Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Studying Government

Dear Kaitlin, I went off to college intending to study chemistry, so I could become the modern day Marie Curie. Unfortunately, I had not noticed how many courses in physics that would require. No amount of study helped me make sense of ohms and watts or related subjects.

So a rethink of my career plans became quickly necessary. I enjoyed reading and writing so majoring in English seemed a logical step. Besides, I was passing English.

I encountered the same need to take related subjects that had ended my science studies. I chose these extras based on how they fit into my schedule rather than deep contemplation. One that worked well was Constitutional Law. So I signed on and quickly discovered a new passion. After that first experience, I took every government course I could find that worked with my English requirements.

My favorite course was one called "Responsible Citizenship." It was the creation of a wonderful professor, George Miller. I knew from the first moments of our very first class that I would one day run for public office, and would have an endless interest in how to make government function properly. Prof. Miller taught us that that would only occur when most American citizens pitched in. Thankfully your mother and aunt have chosen to serve their communities by becoming teachers. Your grandfather served in the navy for many years. And I have indeed fulfilled my ambition to run for public office.

As the leader of the family in the next generation, I'm waiting with great interest to see how you choose to fulfill your responsibilities as a citizen.
Love, Gram.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Mary 1

Dear Kaitlin, When I was a child, I lived in a world where the black part of the population was treated unjustly, and shut away from any sort of normal existence. Evidence was all around me, "Whites Only" signs were posted in the windows of some of my favorite stores. No black people lived near me, no black children attended my elementary school. Blacks sat in the back of busses.

I was carefully taught things of lesser importance like how proper girls were expected to behave, but no one ever explained to me why this strange situation existed. Our family had been Presbyterians for centuries, so I attended church twice every Sunday with my sister and parents. I had mastered the Shorter Catachism, though not without some difficulty. So I understood how Jesus expected us to behave. He loved all His people, and expected His followers, currently inhabiting the earth, to do the same. Clearly, this meant that racism was wrong. How then could so many practicing Christians be perfectly comfortable with racism and its obvious injustice? I found no answer.

As I grew as bit older, I learned more about the issue from actual experience. I had never actually met a black person until one Monday morning when Mary came to our house. My mother explained that Mary was our "colored girl." She would come once of week to clean and iron. Mary was not too much taller than I was. She had very dark skin, and beautiful brown eyes. Still, her warm smile couldn't overcome the fear I felt being so close to a black person for the first time. As I was a very shy child, I ran from almost everyone. So at first opportunity, I ran away from this frightening newcomer into my life.

My favorite hiding place was in the dark space between a large honeysuckle bush and the back wall of my piano room. Few people could find me there, but I couldn't fool Mary. For some reason, she seemed to want to be my friend and followed me, uncovering my hiding place in no time. Then patiently she coaxed me out and began to ease my fear.

In no time, the Mondays that Mary came to our house became the highlight of my week. She allowed me to follow her about as she worked, and tirelessly answered all my questions. Her patience was a great gift, as my mother sent me to my room if I pestered her too much. Before I recognized what was happening, Mary had become my special friend.

Knowing Mary changed everything. I hated to think that Mary would be subject to the cruelties of racism. I wanted the government and the ministers of all the churches to make sure that racism would end and that Mary would be safe and happy.

I hated being too young and too insignificant to help make life better for Mary. However much I might want to do something important, I couldn't figure out anything one small, timid little girl could do.

I thought about this a lot, and finally came to understand that there was something that I could do for Mary, and all the Marys that I didn't know. I could speak up against racism whenever I came upon it.

My opportunity came all too soon. One day I was walking home from school and noticed several neighborhood boys clustered on the sidewalk ahead of me. They were taunting another for being a "Nigger lover." This was not the first time I had heard those horrid words, it was a common schoolyard taunt. But it was the first time, since I had come to know Mary. I knew exactly what I needed to do. I needed to step in and tell them that saying those words was wrong. As I narrowed the gap between us, I formed the words I wanted to say in my mind.

