Kathy Teachout, my sister-in-law, has just retired from the city council of Smalltown, U.S.A., after two consecutive terms. She succeeded David, my brother, who had previously held the same seat on the council for two consecutive terms. It was a natural development for them both: they’d long been deeply involved in a variety of worthy local causes, and so they decided that the time had come to step up to the plate and run for office. My admiration for what they did was—and is—boundless. “I don’t mean to sound pompous,” I told Kathy the other day, “but that’s what democracy is all about.”
Unlike them, I’ve never gone in for community service, perhaps because I’ve never had a real community to serve. But I did spend a very anxious year working the graveyard shift on a suicide hot line in Illinois, and when Dana Gioia asked me to sit on the National Council on the Arts for a six-year term back in 2005, I said yes without thinking twice. I saw his offer, I said at the time, as “an opportunity to give something back to the arts after a lifetime of pleasure and profit.” I meant every word of it. When that kind of opportunity is offered to you, it seems to me that you have something of an obligation to take it. I never regretted having done so.
I’m proud of having sat on the NCA, but it doesn’t hold a candle to what David and Kathy did to make the town in which the three of us grew up a better and safer place to live. They took their duties with the utmost seriousness and put in a lot of hard, committed work, and the local citizens showed their appreciation by re-electing them to second terms—for which they both ran unopposed. In a small town where pretty much everybody knows you, there is no higher praise.
Now that they’ve finally returned to private life, Kathy is trying to decide what to do with the one-dollar check that she received the other day in payment for her services. “I don’t know whether to cash it or frame it,” she says. Me, I’d frame it, and hang it over the mantelpiece.