C + CC = 50

The C+CC main entrance, October 2018.

Of my salaried nonprofit jobs since leaving Federal service in 1996, the one I held the longest was the position of Director of the Chapel + Cultural Center at Rensselaer (C+CC), working for the Rensselaer Newman Foundation (RNF) on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). (That’s a lot of Rensselaers, more on them later!). For the past two years, I have served on the Board of Trustees of the RNF, so I have had the distinct pleasure of returning to Troy, New York twice a year for Board meetings and for the wonderful Committee of 100 Dinner, where our supporters gather each October (including last weekend) to celebrate the prior year’s accomplishments, and to bestow the prestigious Sun and Balance Award upon a prominent and deserving member of the community.

2018 is a very special year in the C+CC’s history as we celebrate the amazing building’s 50th anniversary. We mark this observance from a unique position of pride, having recently been added to the National Register of Historic Places, the youngest building in the country to currently be so designated. I could wax at length here about how the C+CC is special and deserving of this honor, but I’ll defer to two (more) tightly edited sources on this front — here and here — to put this year’s gathering in context. At bottom summary line, the C+CC has been cited by numerous experts over the years as the quintessential example of how churches in America best responded to the opportunities arising in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. It’s a cool place, and cool things happen there, for the campus, for the community, and for the church.

In 2015, I was the keynote speaker at the Committee of 100 Dinner, and I posted my remarks here — The Power of Plus — for posterity’s sake.  Riffing on our stylistic use of the plus sign in the name of the C+CC, I discussed several of the key additive factors that make the facility and its home communities so special to me: it’s a chapel + it’s a cultural center, it marks a place where the sacred + the profane can enter into dialog, it is a home base for town + gown in Troy, its highest annual award is the Sun + Balance medal, and its blended campus and parish community allows old + young to gather together on a nearly daily basis.

This year’s keynote speaker, David Haviland, is a retired RPI administrator, a 40-year trustee of RNF, a great personal friend, and a member of the committee that hired me all those years ago when I first came to the C+CC. He delivered an exceptional talk that was anchored in the hymn “What Is This Place?,” with lyrics published in 1967 (while the C+CC was nearing completion) by Huub Oosterhuis, atop an old Dutch melody called “Komt Nu Met Zang,” originally published in 1626 in a hymnal called Nederlandtsche Gedenck-clanck by Adrianus Valerius. This hymn was sung in the mass immediately preceding the Committee of 100 Dinner, per the liturgical calendar of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Dave’s talk explored the ways in which the song’s lyrics tied to the amazing senses of place, word and sacrament embodied by the C+CC for so many who have entered it over the years, while also placing its old Dutch melody in the context of the van Rensselaer family and their history; they were the Patroons of the Manor of Rensselaerswyck, from which RPI takes its name, and from which the modern Capitol Region of New York State emerged with its quirky Dutch-English culture. Dave also touched upon the fascinating life of Huub Oosterhuis, a former Jesuit whose commitments to social justice and equity often put him at odds with the Catholic Church; more on his story here.

At the end of his remarks, Dave turned the lectern over to our fellow Trustee, Nathan Walsh. When I arrived at the C+CC to serve as its Director, Nate was a resident student in Slavin House, the connected rectory that stands as an integral part of the C+CC campus. We spent a lot of time together over the next couple of years, managing the C+CC and all of its operations in a very hands-on fashion together. You cannot direct at the C+CC if you are not also willing to do. At our Trustees’ meeting before the dinner, Board members were asked to approve an expenditure for a new snowblower for the C+CC; Nate and I smirked together about the ancient smoke-belching orange beast we used to push around the property on snow days, which still sits in the Slavin House garage, both of us believing we are entitled to go grab some knobs or bolts from it to carry as sacred relics in its memory.

It has been a delight to see Nate graduate from RPI, enter the working world, get married, have children, and grow into a poised professional in his new home in Baltimore, while still remaining a key leader in the C+CC community; he was actually the Chair of the Nominating Committee that brought me back to Troy as an RNF Trustee. Nate’s job at the Committee of 100 Dinner was to introduce this year’s recipient of the Sun and Balance Award, Father Edward Kacerguis, known to most around the RPI Campus as “Fred” (Fr. + Ed = Fred). Father Ed has been at RPI in one capacity or another since 1989, and he has lived at Slavin House for the lion’s share of that time. Nate drew a great laugh when he noted how hard his job was that evening, introducing a man who needed no introductions, in his own house . . . Sorry, God.

