Breaking with the past
I had grown comfortable in my office, the launching pad for hundreds of stories in dozens of magazines for over 15 years. On April 1, 1998, however, that office was blown apart: my colleagues had removed every item — files, books, phone, computer — and hid them in different rooms around the building.
I was a little upset, but not because my friends had remembered my birthday. Being a genuine “April Fool” saddled with the leading role in a joke was nothing new. Having to find and then reassemble my office wasn’t funny, but at least the junk would be uncovered and trashed. What I didn’t see coming, though, was more subtle and disturbing. Having to reconsider the value of everything in my office from scratch, it became clear that I’d mastered a system for doing my job. However, that system — which remained mostly unchallenged — had assumed a life of its own, leading me to question if I had not become its slave.
Recently, Greensburg, Kan., Mayor Lonnie McCollum faced a similar, but far more tragic situation. A retired Kansas Highway Patrol superintendent, the mayor is credited with inspiring hope in the 1,400 residents of a community gutted by a tornado on May 4. With 90 percent of Greensburg’s buildings flattened and 10 of its residents dead, McCollum quickly crystallized the future with a vision rarely found in government leaders, even in cities or counties 100 times the size.
“We have a blank piece of paper,” he told us in an interview published in this issue. In addition to a new hospital and school, McCollum spoke of a new Greensburg with a business district and energy-efficient homes. He even included a part in the rebuilding plan where lower- and middle-income residents could afford to buy a house. Knowing that the city’s government, too, would change, and assuming federal funds were headed his way, the mayor was ready to adjust to the evolving challenges of a new city.
Shortly after our interview with him, McCollum resigned, citing emotional exhaustion. It may have been the intense pressure of being a calm, reassuring bellwether in the midst of a physical and emotional storm, but more likely something else he said in our interview hinted at his growing discontent: “Some people think we can just build back the way it was, [but] we can’t do business that way.”
The mayor was right, of course. You cannot reverse time, erase the tornado’s damage and turn tomorrow into yesterday. Only after my friends shook me up on my birthday did I realize that I had become far too comfortable in a world of my own making. After that day, I understood that my job was more involved in helping to create the future, and less in replicating the past. The mayor understood that challenge and was ready for it. However, it appears that some of his neighbors might take a little longer to join him.