, Elly watched with bemused interest as he studied the menu, looked around the room and out the window, then paused to fidget with his watch band. When at last he looked back at her she was reading his uneasy discomfort. “Still a man of few words, I see.”
“Just trying to figure out what’s going on.”
“I just wanted to visit. That’s all.”
“Okay. I’ll admit,” she announced with a hint of exasperation. “I’m here on a mission.”
“What kind of mission would involve having coffee with me?”
“Well, how about this,” she said. “I just sat through a long Foundation meeting, my very first one. And I heard lots of smart and influential people, leaders in this town, get enthused about a possibility. They were really worked up. The more they talked the more grandiose their ideas became.” She paused, wondering if he was following her. What she saw was only his impatient waiting for her to continue.
“Then, after everyone else had their say,” she leaned forward, “Bill asked what you thought. It took about thirty seconds for you to bring them back to earth---every single one of them. Their great ideas had been deflated and they were finally ready to think about the real issues.”
“So, I’m curious about why you did that.”
“Don’t you see?” Elly’s frustration was beginning to show. “It’s obvious they pay attention to what you say. I didn’t know that before.” She noted his grin. “But at first you didn’t say anything at all. You just let them ramble on. You could have straightened them out in ten minutes, instead of wasting so much time.”
At last Clint appeared to be taking an interest in her questions. “Is that how it looked to you?” he asked. “What I saw was everyone having their say, putting out their ideas and arguing for them.” He was shaking his head. “That wasn’t a waste of time. That’s how it looks when a bunch of people are buying into what seems like a good idea.”
“But so much of their talk was totally unrealistic---nothing but blue sky. It couldn’t possibly work the way they were describing.”
“Ah, yes,” he nodded, leaning back to let the waitress refill his cup. “The old ’it can’t work’ routine.
"Near as I can tell those words are a great way to kill a good idea before its time---before there’s a chance to think it through. I’ll tell you what. It’s a little early in the game to be worrying about what works and what doesn’t. Right now what you want is a roomful of people getting excited about the possibilities, accepting ownership of what can be done.
“But you’re right. That enthusiasm will take us only so far. It’s important not to get ahead of ourselves. It’s fine to be dreaming our dreams. That’s great to see. But we need to keep things in perspective and do things in the right order.”
Elly took a moment to consider his simple logic. There was obviously more to this quiet man than she had suspected. A second later she looked up from her coffee to ask, “Where did you get that?”
“Somewhere along the way you learned a lot about working with people---about keeping them on track and respecting them. That fellow at the far end of the table today was not the timid yokel I barely knew in high school. Everyone else in the room seemed to know that, but I didn’t. I’m half ashamed to admit that if it hadn’t been for Sharon Underwood, I wouldn’t have remembered your name at all.”
“No reason you should have,” Clint laughed. “Though for her sake I’m glad you did. Besides, I was a yokel back then. Still have a lot of yokel in me.” At last he felt comfortable enough to look into her eyes and explain. “When I came back from the service I went to work at Birming Fabrication.”
“Was that the big factory out by the fairgrounds?” she asked.
“That’s the one. For a long time they were the biggest employer in town, besides the State. Anyway, I started out there as a fork-lift driver, then became a welder, and after that a shift foreman. After a while I was named department supervisor. Then, back in seventy-nine, old man Birming sold out to a conglomerate from Los Angeles, the Denning Group. Maybe you’ve heard of them.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Anyway. Denning sent a fellow up from headquarters to run the division. You know, an MBA, gray-suit type. I was promoted from supervisor to Production Manager, reporting to him.”
“My, that was quite a step up.”
“It couldn’t happen today,” he admitted. “You’d have to have a degree. Back then the guy running production just had to be smart, not educated. It was about getting results. Pretty soon there were eight supervisors reporting to me. It was my job to keep them productive and charged up---enthused about what had to get done and seeing that it got done right.”
“You must have done it well.”
“I sort of learned on the job, mostly from my own mistakes. It was kind of a balancing act---keeping headquarters happy and the crew on task.”
This time Clint passed on more coffee. He did however venture his own question, “Can I ask you something?” Elly nodded. “What kind of background did Bill think he was getting when he asked you to join the Foundation?”
“I think Esther must have told him that I had done a lot of volunteer fund raising in Los Angeles.”
“You can bet that caught his attention. Especially if he thought you might also have the resources to do some significant giving of your own.”
“You don’t suppose that would make a difference, would it?” Elly answered in mock surprise. “I hope it’s not one of their rules.”
“Don’t worry. If they keep me on board, you can be sure that big money isn’t a requirement.”
Elly gathered her coat and purse from the adjoining chair. Before she could open her purse Clint had his wallet out, ready to pay for their coffee. She nodded her thanks and waited for him at the door. Outside, on their way to the parking lot, she was ready to make one last point. “I hope you’re not uncomfortable talking with me.”
