Let’s Start It Up and See Why It Doesn’t Work

Last week I referenced historian David McCullough’s most recent book The American Spirit, a compilation of speeches over the past three decades. There’s a great deal of wisdom in these talks, including this gem from a speech in 1994 to the graduating class at Union College in Schenectady, New York:

“Once, in the last century, in the Cambria Iron Works at Johnstown, Pennsylvania, after working for months to build an unorthodox new machine for steel production, the engineer in charge, John Fritz, said at last, ‘All right boys, let’s start it up and see why it doesn’t work.’ It is with that very American approach to problems (McCullough adds) that I think we will find our course.”

The American Spirit

David McCullough’s “The American Spirit”

I love the sense of experimentation that’s at the core of this story. Recently, a colleague and I were discussing a program where our metrics were not (yet) reaching our goals.  We both saw the challenge as a way to push us to dig deep.  To understand that failure can lead to the unpacking of assumptions, new ways of looking at things, the acquisition of knowledge, and finding new paths to success.

When we look up to find that programs (or our ways of working) are static, we may need to build some unorthodox new machine and then “start it up and see why it doesn’t work.”  In this land where the whole idea of our country is an ongoing experiment, what could be more American?

Have a great week.

More to come…

DJB

An Aid to Navigation in Troubled, Uncertain Times

The American Spirit

David McCullough’s “The American Spirit”

The July 4th weekend turned out to be the perfect time to read historian David McCullough’s newest book The American Spirit:  Who We Are and What We Stand ForThis compilation of 15 speeches spanning the years 1989 through 2016 brought renewed appreciation for the wisdom of the elder statesman of America’s historians (and honorary trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation).  The fact that it includes McCullough’s October 20, 2001, speech at the National Trust conference in Providence, Rhode Island—the most memorable of several David McCullough speeches I’ve been privileged to hear in person—is an added bonus.

Some would note that optimism is in short supply in today’s world. That was certainly the case just six weeks after 9/11.  Yet in 2001, McCullough used the setting of the First Baptist Church in Providence—one of the nation’s most historic houses of worship—and the scholarship from his recently published biography of John Adams to make the case for “the importance of history as an aid to navigation in such troubled, uncertain times,” as he says in this book’s introduction.  He spoke then to the importance of authentic places in helping to make a “physical, tactile contact with distant human beings. To “feel their mortality.” To “feel a common bond” with all humanity.

We think we live in difficult uncertain times (McCullough said in 2001 in Providence).  We think we have worries.  We think our leaders face difficult decisions.  But so it has nearly always been….It is said that everything has changed.  But everything has not changed….We have resources beyond imagining, and the greatest of these is our brainpower….And we have a further, all-important, inexhaustible source of strength.  And that source of strength is our story, our history, who we are, how we got to be where we are, and all we have been through, what we have achieved.

The First Baptist Church

The First Baptist Church, Providence, RI

Speaking in 1994 at Union College, McCullough touched on this same theme when he said,

I think what most of us want—as most people everywhere want more than anything—is to be useful.  This and to feel we belong to something larger than ourselves.  What is needed now…is a common understanding of what that larger something can be.  What we Americans need above all is leadership to define the national ambition….Beware the purists, the doctrinaires.  It has been by the empirical method largely, by way of trial and error, that we have come so far.  America itself is an experiment and we must bear that always in mind.

This is a good time to remember the power of history.  The power of story.  And it is an especially good time to work to ensure that the story of who we are and all that we have been through to reach our achievements as people and as a nation is not lost in the uncertainty of the present.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

A few more Memphis Highlights

A few quick observations after spending the last 24 hours in Memphis…

Any first-time visitor to the city has to make time to see the National Civil Rights Museum.  (Photo at the beginning of the post.)  I spent an hour on a tour with the museum’s curator and the head of Memphis Heritage this morning, and I’ve seldom been as moved as when standing between the restored rooms 306 (Dr. Martin Luther King’s room) and 307, viewing the balcony at the Lorraine Motel.  One listens to excerpts from his final “Mountaintop” speech, delivered the night before, and then looks up to see the boarding house across the street where history changed.  Later in the tour, the view is reversed, as you stand next to James Earl Ray’s bathroom and see the balcony, with the historic cars parked outside beneath a large wreath.  Very powerful.

Tracey gave us an insiders tour.  We talked a great deal about the decisions behind the original exhibit and the thinking now underway for future exhibits.  I was pleased to see a section added with the support of the Indian community of Memphis on Gandhi.  It reminded me of my visit last year to Gandhi’s burial site in New Delhi (see photo).  Today I had the same emotions and gratefulness for courageous and visionary leaders.

In my talk at AIA Memphis last evening, I quoted historian and National Trust for Historic Preservation Trustee Emeritus David McCullough:

We are living now in an era of momentous change, of huge transitions in all aspects of life – here, nationwide, worldwide – and this creates great pressures and tensions.  But history shows that times of change are the times when we are most likely to learn.

We all learn about history from books, certainly, but reading history can’t compare with the experience of walking through history, seeing in the deferred dreams of the Lorraine Motel or the lively sweep of a historic Beale Street an entryway into our collective memory.  We need places like this because we need our collective memory.

I also had a delightful visit with the Chairman of the Board and the Director of the Center for Southern Folklore.  We shared many acquaintances (including my former professor Dr. Charles Wolfe) and I was pleased to hear of a Save America’s Treasures grant to help preserve a marvelous collection of photographs from Memphis’ African American community by the Rev. L.O. TaylorSAT was started by the Clinton Administration and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Preservation magazine has a story on SAT’s 10th Anniversary coming up in the next issue.

A couple of other things to see:  the famous Peabody Hotel ducks taking their stroll from the fountain in the lobby to the elevator.  They generate quite a crowd!  And June and I had an early lunch today at the Arcade Restaurant on S. Main Street, a classic diner and the city’s oldest cafe.  It has a great atmosphere that capped off two very interesting days to highlight preservation work in Memphis.

This was a business trip, so I couldn’t play tourist.  Things I missed that tourists enjoy:  the Stax museum, which June says is terrific, and Graceland. (I joked in my talk that the last time I visited Memphis, Graceland had an occupant.)  But of course, even these sites have preservation implications.  Many of the Stax stars lived in homes around the neighborhood worthy of preservation and Graceland is – of course – the historic home of the King.

Back at my home now…and getting ready for next weekend’s work trip to North Carolina.

More to come…

DJB