As a government and as a people, Americans, for more than 200 years, have been involved in dreadful incidents across the world. We have done the wrong things, we have done the wrong things well and sometimes even the wrong things well and quickly.
Despite these errors and their consequences, a single incontestable fact endures: Americans remain the most generous people in world history.
A solitary Marine in Afghanistan passes out chocolate bars mailed from Kansas to a crowd of orphans; retired American engineers appear unexpectedly in a dusty African village to create a fresh water system; the U.S. military quietly donates more hours in a weekend to help the worlds people than Doctors Without Borders performs in 12 months. When a neighbor suffers or is in trouble, the typical American response sputters only in determining how best to help.
Numerous acts draw bright lights and the world knows there are others performed in twilight, done for the cause, done because the givers want a good mark or enjoy the feelings coming from the contribution. Giving back has become a cliché; it has become a universal term to describe providing assistance, time or resources toward a specific cause or people.
Our local scene involves the board of trustees at Penn State, a large and diverse group. Creating generalizations and conclusions frequently throws any writer into a sandy pit.
Even with this premise declared, the board members have children, parents, brothers and sisters and hobbies; most have grandchildren, soccer, birthdays, ill mothers and obligations linking them to their home addresses, whether Scranton, New York, Baltimore or any place, it matters little.
And we have various trustees with Penn State duties plus jobs leading major corporations such U.S. Steel, Merck, the Bank of New York, Nationwide Insurance or a family business. Employment location or the employer hardly counts.
What does matter boils down to the limits of a 24-hour day. Sacrifices have to be made, rewards reduced or downtime minimized. For what reward or satisfaction?
In the case of our trustees, compensation never emerges in any equation because no pay ever comes their way. Serving Dear Old State translates into zero compensation the hours, the sacrifices and the demands mean nothing to the trustees bottom line.
Reasonable expenses reimbursed continues as Penn States policy. But it has been my experience that few, if any, ask for reimbursement because performing these duties translates to contributing, not being reimbursed. Clearly, rooms and meals provided for business meetings, no other time, still no financial rewards or lavish treatment ever appear.
Having been involved at Penn State in the 1980s, I know too well the time and the attention demanded to be a member of that volunteer community. Preparation time, attendance time, travel time and then the after-work time, the long minutes spent listening to a friends friend about why Penn State needs a dental school.
Harmless and rarely bothersome, still I wonder now with emails, directories and fingertip access how much that number of hours in the 1980s would be increased 20 years later. It has been my experience that whether we talk about the University of Pennsylvania, Penn State or MIT, being involved formally means a part-time job you rarely anticipated in the decision- making process.
The hours creep up on you, the time accumulates, the sum keeps increasing and can be tricky to control unless you say no.
In addition to the rewards and constraints affecting our board of trustees, we have the reviewers and the critics of the process and the output.
My experience shouts that the quantity of opinions is staggering in the public service world, every person has an opinion and few are hesitant about offering their thoughts or reviewing anybody elses thoughts. It simply happens everywhere.
That said, that activity cannot be avoided because exchanging ideas stays fixed at the core of organizational performance management and subsequent improvement.
Just as in any organization and its people, those of us interested in Penn State have a need to be heard, regardless of the issue or circumstance. Frequently those messages sound too critical and too pointed.
This writer should be included in that group. We must all step back and appreciate those willing and capable to take the responsibility for others in helping an organization, especially through difficult times demanding even more hours.
The great American economist Milton Friedman, the champion of the notion that a corporations social responsibility was to generate profits to help people, volunteered along with his wife, Rose, at hospitals in San Francisco.
When asked why, he, a Jewish kid from New Jersey, would work in a Catholic hospital cafeteria, the Nobel Prize recipient replied, I come here at Christmas so somebody else can go home with their family. Besides, doing it helps people I will never see and this may be the only way I can help.
It is a brand of selflessness that characterizes people willing to contribute time and resources, suffer lost opportunities and sacrifice other parts of their lives.
This past year has been difficult, and rocky times might be waiting ahead.
Still, we should appreciate any folks willing to help any way they can.
William Earley attended Penn State and lives in Merion.