Saving a City

Last week, I received a copy of a small book a friend of mine wrote about his experience as the city manager of University City, Missouri, in the 1960s and 1970s.  Charlie Henry retired as Eugene’s city manager in the late 1970s after a long career in the profession.  Following retirement, Charlie didn’t stop working; he just devoted his time to helping other city managers and the community where he lived.  A few years ago, he stepped down as an ICMA Range Rider (senior adviser) at age 90 and decided to write his book.

You can buy Saving a Middle-Class Multiracial American City from Amazon; and if you have an interest in why some cities succeed while others fail, it would be worth your $14.36 to do so.  University City is a suburb of St. Louis, located not far from Ferguson, Missouri.  University City has prospered over the past few decades while Ferguson recently descended into chaos.  I think the story Charlie Henry tells explains at least a part of the difference between the two communities.

University City had an idea of what it wanted to be as a community and began patiently working toward that ideal in the early 1960s.  Rather than fight integration and other cultural changes, University City sought to become a place where people of different races and backgrounds could live together peacefully.  Charlie describes the projects, policies, laws, and people who helped make University City a good place to live, while other cities wasted resources fighting integration and resisting change.

Charlie’s story may not be an exciting tale of daring exploits, but it is an inspiring and thoughtful analysis of how dedicated people made good things happen over a long period of time.  It’s a book filled with pictures that illustrate many of its main points.  My favorite is a picture taken in 2009 of Charlie and a group of volunteers he worked with while he was manager.  There are no youngsters in this picture, but you can find more youthful shots of those in the photos scattered throughout the book.  These pictures illustrate how a lifetime of effort can make a difference for future generations.

I first met Charlie while I was in graduate school, and he took some time to explain to me the importance of professional public management.  Charlie embodies all the best of my profession, and he has served as an example to me throughout my career.  His book is a fitting tribute to his work, without being self-serving.  Like Charlie himself, it serves as a reminder that working hard to do the right things over a lifetime is its own reward and a fitting legacy.