Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #034. First published in the St. Cloud Times May 25, 2010

My first Times Writers Group column, almost three years ago, highlighted two leaders, one in business and one in sports, who have contributed to the renewal of human community in our neighborhood.

Tom Schlough of Park Industries has set a high standard for respectful and generous treatment of employees. John Gagliardi, owner of the title “legendary,” is an extraordinary teacher of values as well as the winningest college football coach.

Last week’s news that District 15B Rep. Larry Haws will not seek re-election to the Minnesota House prompts reflection on one of the finest public servants — and most honorable human beings — I’ve known.

The basic narrative is familiar: math teacher, wrestling coach, city parks and recreation director, county commissioner, legislator.

There are countless “Larry stories,” about him and by him — and they are full of humor, warmth, faces and passion. Seldom do you meet someone who cares about others as much, and in as practical and productive a way, as Larry.

My favorite St. Cloud memory is of the day he declared his candidacy for the 2005 House special election. The 200 people gathered on the county courthouse steps were a portrait of diversity — races, ages, origins, styles of life — a microcosm of the entire community. We knew Larry, and trusted that he would represent us — all of us.

Shortly before Larry began his third legislative session, I sat down with him for a conversation. Last week’s announcement sent me back to my notes on what he said then. The energy in the voice, the twinkle in the eye — and, of course, the hat — leaped off the page.

For Larry, networking with the community is both the job and the fun: “People call me to discuss their problems, and if I didn’t enjoy it, they wouldn’t keep coming back.”

And he doesn’t discourage easily. The wrestler is deep in him: “I’m going to get up if I’m pinned down.” The depth of the polarization he found when he got to St. Paul surprised him, but the image he used to characterize it wasn’t that of trench warfare.

“It’s like a coin is sitting on its edge,” he said. “One says ‘heads,’ the other ‘tails,’ and still neither is seeing what the other sees. We’ll find common ground only if people come around and look from the other side.”

School funding is of course an issue of concern throughout the state, but Larry instructed his colleagues about the extra financial burden, especially in special education, on District 742 schools because we are a regional center.  Indeed, he argued that “regional” needs to be added to metro and suburb and exurb as a geographical and demographic marker.  “We need a No School District Left Behind law to complement No Child Left Behind,” he said.

A surprise in the conversation was Larry’s identification of transportation as the issue most misunderstood by citizens, but he made a persuasive case. “Vision is seeing what the problems will be five to 10 years out. We shouldn’t have to fall on the ice to stop from sliding. ‘Friday traffic’ will be on the other weekdays as well, and you won’t need vision to see the congestion — which robs dollars out of the cash register.”

There are many individuals and many groups grateful to Larry for championing their causes.

“What can I do to change the plight of veterans?” he asked. That he brilliantly answered his own question was confirmed when the Minnesota Veterans of Foreign Wars named him 2007 Legislator of the Year. “We gave him what to some may seem a small honor," said the VFW state commander, "but to us he gave the gift of hope and excitement.” 

“You can’t mandate spirit,” Larry said. “But you know when you’ve got it.”

And oh, how he’s got it! What Larry has done for the veterans he has done for you and for me — given the gift of hope and excitement. “I like to solve things,” he said, “and you get things done by building bridges, through relationships.”

Hats off to you, Larry! But please keep yours on.