Recently Mayor Ronnie came across a story that underscores some qualities in our culture that have become, if you will pardon the pun, a bit “frayed.” There are any number of ways to describe that which has become “unraveled.” In the 19th century, the terms were “civility” and “deportment.” In the 20th century they were simply defined as having “good manners,” or stated by way of retort, “my daddy didn’t raise me that way.”
The story Mayor Ronnie told me was about Cecil Rhodes, the British man who started the Rhodes Scholar prize and Rhodes University. Love him or hate him for his impact on South Africa, this particular story illustrates the power of being flexible and gracious, especially when things aren’t going properly. As was the case with most wealthy people during Queen Victoria’s reign, being appropriately dressed for dinner was non-negotiable. You didn’t come to the table in cargo shorts, a T shirt and flip flops, and Cecil was a stickler for formal dress when expected.
The Right Honorable Mr. Rhodes was having a formal dinner, and a young man who had been invited to the fete found himself in what appeared to be a dilemma with no proper solution for the etiquette of the day. The train had been delayed, and while the young man had brought proper attire for the evening, he had no chance to change ahead of time. He arrived bedraggled in travel-stained clothing, was willing to convey his solemn regrets, and not join Mr. Rhodes or his other guests. (I don’t know why the young man wasn’t invited to go change, but that’s beside the point.) Before anyone knew it, Mr. Rhodes appeared dressed for dinner in a noticeably worn old blue suit, and warmly welcomed his guest to the table. Cecil may have been a stickler, but not at the expense of the feelings of others.
What struck Mayor Ronnie in the “blue suit” story is the need for all of us to return to a state of giving the benefit of the doubt, and to be civil, even when we disagree. All of us in this town have people with whom we don’t agree, either religiously, philosophically, or politically. We have different concepts of what we should approve and how we should spend public funds, run government, construct buildings, and provide services.
But, what kind of legacy are we handing down to the young people who will be running Athens- Limestone County before we can make, as my dad used to say, “two shakes of a lamb’s tail?” Did they see a good example coming from us as we grappled with the recent school vote, and find themselves being inspired to step up and take over when it’s their time, or did the Facebook fights make them want to run the other direction?
“Thankfully, there were 50 young people who voted, most of whom were college students,” he told me. And, I learned that in contrast to 2012, when only 20% of our citizens turned out to vote, this time 44% of our registered voters cast their ballot. As bumpy as it was, we both concluded that it was “democracy in action,” and indeed there was cause to hope. “We have got to get better at agreeing to disagree,” he said, “if for no other reason than public safety. We will all feel anger sometimes, and it has its place, but don’t we also need to get good at managing it?” I nodded, and we prayed, most specifically that we would all be willing, for the sake of unity in our town, to wear “an old blue suit.”
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner