Saturday, January 10, 2004

Public service announcement

You look at government these days and you have to wonder who in their right mind would want to wade into that cesspool of corruption. Some would argue that it wasn't always that way, and I suspect they're right. I grew up in a D.C. suburb in the 1960s and 70s. Many of my friends' parents were mid-level federal officials. There was a lot of wheeling and dealing (some of which caught up with them later) but even many of the wheeler-dealers were operating on the belief that the means justifies the end. I think in particular of the late Senator Vance Hartke of Indiana, who took enormous political and personal risks to get civil rights legislation enacted and who early on opposed the Vietnam War.

In the early 1990s I worked on contract for United Way of King County, organizing workplace fundraising campaigns and training volunteer campaign coordinators. As the manager of the state employees' campaign in King County, I reported to the (then) United Way Executive Director, Dick Thompson. A huge national scandal (National President William Aramony was fired in March, 1992, and convicted in 1995 of conspiracy to defraud, mail fraud, wire fraud, transportation of fraudulently acquired property, engaging in monetary transactions in unlawful activity, filing false tax returns and aiding in the filing of false tax returns) had cast a shadow over regional United Ways. Thompson, who had spent much of his career in Washington state government, came to the King County organization at a time when it was trying to distance itself from Aramony. He was a superb choice: a public sector veteran long on patience, strategy and diplomacy, and short on glitz. I remember Thompson greeting incoming staff and volunteers with a couple of stories: One was about his recent month-long volunteer stint in the crumbling capitol city of a country that was trying to establish a central government in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union; the other was about his appointment as an adjunct professor at a college in Washington state. He told how his young daughter had gone off to look up "adjunct" in the dictionary and reported back that it meant he was "not required."

Working for Thompson was a delight and a pleasure. He never ducked questions, even if the answer he gave you wasn't the one you wanted to hear.

Today I opened the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to see that
Thompson has been appointed the interim Athletic Director
at the University of Washingon,where coaches, team physicians and, now, longtime Athletic Director Barbara Hedges, have sidled out the door as part of a seemingly endless housecleaning. UW has picked the right guy for the job if they want things fixed quietly but effectively. Thompson's not the sort who gets his picture on the front page in an expensive suit (even the announcement of his appointment was on page C3), but that's just as well. As British author Terry Pratchett observed,"The people who run organizations are usually found several levels down, where it is still possible to get things done."

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