TRUST AND KINDNESS

Yesterday, one of my many Facebook friends posted a story alleging that the actor Leonardo DiCaprio was traveling on Interstate 5 near Albany when his rental car broke down.  DiCaprio, according to the story, was really impressed when local residents, who did not recognize him, came to his aid and even bought him a meal at a local restaurant.  He was quoted as planning to retire in Albany because the people here were so generous.

The story was a hoax, but the idea that people here would help someone in need was completely believable.  I suspected the story wasn’t true when I read it; so I took a moment to verify my suspicions by checking other sources.  The irony of this immature joke is that by attempting to fool people, the perpetrator reminded me that literally billions of acts of kindness go unreported every day.  We occasionally read about them in the news when they involve a celebrity or extraordinary heroism, like the Portland men who recently came to the rescue of two young Muslim women.  The reality, however, is there is not enough time or space in the world’s media to report all the good things or selfless acts that happen every day.  I think we have the responsibility to remind ourselves that the death and destruction we read about or see in the media every day are the exception to normal human behavior and far from the rule.

Trust makes communities work; a fact that becomes really obvious when trust is absent.  This morning I listened to an account on the radio of how the once thriving city of Aleppo, Syria, has been transformed into a ghost town by unremitting conflict over the past five years.  The story reminded me of my own experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, where human relations were equally troubled.  Even in the worst of circumstances, in spots like Aleppo, Karbala or Kabul, human kindness is still evident.  People risk their lives to save others, give money to those in need, or otherwise sacrifice to help people they may not even know.  These acts are the seeds of trust that will eventually make these devastated communities more like the great majority of cities around the world.

I doubt Leonardo DiCaprio has ever heard of Albany, Oregon, and I’m reasonably sure he will not retire here.  Nonetheless, he did us a small service without his knowledge by having his name linked to a fable that reminds us of the importance of being kind.  I don’t know what the authors of the fable had in mind, but I appreciate the irony that a dishonest and cynical effort inspired me to think about what’s best in human nature.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, LAURA

Yesterday I forgot Laura Hyde’s birthday despite having it on my calendar as a (fortunately) recurring event.  Forgetting a co-worker’s birthday is probably not as great a sin as failing to remember your spouse’s birthday, but when the colleague in question is one of the most important reasons you’ve been able to hang onto your job for a dozen years, forgetting this date is almost criminal.

Laura, for those who don’t know her, does not like attention and will almost certainly be unhappy with my public apology.  I’m willing to risk her displeasure because she seldom receives recognition for all the good she has done in her 42 years with the City of Albany.  Steve Bryant, my predecessor, informed me about Laura’s value to the organization before I started work here and everything he said was true.  She has a rare talent for communicating the legitimate reasons for past practice while welcoming and promoting innovation.  Laura’s thoughtful loyalty to the City of Albany is an example I can only aspire to follow.

I have no idea how Laura manages to keep track of all her responsibilities given the state of her office, which looks something like a ransacked storeroom.  I pride myself on keeping a neat office so that I don’t lose or forget things and I’m sure most people can guess who is more reliable about remembering what needs to be done (see opening paragraph).  Neatness apparently has nothing to do with administrative ability.

Beyond her professional skills, Laura is a caring and compassionate person who sees the good in almost everyone.  She is a constant advocate for city employees and would never let me forget concerns about the daily issues that affect all of us.  No one knows more about the City of Albany and Laura has taken many of the lessons learned over 42 years and used them to improve the place for the benefit of all who work here.

Many people have asked me why I’m retiring next month and there are a number of answers that apply.  I am already two-and-a-half years past the average U.S. retirement age.   I want to spend more time with my wife and soon-to-be 18 grandchildren.  I would like to do some international assignments while I still can.  Finally, I have to retire before Laura does.  Her absence would only confirm what many have suspected over the years.

Happy Birthday, Laura (belatedly), and thank you for all you do on behalf of others.

SMELLY NO MORE

We received a phone message yesterday from a reporter for the Corvallis newspaper asking whether an odor he described as “smelling like manure” was coming from Albany. I responded by leaving my own message that explained we have no foul odors in Albany and that Corvallis should clean up its air before it migrates our direction. We haven’t heard from him since.

The days of bad smells in Albany are mostly long past, although we have occasional, localized problems as most communities do. The wastewater treatment plant generates some nasty smells, which shouldn’t be too surprising given what it takes in every day. I’ve worked for four cities with treatment plants, and I haven’t visited one yet that smelled nice all the time. Our folks work hard to minimize odors at the Albany Water Reclamation Facility, and we certainly aren’t producing any smells that find their way to Corvallis.

My bet is the sensitive noses at the Gazette-Times were sniffing odors produced by local farmers putting fertilizer on neighboring fields. If not that, then the scents might be traced to Oregon State’s animal barns or Corvallis’ own treatment plant. It’s not our fault that the Oregon Agricultural College chose to locate in Corvallis or that the city treatment plant is near downtown. Clearly, they are generating greater quantities of manure than we are in Albany.

Albany has changed a lot over the last decade or so; and not only do we smell better, but we look better, too. Our downtown has attracted some first-class restaurants and interesting new amenities like the carousel. The last meal I ate in a Corvallis restaurant a few years ago tasted like something that might be served at a cut-rate assisted-living facility dining room, while my recent dinners in Albany have been great. I know I shouldn’t disparage Corvallis in pointing out Albany’s virtues, but I’m not the one who started this.

Corvallis is a nice city with a great city manager (imported from Albany) and, I’m sure, many other good features I haven’t discovered yet. I may spend more time over there after I’m retired, although I rarely visit communities that have no Costco. I’m also concerned about their new odor problem. I’m sure we would be glad to help identify the source of the newspaper’s concern if asked nicely. After all, Albany has been smelling good these days; and we surely don’t need problems from our western neighbor fouling our air.