I was deeply touched to see Father Ed receive the Sun and Balance Award. I count him among my dearest friends, and I marvel on a regular basis at the impact he has had on the parish and campus communities around the C+CC through the past three decades. We first met when I was working at a notable independent school in Albany, for which he served as the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany’s representative. My time there ended awfully, as I was essentially railroaded out for missing a development committee meeting while burying my father. (Yes, seriously . . . insert anecdotes about corporate sociopaths here with regard to my employers at the time). Father Ed helped me land smoothly after that tragedy, introducing me to the C+CC community and shepherding my candidacy through the hiring process. I am a deeply grateful to him for that, among many other things over the years.

At our Trustees’ meeting, Father Ed announced that under canon law, he will be retiring as Pastor of the University Parish of Christ Sun of Justice and Resident Roman Catholic Chaplain at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as of June 30, 2019. That will mark the end of a profoundly significant era in some ways for the C+CC, though the unique organizational structure of the RNF means that he may still be involved in some other ways in the life of the campus, the parish, and our Foundation. I certainly hope that’s the case, in any event, though we will not know for sure until we work through a variety of strategic planning efforts in early 2019.

Regardless of how all that pans out, this year’s Committee of 100 Dinner was Father Ed’s last in his current roles, so once again, what a profound delight it was to see him honored with long and heart-felt ovations by his parishioners, colleagues, friends, students, alumni and board members. Over the years, I have seen him preside over weddings of students and alumni, baptisms of countless babies, funerals for the elderly and the young alike (the C+CC is a place of sanctuary and respite at times of crisis on the RPI campus, and few crises hurt as much as the death of a student there), more masses than I can count, dinners for all of the varsity sports teams at RPI (his Canadian Thanksgiving Dinners for the hockey team were particularly epic), fundraising activities for charities domestic and international, and any number of cultural, educational, spiritual, or social events at the C+CC and around Troy. He makes a difference, and he does it with a smile.

Those of you who know me best may observe that there’s a lot of references to the Catholic Church above, and that I am not Catholic myself. That’s neither a worry nor an obstacle when it comes to life at the C+CC. One of the most beautiful elements of the space and its University Parish of Christ Sun of Justice is the motto “All Are Welcome.” I stumbled in there at a difficult time in my own life, and I was welcome. Countless others have done the same over the years, and they were welcome. It is the C+CC’s operating policy to keep its doors open for all who care to visit, 365 days a year, and in his remarks, Father Ed shared a story of how he found a young woman who he’d never seen before weeping at the altar one Christmas afternoon; she told him that her life was falling apart in a variety of ways, and that she had driven around the Capital Region for hours looking for an open church where she could pray for solace, and they were all closed to her — except for the C+CC. She was welcome too.

It’s a profound joy to have played a small part in the life of the C+CC over the years, and to have shared in fellowship with so many important people in its history. Beyond Father Ed, Dave Haviland and Nate Walsh (all mentioned above), there are far more names and stories worthy of mention than I can cite in a short article like this, but I will close with two anecdotes about two very special people in the life of this unique community, and the small ways in which my life intersected with each of theirs.

First, Stephen Wiberley: For the better part of two years, I helped Steve write, edit, design and illustrate his autobiography. It was a deeply interesting project, and one that remains of historical value to RPI, the C+CC and the City of Troy. There were a lot of famous folks, mostly scientists, passing through the pages of his life’s story (Fermi, Heisenberg, Van Allen, Kuiper, Teller, Pauling), plus guest appearances by the likes of Bette Davis, astronaut Jack Swigert, NASA deputy administrator George Low and the 1985 NCAA Hockey Champion RPI Engineers. The final manuscript ran to about 320 pages and had about 240 illustrations, photos or figures, all of which I scanned, treated or restored to the best of my abilities, then nested into the book. When Steve dropped off the finished, bound product, we admired it together, with a little bit of wistfulness, since I think on some plane he felt like his life’s work was done with that project completed. I told him at the time that my fee for helping him was that I expected him to give me an update and addenda ten years later, and that he had to do some exciting stuff to make it worth my while. Steve laughed at that and agreed to my terms, but I never got to collect that debt, since he passed away a couple of years later. I wrote a poem about the experience of working with Steve called “They All Shine On,” based largely on how he would often say to me “Oh, I wish you could have met my wife, Betty, she was such a wonderful lady!” as we toiled over the book project together. Father Ed actually read that poem at Steve’s funeral service, which was very moving for me, needless to say.

