Twenty-some years ago I hit the road to attend the wedding of John G., one of my college friends in Wisconsin. He was originally from Canada and I had never met his parents before. After the ceremony the two families, now connected for better or worse, reconvened to celebrate at the local VFW.
After getting caught up on our other mutual friends’ lives I bumped into John’s dad at the smorgasbord and got to chatting with him. John had entered the ministry, and with my own father a minister almost all his working years, I wondered how John’s upbringing had fit into that calling. So I asked John’s dad what he did for a living.
His dad looked away with an embarrassed smile and said, “Oh, I’m just a public servant.”
Just a public servant. Except for perhaps those public servants who need to brag about themselves every four years in a very public manner to get elected, you’ll find most who work for government would rather fade into the woodwork, no matter how good they are at their jobs or how devoted they are to getting you, the taxpayer, your money’s worth or more.
I didn’t think of it much back then, which was months before I was laid off from a nonprofit job I thought I’d stay with until I died. Later I filled in the space between then and my city job with temping, working as an administrative slug for a financial services company (boy, you want to see slackers — well, don’t get me started), and briefly as a community organizer.
Ultimately public service called, and with the recent confluence of National Night Out and the anniversary of the bridge collapse, I’ve been thinking about public service a lot lately. Whenever I hear the barely veiled contempt for public service from the anti “big gubmint” crowd, I think of John’s dad.
And I think of Tom, a police officer who had a keen ear for concerns of the community. He listened to residents and businesses concerned about drunks — er, sorry — chronic inebriates passed out or disorderly in their alleys or in front of their businesses. Those bending his ear were clear to point out they didn’t want these hapless individuals punished — they knew they needed help. But they were also bad for business. Tom worked with the department, the county, and the community to set up a detox van. Officers working the van got to know many troubled alcoholics personally and treated them with dignity — some thinking, perhaps, “There but for the grace of God …”
I think of Melissa, another officer who paid with her life while trying to help an emotionally disturbed woman — and was deeply missed at the imminent NNO event at that very public housing building where she was shot.
And Gerry, a sergeant with our counterparts across the river, who called asking me to fax him the particulars of the MPD’s “Dear John” letter program which he hoped to replicate in St. Paul. He aimed to reduce the volume of predators (what, do you think a guy seeking out sex on the street is less a predator because he pays for the sex?) and usually addicted women they preyed on. And he was shot to death in the community he was trying to uplift with the tools that his training for public service provided him.
I think of Elizabeth, who held the community together during the years-long process of closing down one of the most notorious drug properties in the city, eventually assuring that the owner — whose reputation stained the thousands of good owners who really cared — lost that property.
Just a bunch of public servants. And that’s only a handful among hundreds from the law enforcement, with which I’m most familiar. I could wax just as poetic about Susan — many readers can guess her last name — who has kept Minneapolitan waste collection rates at a rate that is the envy of our neighboring municipalities. Susan seems to attend community meetings at the drop of a hat, and people leave those meetings ready to partner up with their public servants rather than cut them down in private.
Then there’s Jack and Woody and Rod and another Susan, who years ago patiently sat through Lyndalienne tirades about trashy houses and inconvenience stores — and then set about to communicate our indignation to the owners of same. They worked with us to improve the curb appeal of the entire neighborhood. I bite my tongue when I’m about to complain about my property taxes, which remain roughly proportional to our home value, and which wouldn’t be what it is without their partnership.
Not last, and hardly least, I think of Mike, who even now is wracking his brain and clicking his abacus at the water works, to minimize the energy needed to pump the millions of gallons a day we Minneapolitans need for our gardens to flourish and ensure we’re not aroma-challenged when we attend all those community meetings — where we lambaste public servants we’ve never even met.
Well, next time you see that pothole disappear the day after you see it, when that cracked up corner curb cut is chiseled out and replaced with one your wheel-chair mobilized neighbor can traverse, when your mangy boulevard ashes or hackberries or ginkgos or lindens are trimmed to perfection, and when that semaphore on your corner is only down for an hour or so after a lightning strike, don’t forget who took care of it.
It was “just a public servant.”
Luther Krueger lives in the Lyndale Neighborhood. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.