“Not at all.” What else could he say? He had enjoyed his time with her, in spite of his anxiety. ......though he was still wondering why she had asked him to stay in the first place.
“The other night at the reunion,” she said, “it struck me how much Tanner has changed. There were so many people I didn’t know. It was the same at the meeting today---except for you and Bill. My cozy little home town has become a big city. And it’s full of strangers. Of course, I’ve changed too. I’m not as sociable as I once was. Or maybe I’m just too old to change. In any case, I’m not interested in spending a lot of time with people I don’t even know.”
“I think you said that the other night,” he said. “Or something like it.”
“So when I asked to have coffee with you, it was because that’s what I wanted to do.”
“You said that too.”
“Is that okay?”
He wanted his self-conscious smile to appear sincere. He was afraid it only looked silly. “It’s fine with me. I’m just not sure why you’d want to do that.”
“Trust me. I’ll know why.” Her smile vanished and she had turned serious when she added, “Can I ask you something else---something that just crossed my mind? I’m not the impulsive kind, at least not normally. But you’re standing right here, so I think I’ll give it a shot. Besides, it’s a good idea, worth exploring. I’d like to hear what you think of it.”
“What’s that?” Here it comes, he told himself, the real reason she wanted to talk to him. He had known from the beginning it was something more than a friendly chat.
“I was wondering if you’d be willing to join me sometime for a Friday night social at the country club?”
It was a simple question---straight forward, unambiguous, and absolutely unprecedented. In all his sixty-eight years Clint had never once considered having to answer such a question. His stunned silence lasted for seconds. When he finally spoke, his reply was as succinct as her question. “Why?”
“I’m not altogether sure,” she admitted. “I only just thought of it. You see it’s been years, decades actually, since I’ve been there for one of their functions. I won’t know most of the people. I’m sure that I’d be more comfortable if I was there with a friend.” She paused, noting his puzzled frown. “Do you mind if I call you a friend?”
“I don’t suppose so.” A second later Clint was scolding himself for letting her sidetrack him from what needed saying. Looking down into her smile he had turned grimly serious.
“Elly Warren, normally I would just say forget it. Let it drop. There’s nothing more to talk about. But since you’ve made a point of saying what you think, I guess I owe you the same.”
“I’d appreciate that.” Stopping at her car she paused to unlock the driver’s door and toss her purse inside.
“Here’s the deal,” he said. “Except for four years in the Army I’ve lived in Tanner my whole life. I’ve never been sorry about that. I’m glad I grew up here. I’m glad I live here.” He slowed to search for the right words.
“For all that time there have always been country club folks around. I’ve worked with some of them. I’ve served on committees with them. I’ve called some of them friends. But, even when I was the boss, I always knew they were different than me---and I was sure they felt that way too.”
Clint leaned against Elly’s Lexus, asking himself if he had the right to go where this was leading. What would it accomplish? Rather than answer his own question he carried on.
“I suppose it’s a mindset. Something I learned in the first grade or before. It may be wrong, but it’s how I’ve always felt.
“There was a time I made pretty good money. But those folks up there on the hill, even the ones who sent their kids to work for me at the mill, had really big bucks. And they liked to flaunt that. Fact is, they thought they were better than most people. To my way of thinking, they still do.”
Was she still listening, he wondered. “I felt that way as a boy. I feel that way today. Nothing’s happened to change my mind. I don’t lose sleep over it. I just don’t give a damn what they think.”
He stopped short, reminding himself who he was talking to. Then, grinning into her noncommittal frown, “Look, this is not a good time to be going on like this.”
“You’re not offending me, Clint.”
“Good. Because I don’t mean to. It’s just that I can’t imagine why you’d want me there at your club with you. I can’t imagine why I’d want to be there. But then, half an hour ago I couldn’t have imagined having coffee with you.”
“And here you are,” she said. “I hope it wasn’t as bad as you thought.”
“It was fine.”
“Thank you. In that case, I’ll put my invitation on hold for now. But don’t think I’ve forgotten about it” Slipping behind the steering wheel, Elly pulled her seat belt tight.
She was ready to drive off, leaving Clint with time for one last question. “What do you suppose Tom Berry and the others would think if you showed up with me? I bet they’d go berserk.”
“But you don’t care what they think. You just told me that.” Her mischievous wink came as a surprise. “Neither do I.”
He stepped away from the car and she was gone.
As always, dear reader, if you have friends or family who might enjoy a dose of Geriatric Adolescence I invite you to share our address (octoberyears.blogspot.com) with them. That is the best way I know to spread the word. The blog's right sidebar lists all the earlier chapters, so they can always start at the beginning.