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Toasting Tomorrow

David T. Wilson, chairman of the board of directors of Meade County Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation, was hunting pheasant in southeastern Nebraska when he came upon a deserted homestead.

He decided to go in and look around.

What he discovered was a child’s crutch, only about 30 inches tall, held together by baling wire, a grim reminder of the foreshortening days of the 1930s—John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Dust Bowl years when moisture played doomsday hide and seek, and the Great Depression followed a decade of all that jazz of the 1920s.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, Tales of the Jazz Age, and The Great Gatsby smoked the looming shadows of the decade of reckoning. But who was listening?

October 1929: “Wall St. in chaos as stocks crash.”

January 1931: “4 to 5 million jobless; social danger seen.”

October 1931: “Facing the run on banks.”

Autumn 1935: At least half of Iowa’s farmers “are said to have lost their land to the twin forces of depression and drought…Tremendous clouds of dust obscured the sun as far east as the Appalachian Mountains,” (Chronicle of America).

Kentuckian David T. Wilson picked up the child’s crutch on that cold, late autumn day a half century later in Nebraska, and brought it back to Meade County where he hung it on the wall at his farm home as a reminder that “the best of times” sometimes do turn suddenly to the “worst of times.”

Is this any way to celebrate another new year? Shouldn’t we be toasting tomorrow? Thinking only the positive, ignoring the early signs of possible distress? Or should we better understand the meaning of Eleanor Porter’s 1913 novel, Pollyanna?

Perhaps we should turn to the fable of A Conversation with Peter P. Pence, the 100-year-old Kentuckian I created, a mountain man who didn’t go to college, didn’t drive a car, but was a millionaire. Peter, whose middle initial came from his mother and father, Prudence and Patience, had an 11th commandment, “Thou shalt not spend more than thou earneth.”

Peter P. Pence’s credo is as follows:

I have come to remind you of
our community, of our country,
of our brothers and our sisters
and our relationship to God.

I have come to remind you of
heritage, of self-worth, self-reliance,
dignity, and responsibility.

I say there is no lasting basis
for despair, cynicism, or loss of faith.

I submit there is a far greater
resource of human goodness,
spiritual and material wealth
in the United States of America
and throughout the world
than we would ever dare imagine.

I believe it begins with the penny.

As we begin the final year of another decade, is it not the better part of wisdom to conserve rather than to waste? The child’s crutch saved from a Midwest bowl of dust is a reminder of Wordsworth’s “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.”

The late J.K. Smith, first president of the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives, said it well: “This is not a farm situation anymore…cities are expanding …You’ve got to anticipate the future. You’ve got to be ahead of it. Start with people—it’s a people program.”

In a speech delivered at the Western Conference of Public Service Commissions meeting in Alaska, June 1, 1970, J.K. Smith, the rural electrification pioneer, who was born in Meade County, summed up the vision of Peter P. Pence and a child who left behind the crutch:

“…if we work together in mutual understanding for the common good, then we need have no doubts or fears of the future. As Franklin D. Roosevelt once stated, ‘The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith.’
“If we will move forward together, we can make this time of our greatest challenge, our time of greatest opportunity.”

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