Ode to Larry Pierce: Forever Among the Colonnade of Community Pillars

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They are few and far between. Any vibrant community is blessed by no more than a handful. They’re unassuming when you see them. But the moment they speak, you know them.

They are the bedrock of any sustainable community – the foundation upon which everyday folks like us can confidently build our everyday lives. They allow us to assume a comfortable regularity of our surroundings. This makes our lives more pleasant. This makes our lives easier. This, indeed, makes our lives.

Yet, they are much more. Beyond the rock of a common foundation, they represent the solid stone pillars that uplift our community. In doing so, they not only make our lives livable, they raise our living ever higher.

And the beauty of this, the attribute that really defines these people, is their calm demeanor. They behave as though their actions represent a duty they are honor-bound to perform. They expect nothing in return except good citizenship. And that means looking forward while respecting those who worked so hard before you.

For they have the keen understanding of all great leaders: no one man can ever truly define an organization, a movement, a community if one expects that institution to survive. Eventually, the torch must be passed and there needs to be others ready to accept it. Communities last because they don’t belong to a single generation, but because they belong to all the generations.

Communities last because of community pillars like Larry Pierce.

The first time I met Larry was decades ago in a different century. He was mad at me.

Strike that. He wasn’t quite mad at me as much as he was disappointed in me. Think of how your parents admonish you when they say, “I’m not mad, I’m disappointed.” That stings much more.

Larry stung me.

And he was right.

I had said something – actually repeated something that someone else said – and I did not understand how it might have upset others. Larry spoke for those people in a way that got me to understand two important things.

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t independently discover these two things. Larry was quite explicit, like a father is to his son, that I learn these two things. And I don’t think he was being specific to me. I think – and I embrace this notion – he expected everyone to know these two things.

This was in 1991. I was running for Town Board. I was the “new kid” and, well, that meant I had an uphill climb. I was riding a fine line between change (remember “passing of the baton”) and tradition (remember “respecting those who came before you”). It was a difficult challenge, but one that I felt capable to take.

But I wasn’t just the new kid, I was also a kid. Relatively young and without a full appreciation of that past I was trying so hard to respect, I did my best to listen – and often repeat – what others were saying.

That’s what got me in trouble. I heard something from many people I thought was a universal understanding in the community. I then repeated it. It seemed innocuous, even a little playful at the time.

Or so I thought.

I thought wrong.

While going door-to-door, I met Larry for the first time.

Now, most people, even those you know will vote for the other side, are (or, at least back then, were) courteous and kind when you met them on their doorstep. They showed their respect by listening. You showed your respect by not trying to convert them. You merely smiled, handed out your campaign brochure, and moved on to the next door.

Larry was different. When he answered his door, he greeted me with that stern “I’m so disappointed” look. He then told me in no uncertain words what he felt and why he felt it. He didn’t offer a solution.

To say this deeply saddened me would be an understatement. I’m sure others felt the same way, but only Larry was brave enough – self-confident enough – to encounter me directly.

I expressed my dismay in a heartfelt way. Not to defend myself – I couldn’t – but neither to offer the usual sentiment apology – I wouldn’t. Rather, I just said what I truly felt.

In that moment, Larry decided to be my friend. He could tell his scold had an impact. And he wanted to turn my frown upside down. Again, he didn’t tell me how to correct my mistake, but he did reveal two important lessons I should take away from it.

First, I had placed my self in a position where people listened to what I said. I didn’t have the luxury to be flippant. What I said, how I said it, and, should I be so lucky, why I said it, would be scrutinized by friends and foes with equal vigor.

Sure, many other people said the same thing I had said, but they weren’t as visible. I was visible. Up to that point, I had assumed I was mere woodwork – a non-descript nobody of no consequence. I never elevated myself to anything more than a fly on the wall. Larry, in essence, said, “Chris, you’re a big boy now. Start acting like one.”

The second lesson was more important. I had said I made it a point to listen. Larry made me realize that wasn’t enough. I had to listen not only to the people who were talking, but also to the people who weren’t talking. Sometimes silence speaks volumes.

And I had to do more than just listen. I had to empathize. I had to place my feet in the shoes of others and allow their perspective to flow through my veins.

I took these lessons to heart when I served my time on the Town Board.

And Larry was there – just like he’d be again during my years as a Boy Scout leader – to offer sage counsel.

The kind you can only get from a sincere friend.

How do you replace a community pillar?

You can’t.

What you can do, though, is to live up to its standard. That way, the pillar remains. It remains among the colonnade of pillars that came before.

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