Ed. Note: On May 30, Vital Communities honored 12 community leaders who’ve added immeasurably to the vitality of the Upper Valley at its annual Heroes & Leaders Celebration. The following are the event’s keynote remarks from Jenny Levy, the immediate past board chair of Vital Communities and Vice President of People, Community and Environment at Hypertherm.
Congratulations to Vital Communities for 25 years of cultivating positive change in our 69 towns of the Upper Valley. It has been my honor to be part of caring for and growing that impact during my 5 years on the board, just a short part of the long history of this incredible organization.
Congratulations to the honorees this evening. I am humbled to be a part of your celebration tonight. You are joining another seven “classes” of heroes and leaders. Prior honoree categories include Olympians, Veterans, Women Leaders, Visionaries of the Upper Valley, Mentors, Young Leaders, and Long-Standing Stewards – some of whom are here with us tonight. Thank you all for being a critical part of what makes the Upper Valley such a special place.
When you listen tonight, read about past leaders, or, like me, work alongside two of them, Barbara Couch, a Woman Leader, and Dick Couch, a Visionary of the Upper Valley, it is easy, and frankly appropriate, to be in awe. We are quick to put them all on a pedestal.
This very event makes us pause and look up to these heroes and leaders and the heights they have achieved. We sit here and look at THEM up THERE. I start to wonder HOW did they do it? WHERE does a hero or a leader come from? Maybe it was the Wheaties they ate for breakfast, or, as Warren Buffet might put it, they got a winning ticket in the ovarian lottery. So, knowing I was going to have the opportunity to speak tonight, I did some homework. I reached out to heroes and leaders from this year and prior years and asked them this simple question: “What was a moment that set you on the path to becoming a hero or a leader?” The answers they each gave were varied and inspiring, and, lucky for all of us, instructive.
Vital Communities grew out of what we can think of as the Rabbi Hillel category of leaders. He was a first-century Jewish scholar who wrote, now translated, “If not you, then who? If not now, when?” Reading a 1993 Valley News Sunday editorial is what sparked a prior honoree, Betty Porter, to start a conversation with the League of Women Voters, and then one meeting, and then another, and then a whole organization was founded that we all now benefit from greatly. Don’t forget it was one person reading one article that set this future in motion.
An honoree tonight, Stan Williams, was standing in his driveway years ago, watching his son bike down to the Norwich library to do his homework on their computers, which had internet speed the Williams family couldn’t get at home. His son had just asked him, “Dad, can’t you do something about this?” Stan’s neighbor, with whom he was chatting at the time, piled on, “Stan, don’t you know something about telecom? Maybe you could get us internet?” Lucky for all of us, Stan listened on that day. Now 3,000 rural customers are connected to ECFiber.
One of the Upper Valley Visionaries, Van Chesnut from Advance Transit, tells a similar story of being called to lead. Advance Transit had just completed a small pilot project for DHMC that found ridership significantly increased if their employees could get on the bus for free when they simply showed their badge. Seeing this positive result, Van wondered if he could figure out how to do that for all Upper Valley citizens. Lucky for all of us, our community now benefits from the largest, free, non-urban public transit system in Vermont and New Hampshire. Betty, Stan, and Van all answered Rabbi Hillel’s questions with “Yes, me” and “Yes, now.”
Next, there’s the ABBA category of leadership. The “Take a chance on me” set of stories. Julia Griffin, the town manager for Hanover and a Woman Leader honoree, describes when she was fresh out of grad school and was the assistant to the assistant of the City Manager in Santa Monica, California, John Jalili. Despite being low on the totem pole Julia describes John’s mentorship as critical to her future path. He took time to teach her some key principles: to wade in quietly, to not force things, to think of community as theater, and to be patient. Likely, many of us consider, “Where would Hanover be without Julia?” The real questions are, where would Hanover be if John hadn’t taken the time to teach these lessons to Julia? And where would Hanover be if Julia hadn’t stopped and listened and taken these lessons to heart?
