This is the first in a series of articles that will explore the community building work of former Abilene, TX Mayor Gary McCaleb.
Recently Mayor Marks attended a conference of Alabama mayors, and the keynote speaker was Gary D. McCaleb. He is the former Mayor of Abilene, is the Executive Director of the Center for Building Community at Abilene Christian University, and also serves as vice president of the university as well as professional development. To say that Mayor Ronnie came back from the conference energized is an understatement, and when he loaned me Gary’s book entitled The Gift Of Community, I could see why.
There are a number of timeless themes in the book, and McCaleb is a master at identifying the needs of city dwellers. He also has a special place in his “developmental heart” for cities like Athens, those towns that have a population of under 100,000, and who are the back bone of America.
Mayor Ronnie discussed with me the fact that there are “tangible and intangible things that draw people to cities,” and hands down, the number one throughout time has been safety. Thousands of years ago, when the epic poem The Odyssey was written, a mandate was given to Mentor, the character who was the Man Friday of Odysseus, to “keep all things safe.” Years later a physical wall around a city was the symbol of safety and security for city dwellers. Now the “wall” is made of people, i.e., police, fire fighters, other responders, and even neighborhoods involved in crime reducing programs such as Neighborhood Watch. “Keeping all things safe” is what McCaleb calls “an essential expectation of community.” We have become far more aware of our vulnerability since events like the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and of course, 9/11. And while we as Athenians depend on our first responders to keep us safe, we have our own responsibilities with which to grapple. For example, how do we function when it comes to the 2nd Amendment and personal protection? Thankfully in our town there is not much of a need to ask, “to pack or not to pack, that is the question.” McCaleb goes on to summarize the chapter on city safety with the following anecdote: “The responsibility we share for each other’s safety was refreshingly and succinctly captured in a billboard message. Having just landed in Sydney, Australia and taking the cab into town, I was confronted by a single six-word message: ‘Life is dangerous. Learn first aid.’”
Often in our times together we bemoan the fact that our society no longer seems to think that it is the purview of the individual and the family to take responsibility for one’s own finances, health and safety. Way too many folks think that is what government is for. But if we are going to truly have a gift of community, as opposed to just having a city behind “a wall,” then we need to look out for ourselves and each other first. And that, my dear Athenians, is another thing that makes Ronnie roll.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner