Turning Corners to Discover More CharterFolk Living the Hero’s Journey

Yesterday I got this picture from my daughter Tess.

She is in her second year at the University of San Diego and had an event in the building housing the school’s education department, a part of the campus she doesn’t typically visit, where she came across this tribute to Brian Bennett, who I mentioned again in my last post.

Brian is a legend in our family.  So it was quite a moment for Tess to turn a corner in her own university and come across a tribute like this unexpectedly. 

As the recognition confirms, Brian’s life was about so much more than the scourge of a disease that brought it to an end. But ALS continues to surface in the lives of many of us here connected to CharterFolk. Just last week we learned of another reader and leader in charterland whose family has come to be affected.  And we learned how, through it all, the leader is keeping anchored to his quest to improve public education for students and families in his community.

I have been considering writing a post for several weeks but had been hesitating.

This confluence of events that has resurfaced ALS once again prods me on to write that which I had been equivocating about.

During my undergraduate years at Georgetown, one of the many blessings I experienced was having a chance to get to know Tom Whipple, the husband of my grandmother’s best friend. He had been married for 40 years to his wife when she passed away, and soon thereafter he rekindled a friendship with his high school sweetheart who happened to be my grandmother’s best friend. Margie and Tom had a good decade together, but by the time I got to know them she was seriously ill. She did not have ALS but she had another form of degenerative neurological disease with very similar symptoms. I would visit them just about monthly and witnessed Mr. Whipple provide a level of care for Margie that was an inspiration to all who came into contact with him. All the way to the very end, he made every accommodation so that Margie could spend her final days as she wished, living in their family home.  It was an example of selfless giving to another I thought about often and appreciated anew twenty years later as I visited Brian during the final months of his life.

Mr. Whipple was an extraordinary person.  His extraordinariness was only exceeded by his modesty.  He had led an absolutely fascinating life, but much of it would only come out by happenstance.

After Margie passed away, I remember walking down a street in Alexandria where he lived and passing a bookstore that had Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth in the front window.  

When I said that I had read that one, Mr. Whipple shared he’d been friends with the author.  And when he learned that I had left my copy back home he promptly went in and bought me the copy from the window saying that a young person should always have a guidebook to the hero’s journey within his or her reach.  

Nearly 40 years later I still have that copy of the book in my personal library.

Another time I remember perusing Tom’s bookshelf and finding another book I had read, Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man …

… which again led Mr. Whipple to reveal that he had been good friends with that famous author as well, and prompted him to begin digging in a file cabinet in his study.  A minute later he produced an old manuscript in a green folder, a first draft of the book that Bronowski had sent to Tom in hopes that he might offer comments.  I remember Tom flipping to the book’s first page which contains Bronowski’s immortal first paragraph.

“Man is a singular creature. He has a set of gifts which make him unique among the animals, so that unlike them, he is not a figure in the landscape, he is the shaper of the landscape.”

I’m not sure how the conversation one Sunday afternoon migrated to the subject of Harry Truman …

… but somehow it did, and that led Tom to share that he had met him once.

The circumstances of Tom’s meeting with the then-Vice-President are ones that I have reflected on often when I consider how best to encourage CharterFolk to engage in collective action. 

Mr. Whipple was an engineer. He got through Carnegie-Mellon working the nightshift at one of Westinghouse’s transforming stations which had to be manually attended to around the clock during the early days of electricity.  

After he graduated, he went on to work as an engineer and a chemist.  His expertise early in his career was aviation fuel.

Soon after war was declared, the leaders of Mr. Whipple’s company were summoned to Washington to a meeting whose agenda was not disclosed in advance. The company’s top brass were either not able or were not wanting to attend.  So they sent Mr. Whipple, a then-mid-level executive at the company, in their place. 

At the meeting, Mr. Whipple found himself sitting around a large table peopled by all of the senior leaders of companies in the aviation fuel industry.  When Truman entered, he crisply described a grave problem that historians have characterized

… to be one of the war’s great early challenges.

Without a vastly expanded capacity to produce a higher quality and quantity of aviation fuel, the battle for the skies, and by extension the entire war effort, was at risk.

