FOR months on end, the American people have been barraged mercilessly with grand, staged televised awards shows honoring celebrities. The cycle is particularly intense during the winter—as if they’re necessary to disperse the cold-weather doldrums of a demoralized public.
We have endured music awards aplenty, including the Grammys, Golden Globes and Golden Reels, SAG’s and now the Oscars.
So much self-congratulation. Celebrities are the closest thing to nobility in a land that constitutionally recognizes no such thing. Is there anything more we can do to validate them?
To be sure, there are many significant recognitions and prizes that celebrate true excellence and historically noteworthy achievements, such as the Nobel Prizes, MacArthur “Genius Grants,” Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards. But almost none of these are subjects of hours-long TV extravaganzas.
Indeed, winners of such accolades are so far removed from popular optics that the 2018 Nobel Laureate in Physics, Donna Strickland, was not deemed worthy of a Wikipedia listing prior to being honored as only the third woman ever to receive this prize.
Fortunately, Strickland did not need this validation to scale the heights of her profession and make huge contributions to humanity.
And so I began thinking that ordinary citizens also make contributions that may never be recognized.
In searching the internet, I came across an obscure listing: The Public Service Recognition Award given by the town of Dedham, Mass. The town “recognizes citizens who have performed outstanding acts of service to the community”.
The references to Dedham hit me like a sharp left hook! In my civilizations course, I used to teach about Dedham. Like 17th century towns in Virginia and elsewhere in the colonies, from its founding in 1636, Dedham prized community service as one of its ideals.
In class, I always mentioned one Eleazor Lusher, who gave generously of himself to his town throughout his life. As my textbook author, Ken Lockridge, elucidates: Eleazor traveled in the highest circles of local and colonial power. He could have been somebody, a quasi-celebrity of the times.
But he seemed content to receive only those local rewards for service common to his office. Unlike other men in other towns, he did not engage in trade and commerce or land speculation—though he had such opportunities.
Nowadays, Daniel Driscoll, the town moderator in Dedham, states that its public service honor is very popular in town. He reports that the most recent award went to an octogenarian who spent a lifetime volunteering in a myriad of activities.
So the tradition continues!
We need volunteerism today more than ever. Why just the other day, the Volunteer Ambulance Squad in my town disbanded for lack of ... volunteers.
From our smallest towns and hamlets, to the neighborhoods and precincts of our large cities, this nation would do well to imitate Dedham in the ways of honoring community service. Let there be a day of dedication and celebration to thank these individuals—the first responders, good Samaritans, unexpected heroes, and local citizens who are not celebrities, but who deserve notice.
Let the local press and community access TV, the local bloggers, hash-taggers, face-bookers, and tweeters feature these individuals who labor, far from the spotlight, for the greater good. Let a good light shine upon those folks who regenerate America through their selflessness.
Of course, there are calendar days set aside for community service recognition, and agencies and foundations that support and encourage volunteerism. These include April 20, 2020 Volunteer Recognition Day, National Volunteer Week (April 19–25), Martin Luther King Day and September 11.
There are also organizations such as Points of Light and Presidential Volunteer Service Awards that promote civic-minded service.
But Dedham’s example works best. Each town, neighborhood or district in the U.S. would select its own date for the ceremonies. Hence it would be a local affair, thus avoiding the crush and crowding associated with a single national day.
Perhaps the award could be christened the “Elly” after old Eleazor who, never a celebrity, is well and fondly remembered.