Second, Father Tom Phelan: Father Tom was the founder of the C+CC and the RNF, and his epic life’s journey and accomplishments cannot readily be distilled into manageable form, though here is a brief summary. He was a vital, vigorous, charismatic man by all accounts, though by the time I arrived at the C+CC, he was in failing health with Parkinson’s, a frail gentleman loved by all, but no longer able to stand as the community’s vibrant central figure. Father Tom’s final illness followed a fall at the C+CC that happened when I was there, and in my role as the facility’s Director, I supported Father Ed in managing all of the countless logistics associated with the visitation and funeral mass that were held onsite after his passing. The line to pay respects to Father Tom wound far around the block all day long on that last day before his burial, which was to be held early on the morning after, in a private family ceremony. At the end of that long day — after all of the visitors had gone their various ways, after our work study students had departed, and after Father Ed had gone home to Slavin House — Father Tom’s mortal remains lay in state in the sanctuary at the C+CC. I was the last person left to turn the lights out and lock the doors on him, on his last night in the profound place he built, through force of will, faith and personality. It was a sublime and sacred moment in my life, as I sat on the step below the C+CC’s altar and reflected for quite some time, alone before Father Tom’s casket, marveling at the amazing differences one man can make in the world around him — and also at the humbling commonality that all of us will face when our mortal times in this world draw to a close, our vibrancy quieted at last, only to live on here in remembrances.

There have been many such remembrances this year as the C+CC celebrates its 50th Anniversary — but there have also been many commitments made to carrying its work forward for another half century or more. The space was built to last, fully adaptable to an ever-changing world, and its governance structure was developed with skill and acuity to also survive and thrive even when and if key partner organizations are no longer able or willing to carry their share of the mission. What a gift it is to have been a part of the C+CC’s history, and to play an ongoing role as a Trustee in its dynamic present and exciting future.

You need to visit this incredible space if you’re ever in Troy, New York. Go there by daylight, any day of the year, and I can guarantee that it will be open to you.

All are welcome. Always.

David Haviland at lectern, Father Ed Kacerguis on the big screen.

ORD to DSM

Over the summer of 2015, Marcia and I transitioned personally and professionally from Des Moines to Chicago. I started my job at TREE Fund that August, knowing that my travel commitment in the job was going to be something of a bear for us, since getting from Chicago home to Naperville office and back was a three-to-four hour per day commitment, plus all of the national trips that my work required. That seemed manageable, though, since Marcia’s work was close to home — at least until unexpected professional transitions resulted in her primary base of operations shifting back to Des Moines four months after I started at TREE Fund.

Because of those changes, we have maintained two residences (one bedroom apartments in Chicago and Des Moines) with significant periods of separation for nearly three years now. As I type this, we are in Day 10 of a 12-day continual separation, to cite the current, but not atypical example.  Needless to say, this is wearing on us on a variety of physical, emotional and financial fronts, and we have decided that this is no longer a viable long-term situation for us. After carefully considering a wide variety of possible remedies, we now plan to re-consolidate our household where we have the lowest living expenses and where our daughter makes her home: in Des Moines. And driven by a lease renewal deadline, we recently advised our condo owner that we will be leaving our Chicago home in March 2019.

I discussed this decision with the TREE Fund Board of Trustees, and after a good series of conversations over a couple of weeks, we all agreed that it was in our mutual best interests that I continue to serve as the organization’s President and CEO. So that’s what we’re going to do, embracing the ever-more-decentralized way in which people work in the 21st Century, with me becoming a remote employee, getting the job done without being tethered to a single site.

After we get through the various personal moves we need to make, my home office in Des Moines will be declared my primary work location effective May 1, 2019, and I will be there for standard work day hours with full connectivity to all constituents via phone, email and video conference. I will then travel to spend one week per calendar month onsite with staff in the Naperville office, and I will participate in one conference or other trip for TREE Fund each month as well.

I am relieved by this solution that allows me to continue working in a job I love, while dramatically reducing the time I spend away from the wife I love, and significantly increasing the time I spend with the daughter I love. Win-win-win. I will miss Chicago a lot, though, and I plan to stay in the city when I’m back for work at Naperville, so I can enjoy the evening activities here rather than hunkering down in a generic suburban hotel somewhere.

