Soundings : In praise of maniacs
As the end of another year approaches, some Island organizations turn their thoughts to annual awards and honors. The Permanent Endowment Fund has its Creative Living Award, and this year the Martha's Vineyard Museum bestowed its first Martha's Vineyard Medals. Creativity and leadership are wonderful qualities and well worth honoring, but if I were handing out prizes, I'd go straight for passion and create the Martha's Vineyard Maniac Award.
With a name like that, my award might not be something anyone aspires to, at least not at first - not until a few honorees are named and the nature of this special company becomes clear.
It's been my experience that the most successful organizations on the Island seem to be blessed with two things: a clear and easily expressed mission, and a few maniacs for whom their cause is the most important cause, bar none. In fact, for many nonprofits that dedicated core is reducible not just to a few maniacs, but to one.
Think of those individuals whose passion and compassion launched and built an Island organization. Think of Helen Lamb, whose sense that all children deserve vacations burned so deeply that she created Camp Jabberwocky out of little more than her own sheer will. Nobody deserves her nickname more richly than the woman they call Hellcat.
Think of Pamela Perry, whose unflagging outrage that her organization should be necessary in today's world was the fuel that powered the Island Food Pantry for many years. You could no more say no to Pam Perry than to Hellcat.
Think of Helen Maley and Milton Mazer, whose passion for service to children and people in distress founded the enterprise that today, nearly half a century later, is Martha's Vineyard Community Services. Would you have had the courage to stand in their way?
The arts on the Vineyard have also been enriched by the contributions of people whose talents and creativity have been outstripped only by their passion and willingness to work. We have The Yard in Chilmark thanks to the vision of Patricia Nanon, and the Martha's Vineyard Chamber Music Society thanks to the maniacal energy (and I mean that as a high compliment) of Delores Stevens.
In the fields of conservation and natural sciences, the Vineyard has been blessed with many maniacs. Any short list would have to include Gus Ben David of Felix Neck, Polly Hill of the eponymous arboretum and Henry Beetle Hough, who created the Sheriff's Meadow Foundation and gave us such wonders as Cedar Tree Neck and the Tuthill Preserve.
You can find maniacs not only at the center of important Island organizations, but also in the ranks of their supporters. Sam Feldman of Chilmark, who has aided many nonprofits and even helped launch several, admits that one of his motivations is a sense of anger at the way things are - and that few things irritate him more than paralysis by analysis and the timidity of committees. Sam told me this summer, "My motto always in life has been 'Ready, fire, aim!' You can refine a process as you go along, but if you have an idea that you think is valid, go for it. Get it started, and then modify it later."
I'd suggest to the people studying windmills and solar panels that they might do well to study the prime movers at the center of the Island's most successful nonprofit enterprises. These folks have tapped into a form of energy that is both renewable and inexhaustible. Its source seems to lie somewhere deep inside the human spirit.
The Island's best nonprofit organizations are inspirational because each one is led by people who have chosen a particular task and then do their work like they really mean it. Looking across the landscape of these enterprises, it's tempting to conclude that the defining question in life isn't which cause you choose, but, having made the choice, how maniacally you throw yourself at it.
One of the things I love best about this community is the way one person - one single, solitary person - can still make a difference. Margaret Mead said something famous once about how a few caring people can change the world, and the Island abounds with stories that confirm her aphorism. But I think the spirit of our Island maniacs is captured best by this favorite quote from William Cowper, who said:
"Existence is a strange bargain. Life owes us little; we owe it everything. The only true happiness comes from squandering ourselves for a purpose."u