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The Years Were Good: The Autobiography of Louis B. Seltzer

Chapter 20

ONE AFTERNOON, perhaps a year later, a delegation of my fellow-townsmen visited me in the Editor's office at The Press to invite me to become head of one of Cleveland's health and welfare agencies.

They knew I was deeply interested in health and welfare. Several of them, whom I had known almost a lifetime, must have had some idea of the circumstances of my childhood. They couldn't, however, have known exactly what influences in my earlier life had contrived to bring about my interest.

Inescapably, as they talked, my mind turned back to a particular day in June when I was a boy in Cleveland.

It had been hot. After sundown a gentle breeze came

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up, stirring the Japanese lanterns just enough to make an attractive and shifting pattern of light on the broad church lawn.

Everybody in the whole neighborhood was gathering for the Church Social. Although it was not supposed to start until nine o'clock, when it got good and dark, folks began to show up almost as soon as the sun settled itself below the horizon with a final burst of saffron and pink. The late shafts of sunlight matched the faint glow of the Japanese lanterns when they were lighted up for the evening. Joe Thiez's father touched the candle to each lantern from the stepladder which Joe and I held in position for him, proud that we had this much of a hand in the proceedings.

The laughter and excitement and shouts of greeting, as people made their way up the church steps to the elevated lawn, added to the beauty and color of the evening. It was fun to sit on the lawn in the dark and watch the colored lanterns turn various faces blue and red and yellow and green. Some of the boys looked like Indians, and the lanterns did funny things to the ribbons the girls wore, making the blue ones look green, and the yellow ones red. In the dark, we had a lot of whispered fun about it all.

Nothing for the Church Social had been bought in the store. That was a condition which the elderly Rev. Thomas Alburn had imposed.

"We'll have none of that already prepared stuff for this Social," he had announced from his pulpit a month previously. "All the proceeds will go, as usual, to the special fund to help the needy."

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Cakes, baked fresh on the day of the Social, were arranged on a long, narrow table that stretched almost the whole width of the Church lawn. On another table nearby was a mountain of assorted sandwiches. But the children tended to linger most of the time where the ice cream was set out. We couldn't see it, but we put our noses close enough to the home freezers to know just what kind it was, vanilla, or chocolate, or strawberry, or even Mrs. Hahn's orange ice cream, for which among the neighborhood children she was especially noted. In the homes where the ice cream had been made that day the children had been required, as their contribution, to work the freezer, turning the handle for endless hours throughout the whole afternoon.

We raced from one table to another, and our tumbling itinerary took us, of course, to the booths around the end of the lawn. The booth where Mrs. Noss was telling fortunes from tea leaves and cards picked at random from several decks was the most popular for the grown-ups, while the children favored the section roped off for a "fishing pond." There, for a penny apiece, we dipped rods with large pins at the end into a square of "water" and drew up as prizes rainbow balls or little dolls or colored books.

It was always Reverend Alburn's custom to announce the amount of money taken in at the Social just before he said the "Goodnight" which brought the occasion to an official end.

"My friends, this is the best Social we have ever had," he would always say, raising his hand for silence. We all stopped, and listened.

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"We have this evening put together the sum of $164.08 for our fund," he went on. "And once again, I express to you my appreciation for the confidence you repose in me to distribute this money in any way that I see fit. We have all had a very pleasant evening, and we have all done good work in God's name. Let us now all kneel wherever we are, and send our thanks to our Common Father."

It was a wonderful sight, as the colored lanterns, stirred by the breeze, cast their soft reflections on the kneeling people and their bowed heads.

And then we all parted, talking and shouting, Reverend Alburn being the heartiest of all in his interminable goodnights to everyone who attended the Social.

I had not expected this basic question of civic participation to come before me quite so soon after assuming the paper's Editorship. Now I had to make a decision, one way or the other, that would in all probability affect my activities for the rest of my life.

In our business there has been a sharp division of opinion as to how much an editor and his associates should participate in a community's affairs. One side of this argument holds that an editor cannot maintain complete objectivity of opinion upon matters in his community if he himself becomes a participant. His role, this argument holds, should be exclusively that of an observer and a commentator, and such influence as he may exert should be confined to the columns of his newspaper. Some of the country's most famous editors have adhered unswervingly to this basic premise.

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Many now do, although not, I believe, in quite so pronounced a measure as formerly.

The other side of this argument -- and the one to which I cast affirmatively my lifetime vote -- holds that an editor should evidence, both in his columns and in person, the deep interest he feels for the community in which his newspaper is published.

Now I was faced with the clear-cut choice of following one course or the other. I asked the delegation for several days of grace in which to think the matter over.

To one of them, a lifelong friend, I confided my quandary. "Once I take on this responsibility it will open the door, I am sure, to others which inevitably, in the nature of things, will follow," I said. "I can now say no and stand by it in all situations in the future. Then I will relieve myself of many responsibilities, burdens, and possible headaches, to say nothing of misunderstandings and misinterpretations of my motives.

"However, if I follow this course of nonparticipation, I will, I know, forever after be reproaching myself, always feeling I should be doing more for my home town. I am afraid I will consciously create for myself a spiritual vacuum. How can we, as a newspaper, ask other business leaders to assume their full share of civic responsibility, if we ourselves decline to take ours?"