I also very much like the fact that my professional world will not be restricted to Des Moines and its immediate environs upon my return. It will frankly be easier for me to live there when I am not entirely beholden to the region’s nonprofit, cultural, political and philanthropic communities, whose values and priorities often did not align well with my own. (Look what has happened to my beloved Salisbury House since I left it, to cite but one particularly painful example). So I am glad I will be in the Des Moines community, but not of the Des Moines community, if you get the subtle distinction there. That is also a win-win situation for me.

Of course, there are things about Chicago that I have come to dislike and will not miss when I leave here, so I’ll probably do a report about them when I head out next spring, too. Fair’s fair, after all. No place is perfect, and managing expectations is key to making moves like this work well, I think, though that’s been a lesson learned the hard way in a couple of cases over the years.

In closing, I should note that Marcia and I have come to greatly appreciate condo/apartment living with a small footprint. We do not intend to buy a house again in Des Moines, but will just continue to rent, leaving the grass-cutting, sidewalk shoveling, driveway plowing, roof replacements, window washing, shingle painting, Christmas decorating, and lawn-watering to others. We bankrolled our earnings from our last home sale and are saving them for the retirement years, whenever those arrive, maybe sooner, maybe later.

It’s nice to have that sort of flexibility in planning the next step(s). Options make everything better.

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More adventures together, please. I’m too dumb to be on my own . . .

Research Without Frontiers

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column as a preview teaser of the forthcoming October 2018 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE FundYou can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here.

Earlier this month, I attended the International Urban Forestry Congress in Vancouver, British Columbia. The Congress was a unique gathering presented by Tree Canada, Pacific Northwest Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), University of British Columbia, Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation, and other partners. Nearly 800 people from 30 countries participated, and we were blessed with fascinating and useful lectures, engaging panel discussions, exceptional networking opportunities, and an unparalleled “battery charging” opportunity to spend time with colleagues away from our proverbial trenches, sharing our passions for urban forests around our ever-more-connected (for better or worse) tiny blue marble of a planet.

It was good to be reminded that TREE Fund is part of that global research network, and not just an Illinois corporation, nor just a United States nonprofit, nor just a North American charity. This is reflected in our grant-making programs: we typically award two Jack Kimmel International Grants in partnership with the Canadian TREE Fund annually, and a growing number of grants from our other programs have been going abroad in recent years too.

I know some readers may not consider this a positive trend, since I have had domestic partners challenge me on why they should support us if we are sending money overseas, just as I have had ISA Chapters ask why they should support us if researchers in their regions are not receiving TREE Fund grants. Regionalism is a strong force among human beings, nationally and internationally. But trees (and their symbiotic companions and parasitic predators) do not recognize property lines, nor do they hew to municipal borders, nor do they heed state lines, nor do they respect international borders.

Trees are migratory organisms across our ever-changing world, as they slowly and naturally respond to global environmental changes, or rapidly stake out new turf when we select them to line streets and shade homes on continents where nature never would have taken them. And while human preferences and prejudices vary widely from nation to nation, both native and non-native urban trees living in temperate Mediterranean climates like those found in Beirut, Perth, Los Angeles, Rome, Tunis and elsewhere may benefit from exactly the same areas of rigorous scientific inquiry, regardless of where the researchers disclosing it work and live.

I say all this as an older, pragmatic and practical American professional, and not as an inexperienced, pie-in-the-sky Utopian. Trees are a global resource, and tree science is globally relevant, regardless of any of our social, economic, religious or political leanings. TREE Fund is a small — but mighty — player in this planetary network, and we become stronger every time we gather with colleagues from around the world on behalf of the planet’s urban canopies.

Okay, so maybe this Vancouver tree does want some boundaries . . .

Keeping Charity Charitable

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the September 2018 edition of TREE Press. You can read the whole edition here, including our quarterly Research Report insert, which focuses on TREE Fund research conducted by Dr. Brian Kane, the Massachusetts Arborists Association Professor of Commercial Arboriculture at UMass Amherst.

As the leaves begin to color and drop here in Northern Illinois over the next few weeks, we will be rolling out our individual year-end fundraising appeal, as hard as it is to believe that the end of the fiscal year is already drawing near. We’re on track for another great year in 2018, but the unrestricted operating funds earned via the year-end appeal are crucial to our ongoing success, so my thanks to all in advance for considering us in your charitable plans in the weeks ahead.