The boys turned their angry faces from their victim toward me, as I came near. I knew that the next time they repeated the epithet, it would be directed toward me. Fear swept over me, courage and resolution imploded. I turned quickly and ran up the hill toward home and safety.

I have never forgotten the sting of failure though it occurred many years ago. I had been too cowardly to stand against racism, to act as duty and religious beliefs demanded. But worst of all, I had failed my friend.

During the intervening years, racism has diminished. Blacks can now vote, and hold positions of authority and influence. And now miracle of miracles, a inspiring black leader is seeking to become President of the United States. I hope that Mary has lived to see this day.
Love, Gram

Early memories

Dear Kaitlin, I can't remember a time when government and politics were not an important part of my life. The activities of government were frequent topics of conversation around the dinner table. This was a great relief for me, as it saved me from lectures on my inadequate behavior. Such interests seemed perfectly normal to me. I imagined that other families were the same.

When I was old enough to know how atypical this interest was, I began to wonder why we were so different from others. Perhaps it resulted from the fact that my father worked for the Department of Agriculture at their experimental station in Beltsville MD. The fact that his government salary was allowing us to live in a nice house, to enjoy fried chicken every Sunday after church when so many others were homeless and hungry didn't disturb him. But he seemed to apply different standards to the new programs designed to employ the men who had lost everything in the great depression.

I have a clear memory of driving along a dusty dirt road on a miserably hot summer day and encountering a number of WPA workers digging ditches between the road and the surrounding fields. Some of the men were leaning on their shovels, perhaps just resting a moment to wipe away the sweat. Others were bent over their shovels, their bodies covered with the red clay they were removing from the ditches. My father made a most unkind comment about how lazy these workers were, and how venal the government was for wasting taxpayers money on them. Then he speeded up just a bit to increase the size of the plume of dust we were spreading over the unfortunate laborers. I slid down in my seat, hoping in that way to disconnect myself from my father's harsh judgments.

We lived very close to Washington DC, so we often took visiters on the grand tour of the official seat of our government. I thought the Mall was a magical and wonderous place. For one little girl, the buildings seemed both enormous and grand. Washington was clearly the most wonderful city in the world. When the sun shone on the white marble of the Capital, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, I could only believe that this was the way Heaven must look. I felt very privleged to live so near the center of the universe.

Perhaps my direct connection to government, or the place that I happened to live had nothing to do with my interest in the issues of government. But whatever the reason, that interest began long ago and has never diminished, as future posts will establish.
Love, Gram


Thursday, December 6, 2007


Dear Kaitlin. Voting used to be easy. I just put my X by the name of the Republican Party candidate. However, it didn't take too many presidential cycles for me to realize that I wasn't too pleased with the kind of government this produced. I really wanted to have a true leader in the White House. And I began to look at the field of candidates with an eye to finding the best leader.

That has turned out to be much harder that supporting a party candidate. I can't imagine any candidate not proclaiming himself or herself to be the best leader for our country.

Fortunately, we don't have to believe any candidate who anoints himself or herself as "best leader." If we pay attention, we can uncover leadership for ourselves with a few questions.

1. Does the candidate inspire voters to come together for common goals?
2. Does the candidate answer questions clearly and responsively?
3. Does the candidate respect voters with different points of view?
4. Does the candidate trust voters and inspire their trust in return?
5. Does the candidate inspire voters to use their talents to better our government?
6. Does the candidate set a good example?

On rare occasions, there may be more than one candidate who has strong leadership qualities. Then I have a final tie-breaker question. Does this candidate possess wisdom and good judgement?

I cringe when voters say they will choose a candidate based on electability, age, sex, race, resume or promises. I have voted for a number of candidates who were electable white men, who had lots of experience in Washington, and who made wonderful promises to the American voters. And they were awful. I just don't want to go that way again. I know you want your first candidate to be the best candidate as well.
Love, Gram

Saturday, December 1, 2007

A Tradition Begins

Dear Kaitin. Our political adventures begin with Michael Harshaw. He was my great grandfather, add 2 more greats for you. He was a tall, red-haired Irishman, born in 1807 in the townland of Ballydogherty, County Armagh. The Harshaw family leased a small amount of land there, allowing them to survive the harsh times, until his father, Andrew Harshaw, died, leaving a widow and 7 underage children. Poverty immediately overcame them. Young Michael quickly joined in the struggle for survival,leaving school to work as a field hand.