I was thinking particularly that The Press had been founded by Mr. Scripps as Cleveland's newspaper, to serve this community and its people.

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My friend said, "Have you not actually already decided then by what you have just said?"

"Not entirely. There is my professional status to consider. What about the argument in behalf of objective detachment from all these matters, the better to express one's self in his paper?

"What, also, about the receiving in confidence of vast quantities of information which, as the participating head of the organization, you cannot conscientiously make available to the newspaper of which you are the editor? Where in such a situation does your primary obligation turn?"

For the moment my friend was stumped, as I was. It was a bigger question, he agreed, than it at first seemed.

In considering the whole problem, I couldn't quite get out of my mind the recollection of Rev. Thomas A1burn. It was a long distance from his Church Social to the vast, intricate, and efficient health and welfare services of a big city today. Yet, I remembered how Reverend Alburn moved among the people in his whole neighborhood, regardless of whether they were his own parishioners, and became acquainted with them, their problems, their hopes, their needs, and the crosses all human beings carry in one way or another within themselves. He did not permit anyone to know whom he was helping, in what way, or by what amount. He had warned his congregation specifically, "I will on some occasion help some family not a member of this congregation. I will do it in God's name -- and yours."

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Reverend Alburn made his own research. He satisfied himself about a need. He then put money in an envelope and mailed it to the family he had decided needed help. To make sure his conspiracy of anonymity was absolute, he mailed the letters from different locations throughout the community.

One winter, shortly after the bleakest Christmas we ever had, an envelope came to our house containing only a ten-dollar bill. We were completely mystified by the white envelope and its contents, but I know now that Reverend Alburn must have learned about our family problems from some source.

That Christmas the worst blizzard in many years had struck Cleveland. The winds howled for several days. The snow came down steadily and piled up faster than it could be shoveled away.

On the night before Christmas, Mother gathered us together around the potbellied baseburner in the kitchen and warned us that Santa Claus might not stop at our house that night. She sent the other children to bed, huddled together to keep one another warm, and told me to stay up a little while longer.

Mother and I worked for several hours threading popcorn on long strings. Mother colored some of it pink by putting it in a pan in which she had melted some red candy that she had kept hidden away. The tree we carried in from the back porch had been brought to our house that evening by our friend, Mr. Belz, and was no higher than I was. By putting it on the kitchen table, Mother made it look quite big and beautiful. She fashioned a six-pointed star out of a

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piece of cardboard painted with water colors she took from our school kits.

The next morning Mother bundled me up with Father's big muffler and his big gloves, and I set out in the blizzard to borrow twenty-five cents from Uncle Bill Nassano -- not for toys, but for food. I never forgot that Christmas -- nor Rev. Thomas Alburn's plain envelope which arrived soon afterward.

We were a cosmopolitan neighborhood. No home was rich. None was even well-to- do, with the possible exception of Carlton Hahn's father who seemed to have a steady job. Carlton always had toys, but he always shared everything he had with the rest of us. There was a friendly neighborhood spirit also among the grown-ups -- the spirit of helping one another out in sickness or in need. Even as children we shared it.

As a cub reporter I saw the health and welfare activity of the city begin to take shape. When the Community Chest came into being in Cleveland -- pioneering in this remarkable concept of community-wide consideration for others -- I covered as a reporter its very first meeting. I was deeply impressed by it.

The Church Social of Rev. Thomas Alburn had grown in my mind into an attitude, a perspective, and a basic, enduring interest. The principle behind the Church Social itself had grown as the community grew -- as it became essential to have men and women educated and trained for social work -- as it became evident that frequently the need was for more than material assistance.

The Church Social is still a great American institu-

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tion. It is to be hoped that it always will be, that there will always be the Rev. Thomas Alburns of his faith, and other faiths, who guide their congregations to the humanitarian purpose which makes people better in every way. But in the broader sense, the Church Social of the Japanese lanterns strung out over the lawn on a scorching June night has given way to the great health and welfare activity for which America is widely noted.

Probably I do not need to tell what my answer ultimately was to the delegation which came to my office back in 1930. I accepted the welfare post they offered me. I chose a kind of existence about which there may be journalistic controversy, but from which many human and even certain professional satisfactions have been gained.

My identification with an infinite variety of organizations has proceeded in ever-expanding proportions during the approximate thirty years of my Editorship of the paper in my home town. These activities have required extra effort, extra hours, extra thought. They have intruded -- if the word can justly be applied to something you enjoy doing -- into such hours as might otherwise be reserved for home life and leisure. They have made both my wife and myself available at all hours and all times to a multiplicity of inevitable demands. We have been exhausted, frequently troubled, often wished we had never taken that first plunge headlong into the life of our home town. These, however, have been fleeting moments. From nothing else

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could I have gained such indispensable insight into the community in which our paper is being published -- and for which, after all, it is being published.

There is also a strictly selfish reward. It comes, not with recognition of any kind, but from doing whatever, as a citizen in the greatest land on earth, one is able to do. It is the reward of just feeling good.

And to those in our business who insist that an editor's place is strictly in an objective cubicle surrounded on all sides by complete detachment from the readers of his paper, may I most respectfully suggest -- if it is not already too late -- that they try the other for a while. If they do, I assure them from happy experience they will realize what they have missed.