The “charitable” component of that sentiment is more important than usual this year, as many of you are no doubt evaluating how changes in the Federal tax code could impact the deductibility of your gifts to TREE Fund and other nonprofits. While TREE Fund is not in the business of providing financial advice, we do know that many of you may find it financially beneficial this year to use the increased standard deduction in lieu of itemizing your deductions (including charitable giving), which will reduce the strictly financial tax return benefit you receive from each dollar of your charitable giving in 2018.

I respectfully hope, though, that you do not change your giving plans for that reason, since the charitable good you do for TREE Fund is actually independent of any quid pro quo tax benefit you receive as a result of your philanthropy. Charity is, by its very definition, the voluntary giving of help, typically via money, to those in need — and TREE Fund does indeed need your continued support if we are to build on and expand our research and education programs going forward, especially as Federal funding for urban forestry research and education may decline in parallel with lower revenues from Federal taxes.

TREE Fund is a charity, at bottom line, worthy of support for the good work we do, and for the benefits that our research and education results deliver to communities around the world. It is only through your charitable support that we are fully able to be a force for good in the world, funding vital, beneficial work that few others do. I’ve spent most of my career in the nonprofit sector, and I know that when push comes to shove, that sense of doing something righteous, and making a difference through your gifts, is the truly fundamental motivator for donors, one that resonates deeply in ways that simple monetary benefit from tax deductibility cannot.

Here’s hoping you share that sentiment with me, and that we can continue to count on you to do good for a good cause this year when you receive a letter from me asking for your support in the weeks ahead, or even if you’re inspired to give right here, right now. You may or may not receive a meaningful tax benefit from giving to us this year, but the moral and ethical benefit of sharing your resources openly and without restriction on behalf of TREE Fund or other charities you respect is profound and lasting. At the end of the day, it’s simply a good thing to do — and I remain personally committed to ensuring that we leverage your support widely, and serve as responsible stewards for funds entrusted to our care.

“Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present . . .” (Albert Camus)

The Favorite Tree Question

Note: We’re back in the office today after the Tour des Trees, and the work never ceases, so we pumped out this month’s TREE Press newsletter this afternoon. Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column; I’ve addressed “the favorite band question” at length here on the blog before, so now it’s time to address “the favorite tree question,” at slightly less length, because I have an editor. 

When I was hired as TREE Fund’s President and CEO three years ago, I was asked to provide some biographical information to help our supporters get a sense of who I was and what I was bringing to the organization. One of the questions posed – “What’s your favorite tree?” – seemed to be a simple one, but it actually was and remains something of a stumper for me.

How do you answer that question, really? As a tree lover (or tree nerd, per my family), it’s a challenge right up front to decide whether to pick a single species, or a single individual. I lived in Latham, New York for nearly 20 years, and there was one huge white willow tree (Salix alba) in my neighborhood that I adored every time I passed by it, but if I picked that one, then it wouldn’t be meaningful to anybody outside of Latham. In my column here two months ago, I wrote about a longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) at my childhood home that was wrapped tightly with wisteria vines. I loved it dearly as a kid, but know as an adult that it was a poorly-located mess, just begging for removal. (Note: See section two of this link for that story).

So picking individual trees is probably a bad idea for media purposes, but is picking a single species any easier? My opinions change regularly, depending on where I am or the time of the year. Right now in Chicago, I am loving the swamp white oaks (Quercus bicolor), and I can’t resist reaching out and stroking their leaves when I walk past them; shiny and leathery on top, fuzzy and soft on the bottom, just wonderful for tactile people like me. But a month or so ago, as I was training for the Tour des Trees, the American Lindens (Tilia Americana) were in bloom, and their tiny sweet flowers were like giant collective air fresheners for the city, making my riding experience more deliciously fragrant than is normally the case in a huge city like mine.

How could I pick one of those species over the other? Or over the one that moves me the most next month, or in the next city I visit? Honestly, I couldn’t, and can’t. But three years ago, I felt like I needed to give some answer to that seemingly innocuous question, lest I come across as difficult to our staff, so I picked the Southern live oak (Quercus virginiana), the tree most closely identified with my Low Country South Carolina roots. (Well, other than our State tree, Sabal palmetto – but that’s technically a grass). So that’s what the record shows, and it’s a reasonable answer, I guess, but I am reserving the right to change it, today, tomorrow, and any time in the future.

I like this old English tree that appears to be as much ghost as wood . . .