Friday, October 2, 2009

A Humble Man from Humble

Every year a story emerges in college sports that seems too good to be true. This year, perhaps the best story is Jerrod Johnson, the play-making junior quarterback for Texas A&M.

A few days ago, Sports Illustrated featured Johnson's remarkable story in a piece called, "Texas A&M QB Jerrod Johnson's Story is Best You've Never Heard." But now more and more people are hearing the story. And there is much in it to admire.

Johnson is very much the product of his small hometown of Humble, Texas. This city of nearly 15,000 near Houston helped create a thoughtful and decent young man. But he benefited not only from his town, but from his extended family.

As the article notes:

"He is the son of a high school teacher and high school administrator. Pam and Larry Johnson's faith and compassion ran so deep they took in nearly two dozen foster children while Jerrod and his brother, Marquis, were growing up. When Jerrod was 3, the state took custody of the child of one of Pam's friend. Pam's heart broke at the thought of the child, a boy named Kendall, not having a home. Larry and Pam went through foster parent training and raised the child until the state found a permanent home."

The Johnsons had found a calling: they would be foster parents. They wanted to bring as many kids as possible to their home in Humble where they could mold these young lives with small town values:

"From then on, the Johnsons gave foster children everything they could -- holiday parties, gifts, vacations, a church home, a family's love. They accepted kids of every age, so long as they were boys.

"Some of the children were infants. Some were young teens. Some were children of crack and heroine addicts. Some suffered from severe developmental and health issues. Some simply were abandoned. Some were black, some were white, some were Hispanic. It never mattered."

What did matter was using their home as a laboratory to change lives. Not long ago, Jerrod's father, Larry, passed away. But the impact of his father remains:

"At Larry's funeral, Jerrod spoke in detail of the lessons his father taught him. Marquis did an impeccable, humorous impersonation of how his boisterous, affable father would implore kids to always do the right thing. On the front row of the church sitting next to Pam was Joe, the Foster child who spent nine years with the family."

This season, much will be made about Jerrod Johnson the athlete. But a more interesting story is how his town and his family created him. Read more about it at:

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Power of Exchange

Economist Paul Romer has been a tenured professor at Stanford University for quite some time.

Through years of research and study he has come upon some new ideas for cities and the role cities play in rebuilding the economy, reducing unemployment, assisting developing nations and reducing poverty.

The two central concepts upon which all of his plans are based are not really new: stable rules and mutually beneficial exchange.

Romer believes that the cities which embody these two concepts have done more to bring about “a greater end to poverty than all the aid ever given.”

While Romer is focusing his plan on the larger population centers, his single operational principal is worthy of consideration for the leaders of cities of all sizes: Romer says, “I’m trying to harness the most powerful force on the planet: mutually beneficial exchange.”

Read more at Forbes, September 21, 2009, p. 38.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Lexington, Virginia

Budget Travel magazine just released its list of America's Coolest Small Towns and Lexington, Virginia made the cut:

What constitutes a "cool" town? According to the article:

“Every now and then, you stumble upon a town that’s gotten everything right—great coffee, food with character, shop owners with purpose."

Lexington is all that and much more. The town is home to some great history. Both Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are buried there. And the George Marshall Museum keeps the legacy alive for the great soldier and diplomat who guided World War II policy and then helped rebuild Europe.

So the next time you're in Western Virginia, stop by Lexington and experience some history.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Arkansaw, Wisconsin

Some 1399 people live in Arkansaw, Wisconsin. But thanks to a recent challenge, they are now united as one:

After a recent flood, the people in the town joined hands to help rebuild their community and renew their commitment to one another:

"The response has just been overwhelming, very heartfelt,' says flood victim Gina Tomlinson. Tomlinson says she's blown away by the love and support her friends and neighbors have shown her since floods severely damaged her home, and much of the town of Arkansaw back in August."

Be sure to click on the link and watch the video. This is what community looks like.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Old Philadelphia: A Lesson from the Ages

Too often, it seems, the leaders of a city tend to think the solutions to their problems must come from within their own city.

It is refreshing to see a city looking beyond itself to find new ideas and solutions. (See the September 3 blog on Oaxaca and the surrounding towns that worked out a regional solution to “market days.”)

But the regional (or multi-city) approach is not a new idea.

On the east side of the Sea of Galilee, ten cities linked their fortunes and became forever known as “the Decapolis” (in Greek: Ten Cities).

