It was a meeting long ago and not too far away. I remember being gathered with a group of teachers in a cafeteria somewhere and we’d been asked to stay after school to hear a speaker. To a young teacher, being “asked” by the superintendent was the same as a command so I dutifully trudged down to the eatery to see what was going on. Let’s begin by saying that having teachers sit at student-sized lunch tables is a task in itself. I once spoke to a group of teachers in Williamsville who were similarly scrunched into tables designed for third-graders and elves, and I asked the principal if we could perhaps meet in a room with big-boy chairs. She said, “But we always have our meetings in the cafeteria.” I said, “Why?” She had no idea. We changed rooms.
But on this fall afternoon we squoze ourselves into our little seats from Munchkin land and listened as a dignified lady from Jacksonville stood before us. I don’t get around much and I’m not sure I’d ever met Helen Baldwin before this. As any former grade-schooler in Jacksonville will tell you, she’s an imposing figure. Years of administering in the town’s elementary schools have given Helen a “Don’t mess with me” countenance. Oh, she’s without doubt one of the kindest and most caring women I’ve ever met, but you can tell that just underneath the surface she had the ability to toss a large seventh-grader across the room if the need arose. I think she was the original model for Wonder Woman.
Helen stood before us and made the case for Prairieland United Way. She had the omnipresent stare developed from years dealing with elementary kids in that she could seem to look at everyone at once. I felt that if I shifted positions I’d be in big trouble. Helen laid the case out quickly and plainly . . . it’s a great organization, it benefits all of us, giving us a good thing, we could have it deducted from our check on a monthly basis, and she would personally jump on top of our teeny tiny cafeteria table and choke us if we didn’t sign up. Okay, she didn’t actually go that far, but Helen had that look.
Confession time: I didn’t sign up. At that time Triopia and Bluffs were having a two-way contest to see who could pay their teachers the least and I just didn’t feel I could afford much charitable giving that year. As Helen passed out the donation forms I took one, put it in my pocket and smiled at her as if I’d just agreed to sell my house and give the proceeds to United Way. But here’s the strange thing: I felt guilty all year. All year I thought of Helen’s sincere and uncompromising face when I received my paycheck. So . . . the next year I donated. I couldn’t stand the guilt and I needed sleep.
No, guilt is a not a good reason to give. Now that I’ve lived around Jacksonville for a few more years and seen the good work done by Prairieland through the Boy and Girl Scouts, the Symphony, Red Cross, Big Bro and Sis’s, and many other organizations I’ve found it’s a great way to participate in a little one-stop giving. I’ll propose a simple test. When you’re in a city the size of ours or perhaps a bit larger, buy a newspaper and see who’s doing what. You’ll find news about sports teams, new businesses, concerts and city councils. Then open up a copy of the Journal Courier or the Source and see how many items appear on a weekly basis featuring the philanthropic activities of the organizations supported by the Prairieland United Way, the Rotarians putting bucks and sweat into the fairgrounds, the Kiwanis working for kids, the Ambucs working to make life better for the disabled, the VFW and American Legion giving support and encouragement to our veterans, the Lions Club taking part in all sorts of humanitarian services, the Masons and Shriners raising funds for children’s hospitals, the D.A.R. keeping the Duncan Mansion sparkling, the Pilot Club protecting the heads of our little bike riders. In the words of my friend who’s a musician from Peoria, “This town just blows me away.” He’s performed here in Jacksonville on several occasions and is always amazed at the civic spirit in this little village that’s nestled itself against the Mauvaisterre Creek.
And yes, the local United Way will keep on truckin’ even if you don’t give a nickel. There are always those who’ll take up the slack whether we decide to contribute to our community or not, but if you go to bed tonight and are visited by the specter of Helen Baldwin (who’s much very much alive and still on the prowl) don’t blame me.