Having set the grim context, Truman then referred to a stack of reports he had carried into the meeting detailing what the Vice-President’s team believed to be each company’s capacity to contribute critically needed aviation fuel to the national war effort.  The purpose of the meeting, Truman finally revealed, was to go around the table and to hear from all the leaders about whether they would agree to do their part by committing to provide the quantity and quality of aviation fuel that the Administration believed was within their capacity.  

The meeting adjourned briefly to allow the executives to consider the government’s analysis before they were to reconvene and give their answer, yes or no, to the Vice-President.

Mr. Whipple used the time to call his superiors.  When he reported the unreasonable output the Administration was requesting of their company, Tom’s bosses became quite agitated, and they insisted that he not make a commitment they knew they couldn’t deliver on.  Before the call ended they made it clear that, should Tom not represent the company as they were directing, his days as an employee of the company were over.

As fate would have it, when the meeting reconvened Tom was the first person Truman called upon.  

Many times since Tom told me this story I have wondered why that might have been.  Was it, perhaps, that the Vice-President sensed that Tom was younger than the others and was thus more impressionable?  Did he sense that Tom was just a smite more patriotic, or full of an extra dose of youthful optimism? Or was his being called upon first just mere happenstance?

Whatever it was, I have a distinct memory of precisely what Tom told me he said when Truman turned to him.

He said that, because he was certain that all the other attendees in the room would do exactly the same, he committed his company to contributing every ounce of what had been requested of them.  

And thereafter every other executive around the table made the exact same commitment.

Tom reported that the train ride home was the longest of his life as he ruminated over how he would tell his bosses what he had committed to.  

As it turned out, Tom end up keeping his job. Not only did his firm meet the quota that had been requested of them, but it far exceeded it, as did every other aviation fuel provider that had been in attendance at the meeting with Truman.  And as it turns out, the allies’ ability to produce a quantity and a quality of aviation fuel that was far greater than what the axis countries could provide became one of the great industrial contributions to the overall success of the war effort.

When I asked Tom what was going through his mind as he made his commitment, I remember him saying he wasn’t really thinking about himself, or about his company.  All his thinking focused on what everyone else around the table would do, and all he really cared about was helping make sure that the collective commitment was made. If that meant he personally had to commit to something outside what he was comfortable with, so be it.  He could live with whatever consequences might come.

Many times over the past 15 years of encouraging collective action from people connected to the charter school movement I have ruminated over and shared with others the lessons that can be drawn from this collective action example that Mr. Whipple gave me a backstage pass to see:

  • Yes, the importance of “The buck stops here” leaders like Truman taking on personal accountability for the asks they make of others.
  • The importance of those figures knowing well their constituents so they have an informed basis for the commitments they seek from them.
  • The importance of focusing the level of those asks on the boundary between achievable and aspirational.
  • The importance of all those around the table believing they are part of something bigger than themselves.
  • The importance of individuals making their personal decision whether to commit not based upon what the impact of what their small part will be but what the impact will be if all do.
  • And finally, the importance of individuals making their commitments in ways helping ensure that all others do the same.

Ultimately, the degree to which the charter school movement will prove successful in our quest to improve public education in our country will come down to the collective effort we will muster.

  • Our collective effort to offer great learning opportunity to students.
  • Our collective commitment to grow.
  • And collective willingness to to engage in advocacy and politics in ways that will change and improve the landscape within which all schools operate.

In this way, we are like Bronowski’s definition of humanity – not occupiers of the landscape, but shapers of it.

And no one person’s actions will determine anything.

But all of us, CharterFolk after CharterFolk, will have our Mr. Whipple moment.

That time when we are convened around a table and are asked first what we might do.

And the degree to which we answer in a way that takes into account, not the potential impact of our individual action, but the cumulative impact of our collective impact should we all act together, will ultimately decide our fate.

Joseph Campbell defines the hero’s journey to be the quest of people aspiring toward something bigger than themselves.

As we walk the venues documenting the contributions that people have made to public education across the decades, we turn corners and find ourselves encountering unexpectedly again and again, more and more CharterFolk who have lived and continue to live the hero’s journey.