When I was notified I would receive the Sydney and Thalia Potter Civic Leadership Award from the League of Women Voters of Hillsborough County, it brought back a vivid memory of the couple who fought so hard for good government and wise stewardship.
Sydney, who died in 2014, and Thalia were attending a Letter Writers of the Year Banquet, which The Tampa Tribune sponsored annually. The luncheon brought together readers who had written particularly incisive letters, and, of course, Thalia and Sydney were as incisive as they come.
Still, I was surprised to see them because I had read an obituary for their adult son, who died of cancer, only a day or two before. They were obviously in pain, but when I talked to them, Thalia simply said, "We wanted to be here with the living."
I was moved, and not just because of the dignity of their grief.
Their desire to be among other community-minded people of all views conveyed to me how civic involvement for them wasn’t about politics or ideology but about the "living."
At a time when the public square seems mired in partisanship and power politics, when ridicule and insult replace civil discourse, it is gratifying to think of all the decent people who are involved in local issues because they care about making life better for others.
The Potters’ devotion to keep their Hillsborough River clean and free-flowing wasn’t driven by a political agenda. They knew a healthy, beautiful river would serve and delight generations hence; it also would spare taxpayers costly pollution problems.
So, as I told the league when accepting the award Thursday, it was particularly meaningful for me to receive an award named for the Potters, whose example of civic engagement is an inspiration. It also was an honor to see Geraldine McKinnon Twine recognized with the league’s Lifetime Achievement Award for her heroic efforts to provide health care to the disadvantaged and create nursing job opportunities for minorities.
The Potter award made me think of how fortunate I was to be an editorial writer in my hometown newspaper, a job that brought me in contact with so many people who cared intensely about their community, and were willing to invest their time and toil to improve it.
The activists may have had different political beliefs and advocated different solutions, but they shared a commitment to bettering their neighborhood, city, county, state or nation.
Even most political candidates who came before the Tribune’s Editorial Board seemed sincerely motivated, though there were exceptions. After all, running for office, risking personal attack and humiliating defeat, is a scary proposition, and all those willing to take on a challenge essential to democracy deserve respect, if not always support.
To be sure, I encountered my share of politically ambitious blowhards, often echoing partisan talking points. Sadly, through the years, the candidates that came before the board seemed to become more worried about lock-step partisanship than community problems.
Evidence of that group-think can be seen in Tallahassee, where some lawmakers who claim to be conservative advance policies that would rob local governments — those closest to voters — of authority.
Still, my years at The Tampa Tribune dealing with so many civic-minded people give me confidence that whatever stray paths our elected leaders may take us, citizens have a way of eventually correcting course.
And that is because of people like the Potters, who are willing to work furiously on the local level to make life better for the living.
Joe Guidry is the former Opinion editor of The Tampa Tribune.