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Sorrow and Community
August 3, 2010 - 9:00pm

When tragedy hits a close-knit community like Alma, Michigan, we all feel it. Two weeks ago, it hit hard.

I was in a meeting at city hall when the call came in. A plane flying out of our local airport had gone down over Lake Michigan.

In the hours that followed, the news trickled in: a mercy flight for our school superintendent who has been battling cancer departed Alma en route to the Mayo Clinic. A Chicago boater in the area pulled one man out alive. Two more were said to be in the water, with eight-foot swells. Two were unaccounted for.

Before an hour passed, the entire town had stopped to news, plan prayer vigils, hope against hope.

We lost four leaders of this community. They were known to everyone in this town by name and to most personally. We're thankful that the co-pilot and owner of the plane was saved.

I'd been here just a month and knew two of them. I'd been to the 70th birthday party of one, the husband of a colleague.

It's that kind of town: everyone's close.

Their stories couldn't be more different: the medical doctor who, in retirement, still drove patients to the hospital; the superintendent of our schools who rallied public opinion in favor of a bond for a new school; his wife, an artisan and landscaper known to all; a contractor and former policeman with a passion for flying and for helping the ill.

What they had in common was their leadership of this community of 10,000 and the long lists of contributions they have made to our community.

Across this small town, trees are decked with ribbon.

Hundreds turned out for the first funeral, held at our campus chapel. Our facilities staff worked overtime to make the campus glorious, even finding a way to bring air-conditioning to our chapel for the first time in its history, a blessing on a hot July day. A local funeral director worked tirelessly to ensure that every detail was right. Police lined the sidewalks, but their role was ceremonial: the journalists covering the event mourned even as they reported.

These sad days have reminded me that colleges have always been places for convocations of the broader community, and that a college serves the broader community in good times and in bad.

So new in my work as president, this terrible loss helps me to see that the most important work I will do for the long-term benefit of the college will be working to help this community thrive, in the face of all the familiar challenges of small towns across this Middle West of ours.

In doing so I'll try to model the kind of leadership of these five heroes, leadership rooted in service to others and caring for the larger community.

As the pastor said in his eulogy, we have the opportunity to honor them in serving as builders of this community as they each did.

Together, we replied, "amen."


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