by Peggy Auer
Thucydides (471-401 B.C.B'.) said it for us: "A man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition." So don't sit back. Reach out to milk those opportunities to be of service to country and to one's self. Such services may be salaried or non-salaried.
My public services have focused on environmentalism, peace and the arts. Environmentalism is mentioned first because, hey, that's how I met my husband.
We met via the Sierra Club, just enjoying the weekend hikes, tramping up and down the Hudson Highlands, the Watchung Mountains, and the Ramapos. Then we both volunteered to do trail-clearing. How our backs ached from all that bending over to pick up trash discarded by careless hikers! How could people so despoil "our" trails, "our" brooks, we wondered. The next step was volunteer service as co-leaders of a Sierra Club five-day pack trip up Mount Katandin, Maine. We took on responsibility for the whole thing -- the menu planning, the safety precautions, the tent-pitching, and the rewards of introducing beginners to the rigors and the joys of mountain life. It was great outdoor fun, a great sharing of leadership responsibility, a great way to get to know a person in depth.
After our marriage, Everett and I kept marching along together. Now, however, the focus had switched to peace. The Vietnam War was on; nuclear weaponry threatened worldwide calamity. What could we do? How could we help? Our sentiments were the more urgent because during World War II-Everett had worked on the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb. He and his colleagues at Columbia University had known that they were part of a major war effort but the secrecy was so great that none had the complete picture. When eventually Everett saw the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki he became an ardent peace activist.
The first thing we did was to affiliate with two national organizations working against the war: the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (now Peace Action) and Pax Christi, the international Catholic peace movement. From these organizations, my husband and I learned a lot about political action, but I had had earlier immersion in such matters via my years with the League of Women Voters.
What a fellowship we shared -- and still share -- with those fellow "peaceniks!" We phoned the White House, collected signatures for peace petitions, wrote letters to newspaper editors, and called on our Congressional representatives. We marched for peace locally, in New York City, in Washington, D. C.
All the above came together after 9/11/02. Everett had passed away by then but I carried on. For example, recently I was part of a four-person Peace Action delegation that visited the offices of Senators John Corzine and Frank Lautenberg and Congressmen Donald Payne and William Pascrell. We delivered copies of an anti-Iraq War petition signed by 1,500 of their constituents, read aloud the names of the twenty-four New Jersey servicemen already killed in Iraq and challenged these legislators to become more assertive in opposing the war. Speaking truth to power enhances one's self image and, when multiplied across the country, affects national policy.
Who could live in the metropolitan New York area and not be arts-minded? So I was thrilled when, in the early 60's, I was offered a part-time staff position with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Little did I realize how this modest beginning would define my subsequent professional identity and employability.
Initially I was assigned to do audience development. Under Henry Lewis the orchestra was becoming nationally recognized; there were performances throughout New Jersey, at Carnegie Hall, at the Kennedy Center. The orchestra was on an artistic high but its finances were not keeping pace with its growth.
Our managing director was excellent in terms of personnel and labor relations, Board development, etc., but had no flair for letter-writing. One day I came across his acknowledgment letter to a lady who had made a major gift-- I think it was $50,000 -- in memory of her recently-deceased husband. His letter thanked her for the gift, said it would help the orchestra's programming, but carried no mention of the memorial nature of the gift, no hint of sympathy for the woman's loss. Horrified, I. showed the letter to key colleagues; together we developed a plan. I was designated to express to the managing director his staff's appreciation of the heavy responsibilities he carried and to offer to relieve him of "the burden of writing all those thank-you letters." He happily accepted this relief and let me compose, for his signature, all subsequent gift acknowledgments.
In the course of this new and welcome assignment I noticed that the donor list included government, corporations and individuals -- but no foundations. Curious about why New Jersey foundations were not supporting their state symphony orchestra, I put the question to the professional fund-raising firm that handled all gift solicitations. "Oh," they said, "we don't do foundations." Just like that.
I quickly educated myself in the ground rules of approaching foundations, wrote a few grant proposals (always, of course, for the signature of the appropriate Board member) and started attracting new money to the state symphony orchestra. Other non-profit organizations, e.g., the Newark Boys Chorus School and the New Jersey Council of Churches, heard of my new specialty and sought my services as grant writer. Soon I had half a dozen non-profit clients and could work from home.
Now eighty years old I limit myself to volunteering time to two arts organizations, the New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre and the Newark Museum. Without strong volunteer organization neither of these agencies could keep its doors open or afford to extend its program to school audiences. At the Shakespeare Theatre I know I am needed, sometimes as usher, other times as ticket-taker or gift shop saleslady. I love the glorious feeling of finally being part of the world of theatre. (It doesn't hurt that, for every three performances worked, volunteers receive a voucher for a free admission.)
The Newark Museum too is dependent on volunteers to help handle the thousands of visitors who each year crowd into its exhibits. Since 1995 I have been one of a happy band of seventy docents (museum-speak for tour guides) who lead tours and try to "put life" into the various exhibits, several of which are of international reputation. What a return we receive for our four-or-five days a month service! First of all there is the expressed appreciation of museum visitors. Secondly, the museum offers docents a delightful program of continuing education: lectures by curators, presentations by visiting artists, field trips to other museums. It's better than college! This education broadens my artistic horizons and propels me into other museums wherever I travel.
It's been a great ride. These various public services, salaried, non-salaried and however obscure, have enriched my life. And don't you agree that, in their own way, they have served my country? Thucydides was right.
About the Author:
Peggy Auer graduated with a B.A. from the College of Saint Elizabeth in 1946 before going on to obtain her Master’s from NYU in 1951. Starting out as a Peace Activist with N.J. Peace Action and Paxi Christi, she has served in various positions in public service, both salaried and non-salaried. Non-profit organizations she has worked with include The Sierra Club, New Jersey Council of Churches and Newark Boys Chorus School, among others. Mrs. Auer, a former Fulbright Scholar, now lives in a retirement community in Maplewood, N. J.
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