As Ireland offered no solution for their poverty, America was the family's only hope for survival. Michael was selected to make the first trip to America. He was expected to get work and save enough to bring the rest of the family, one by one to the promised land. When this plan was successfully concluded, Michael returned to complete the education that poverty had interrupted. Through years of effort, supporting himself all the while, he graduated from what is now the University of Pittsburgh, and became a Presbyterian minister to a small parish in Southern Illinois.

This most principled man soon encountered the problems of slavery. The quiet hills which surrounded Michael's farm became embroiled in the battle to extend slavery. A secret organization designed to promote the extension of slavery by any means necessary, the Knights of the Golden Circle, threatened anyone who opposed them.

It was in this atmosphere that the Republican Party in Illinois was formed. Michael Harshaw admired Abraham Lincoln and quickly became a supporter of the new party. He admired their position against the spread of slavery, as he too was a strong opponent of slavery, his home being a station on the Underground Railway. Now a proud citizen of the United States, he determined to vote for the new party at the first opportunity.

The Knights of the Golden Circle warned voters that they intended to prevent any supporter of this new party from voting. This was not a threat that would deter Michael. He saddled his horse, and rode to the school house where the voting was to take place. He was not surprised to see that a mob of the Knights had surrounded the voting site. Calmly, he dismounted and walked toward the angry men. In his strong Irish voice, he warned them that he was entitled to vote, and he intended to exercise that right. Should anyone in the crowd attempt to prevent him from voting, someone would likely get hurt.

His pronouncement was greeted with grunts, and murmurs. But no one made a move toward him, until Carl Jenkins pushed his way to the front and announced that he would "brain anyone who touched the preacher." The crowd parted, and Michael marched into the school and proudly cast the first Republican vote in Southern Illinois.

With this act of heroism, Michael led the Harshaw family into the Republican Party. Michael's descendants remained staunch Republicans for over a century.

Not many people have such a proud tradition. Not many Americans today can claim an ancestor who risked his life to exercise his right to vote. You and I are very lucky we can vote without a greater worry than the weather and finding a place to park.
Love, Gram

The Right to Vote

Dear Kaitlin. Happy Birthday. I find it hard to believe that you are now 18, an adult in the eyes of the law. The years between that wonderful day when you were born and the present have passed all to quickly from my perspective. Still, you have arrived at full age just in time to exercise one of the great privileges of being an adult, the right to vote. I'm thrilled that you find this new right as special and exciting as I do.

This seems like just the proper time to share with you your family's political history. I'm hoping that it will provide context for your first vote.

I remember very clearly going to our local town hall to register so I could vote in my first election. At the time, I was 3 years older than you are. The law didn't consider me an adult until I was 21. Perhaps the law was right.

In addition, we had to answer a question correctly before we could be properly registered, rather like taking a drivers test. The town hall was intimidating, the building was old, dark and a bit dingy. Still, there were clear signs pointing me to the Town Clerk's Office saving me from the embarrassment of walking into the wrong office. To the woman behind the counter, my appearance to register was just routine business. I can't remember the question she asked. Much to my relief it was something even a child could answer. She took my information, name, address, cast her eyes briefly over my birth certificate which recorded the arrival of "baby girl Harshaw," and entered my name on the list of those who could vote. Within a few minutes, I was safely out of the unfamiliar world of government and into the sunshine of a lovely June day.

You timed your arrival much better than I did. You will be able to vote in just a few weeks. I had to wait over a year. I was so proud to cast my first vote. Sadly, though I have never missed an election in the years since that memorable day, I have seldom been pleased with my choices. I hope you will experience many elections with wonderful candidates to choose from.
Love, Gram