“For the most part, the Decapolis cities owed their existence to the Hellenistic era . . . which followed the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. Each was founded, or modeled, on Greek principles and culture instead of the indigenous Semitic.”

The term reached such a level of popular usage that in addition to referring to each of the ten cities, the entire region was known as the Decapolis.

While “each of these cities functioned as a city-state (polis) within the overall empire of Rome . . . . Though never a formal federation or union, it is likely that the cities were commercially associated, joined by Roman roads making trade easier. The view within each city was that it was “free” or autonomous” . . . yet they were truly semi-autonomous.

Population estimates of the Decapolis cities include numbers such as 4,000 and 20,000. “A larger Decapolis city may have, also, jointly shared, or controlled, some territory with a smaller neighboring Decapolis city.”

During the first 200 years A.D. the Decapolis cities continued to flourish and Damascus and Philadelphia (Amman) grew into major international cities. Today, the ancient ruins mark the sites of most of these cities.

The other eight are worthy of recognition:

Raphana (Abila, Jordan)
Scythopolis (Beth-Shean, Israel)
Gadara (Umm Qais, Jordan)
Hippus (Hippos, Israel)
Dion (Jordan)
Pella (Jordan)
Gerasa (Jerash, Jordan)
Canatha (Qanawat, Syria

Ten cities, who discovered a timeless insight: semi-autonomous can be better than autonomous or, cooperation can yield success that cannot be realized through competition.

Source: The Cities of the Decapolis, (Lion Tracks Ministries)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Florence and Stanley: Two "Places of a Lifetime"

The National Geographic Traveler October 2009 issue celebrated its 29th anniversary by listing 50 “Places of a Lifetime.”

Included among the “Urban Spaces” was, not surprisingly, Florence, Italy.
In the “Country Unbound” section was the Sawtooth Mountains.

Writing about Florence was Lamberto Frescobaldi, identified as “a member of the 30th generation of the Frescobaldi family.”

Writing about the Sawtooth Mountains was Hannah Stauts, identified as “the mayor of Stanley, Idaho which lies at the northeast end of the Sawtooth Valley, beneath 10,000-foot-high peaks. At 24, she is one of the youngest female mayors in the United States.”

The population of Florence is 367,000. One hundred people live in Stanley.

What could these two places have in common? The answer is their people – each writer describes a passionate, possessive attitude that characterizes the people who inhabit the place.

Regarding Florence, Frescobaldi writes: “Its inhabitants are pleased with – and protective of – what they see as their uniqueness. Florentines are not quick to embrace novelty, but slowly, slowly we usually fall in love with it.”

Regarding Stanley, Stauts writes: “For those of us who live in Stanley (population 100), in the valley below Galena Summit, the Sawtooths preside over us. They are the reason we came here. They are the reason we stay. The Sawtooths are the connection we all share.”

About the future?

Frescobaldi writes, “Florence’s future is filled with its past, which I jealously guard in the hope that my children will someday inherit the elegance, history, culture, and wonderful simplicity of this extraordinary city.”

Stauts adds, “It takes a passion for the area and the life it offers. Our payoff: wide-open views, made possible by . . . easements (that) have guaranteed that the majority of our open, undeveloped land will remain that way for generations to come.”

It’s a remarkable thing – vast differences, but a same kind of passion of the people for their places, for a lifetime.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sheboygan, Wisconsin: Best and Wurst

At the “Showdown in Sheboygan” thousands of on-lookers converge to watch competitors gorge themselves on bratwursts for 10 minutes. Winners have been known to consume 50 or more.

But when Thomas Margenau writes of his memories of his hometown of Sheboygan, Wisconsin (population 50,792), it’s not the competition – it’s the community – that he associates with the bratwurst.

“The smell of sizzling sausage from hundreds of backyard fryers permeated the town’s air all summer long like a nonstop Oktoberfest. (If you’re from Sheboygan, they’re called “brat fryers,” not barbeque grills.) I remember having brats at least two or three times a week . . . Sheboygan nowadays shows up on “Best Places to Live or Retire” lists . . . many of us remember it as the “wurst city in America.”

Memories of our hometowns are often made of unsuspecting things in unanticipated ways. But those memories are the stuff that makes “our town” different from all the other towns – and give what might otherwise be just another city the special appellation of “community.”

Click to read more (Smithsonian, September 2009, p. 13)