Thanksgiving is a distinctly American holiday, originating in that famous gathering of Native Americans and Pilgrims almost 400 years ago. It is a special favorite of mine. After all, it brings a long weekend! And as a life-long academic, I depend on the weekend to be a welcome respite before the final busy weeks of the semester.
Thanksgiving is a family holiday that sometimes includes others who are themselves far away from their own families. It is also a day that promotes reflection. If you avoid Black Friday, it is possible to insulate yourself from most of the rampant commercialism that tends to warp the Christmas season. My son and I have for many years enjoyed starting the day by attending a low-key, short-homily Mass with a diverse group of fellow worshipers. It is an opportunity to appreciate our many blessings. The weekend is also linked in my mind to things more profane: lots of good food and memorable struggles (and missed field goals) involving my alma mater, Michigan, and our dastardly foes from The Ohio State University. This year, happily, ended well. Go Blue!
Now, after 6 ½ years at Alvernia, the holiday has taken on new meaning for me through the efforts of two servant-leaders. For 24 years faculty member Polly Mathys, assisted by John Luvisi and many others, feeds a few thousand community members through the annual Alvernia turkey drive. Trustee Steve Elmarzouky also serves a special dinner for more than 1,600 at his Queen City Diner. Reflecting on this generous, selfless service and recalling the mutual respect, spirit of sharing, and peacemaking ethic represented by that first Thanksgiving, I have come to think of the day as a Franciscan feast of sorts.
As this Thanksgiving season approached, leadership of a different kind was in the news, as the media provided over-the-top coverage of still another major “college sports scandal,” one close to home at Penn State. To be sure, there is so much we do not yet know. As friends have remarked, it is like the Watergate scandal we recall from our own college days: who knew what, when did they know it, and who did they tell (or not)?
But we do know two things for sure. First, rather than just involving minor NCAA infractions or even major violations of athletic rules, this was a genuine scandal involving horrific allegations of abuse, even assaults, against children that went unreported or were ignored and perhaps even were covered up. And second, this was not primarily a sports scandal — though coaches are at the center of the controversy — but rather an institutional scandal. We’re not talking about coaches attempting to gain a competitive advantage or players trying to procure some extra cash or programs trying to win at all costs. We’re talking about abuses of power and moral authority, involving leaders well beyond the athletic program, prominent administrators who did not do the right thing and then had the audacity to pretend otherwise. It is a colossal (and widely shared) failure of leadership that is on display. It is a reminder too that we are morally responsible at important times for what we do NOT do as well as for what we do.
But at least for those of us in leadership positions, there is no room for self-righteousness. We know, with humility borne from experience, that it is all too easy to make mistakes. Even courageous leaders we view as heroic role models are far from perfect. They are women and men with ample faults. Some rise to great virtue, some fall far from grace. Yet even the best make errors in judgment or execution. As Alfred E. Newmann, that great philosopher from Mad Magazine used to say, “To err is human, but why must you be so human?”
Historians and biographers as well as the public record demonstrate that Martin Luther King had his share of imperfections. Yet visiting his memorial with my family the week before Thanksgiving, and reading the stirring selections from his speeches imprinted on the walls surrounding his statue, I was struck by the unabashedly moral tone with which he led. Two passages, one from the walls and one on the memorial’s website, are instructive and inspirational:
The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
Alvernia’s mission statement calls on our students and graduates — and, indeed, all of us who serve them — to be “ethical leaders with moral courage.” At this Thanksgiving, let us be thankful for moral courage and ethical leadership, wherever we find it, and let us resolve to speak up “about things that matter.”