An apolitical lesson from the life of Senator Byrd.

Posted: July 6, 2010 in Uncategorized

As I was watching the news coverage of the passing of West Virginia’s Senior Senator, one network showed an old photo of schoolchildren which included a very young Robert C. Byrd. I’m not good at judging the age of little kids, but I’d guess they were somewhere around seven or eight. They looked like what you would expect kids from the olden days to look like. Disheveled clothes, disinterested looks, casual postures. All except Robert C. Byrd.

He was wearing what looked like a suit and he stood at military-like attention, his eyes boring in on the camera. You couldn’t help but notice him. He was different. Just how different would take a few more years to become apparent.

I won’t presume to know how Robert C. Byrd thought but I think it’s safe to say he didn’t think in terms of limitations. Like many West Virginians, Byrd wasn’t born into a life of privilege, yet somehow he was able to reach a level of national prominence that is unmatched in West Virginian politics. Regardless of whether you agree with his political views, give the man his due for his personal accomplishments.

Neither was he limited in what he thought was good for West Virginia. Who would have thought that West Virginia could be the home of the FBI fingerprint center? Robert C. Byrd. Who would have thought that Green Bank should be an important scientific outpost for exploring the universe? Robert C. Byrd. The list is long and the projects are big. In the mind of Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia took a back seat to no one.

So what does all of this have to do with public spaces?

While a good public space doesn’t necessarily have to be big or elaborate, many times the potential for becoming a great public space is thwarted by a vision that is too limited. We tend to use cost as an excuse but I wonder if there isn’t a more systemic reason at work. For generations we’ve heard that West Virginia ranks last in the good categories and near the top in the bad ones. It’s ingrained in us to believe that special projects and special places are for other people, not West Virginians.

If you’re reading this, you are in a position of leadership. You may not be an elected official but your interest in the topic of public spaces sets you apart as someone who cares. And you are a thinker. Thinking people can see through the negative attitudes that hold us back and work for better results.

Ok, so besides having a more positive mindset, what can we do?

First, don’t be afraid to think big. Yeah, that’s kind of my mantra. But that’s where great things start.

Second, don’t let the lack of dollars limit you. We’re all familiar with the concept of master plans and project phasing. Master plans are the blueprints of big dreams. In our world of instant gratification, we can sometimes lose sight of the dream after the completion of Phase I, but if we can keep the master plan in front of us and not collecting dust on the shelf, the dream can come to life. Byrd served in the Senate for more than 50 years. Surely we can muster a little patience and perseverance to achieve a five or ten year master plan.

Robert C. Byrd achieved a lot for West Virginia and if he can serve as an example for us on how to get things done, the future for West Virginia is unlimited. We all have our roles. I will likely never be in a position to bring a federal agency to the state, but for every project with which I’m involved, I’ll do all that I can to make it the best that it can be.

What’s your role? How will you lead?

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