Rob Taylor described his father, Steve Taylor, an honored Long-Standing Steward, going to work at the Valley News in his 20s and being made the managing editor at that young age. Steve’s own capabilities helped him earn that position, but it was also someone else who took a chance on Steve to run and grow our region’s source of news and insights, in fact the very one which decades later inspired the creation of Vital Communities.
Julia and Steve and many others like them had people who saw something, some spark, some ray of potential, and those people took a chance on them. In turn, Julia and Steve took full advantage of that chance – they didn’t back away, they trusted themselves and the person on the other side of the table.
There’s another category of hero and leader, the “You can run but you can’t hide” type. This became apparent when I was talking with Elyse Crossman about her honor as a Young Leader as the executive director of the Greater Claremont Chamber of Commerce. She grew up feeling like she was just known as “Ray’s daughter” and she resented it. You see, her father, Ray Gagnon, was on the Claremont City Council, was the Mayor and a Representative to the New Hampshire Assembly. Elyse’s turning point was when she stopped trying to run away from the legacy she was so lucky to be a part of and started to embrace the lessons of leadership and making a positive difference her father had been demonstrating her whole life.
One of the honored Women Leaders, Sara Kobylenski, former executive director of the Haven and ongoing change maker, told me she was recently given a stuffed giraffe by her friend Jill Lord (a Long-Standing Steward honoree by the way). The card with it said, “Because you always stick your neck out for others.” It was at that moment that Sara realized this is exactly how she has lived her life, snapping her back to a memory of being a 4-year old on the playground and sticking up for another child there. Elyse and Sara have embraced their greatest sources of strength and use that to fuel their ongoing impact.
Finally, are the seed-sowing moments of heroes and leaders. Edie Thys Morgan was in the first class of Olympian honorees as an Alpine skier in the crazy speed events. She was on the World Cup circuit for 6 years and participated in two Olympics. When asked what her moment was, she described that the biggest impact came from small precious doses of encouragement she received from her mother every night she tucked young Edie into bed. These small moments knit together to form enormous inner security and confidence that later fueled Edie.
When I asked one of tonight’s honorees, and my friend, Pru Pease, she knew exactly the moment when she saw herself as somebody. It was when she walked through the doors of the Family Place, another honoree as a Long-Standing Steward, looking for guidance. Pru was pregnant with her second child and her first was perched on her hip with two broken legs. Christie Binzen, the ED at the time, came walking down the stairs, looked directly into Pru’s eyes with warmth and knowing and simply said, “Welcome.” It was in that one look, that one word, that Pru knew she was being seen for who she was and could be and that she was strong, deserving, and powerful—shall we say, truly heroic? Earlier, you heard for yourself what that small seed grew for Pru and the countless people Pru has likewise empowered.
Will we all be patient and diligent to sow seeds, like tonight’s honorees Pooh and Anne Sprague from Edgewater Farm, and the half dozen other farmers honored in prior years? These heroes know how to plant a seed at the right depth, in the right light, and with the right nutrients so that we may all in turn be nourished. What seeds in our community are we each planting and tending to?
Will we all raise our hands like Betty, Stan, and Van and answer the questions, “If not you, then who? If not now, when?” In what area of your life could you be answering these questions in the affirmative? When will you take up the call to stand in your circle of strength and lead?
When will you take up the call to stand in your circle of strength and lead?
Will we all take a chance on someone? Are we in a position to see something in someone else and have the guts to act on it? Or, has someone tried to take a chance on you? Like Julia and Steve, did you put your faith in them and yourself and did you take it? What additional greatness could occur if we each did so?
Will we all be brave enough like Elyse and Sara to realize our calling? Will we ask ourselves the same question: What are we running from, that if we stopped, turned around, and faced it, we would find our greatest source of strength?
As you now know, the heroes and leaders before us and in years past all come from where you and I sit tonight. They are not far above or away from us. The very future of the vitality of our community, our nation, even our world, rests on all of us learning these important lessons and taking them to heart. Look at yourself. Look around this room. Look around your community. Who and what will we be celebrating next year and at the 50th anniversary? You see, we are all creators of heroes and leaders, indeed, we are all heroes and leaders.