On Saturday, May 18 we held our Spring 2019 Gala at Hubbard Hall. For the past four years we’ve honored an individual at each Gala with the Making Art and Community Happen Award, as a way of featuring someone who exemplifies Hubbard Hall’s mission in their own life and work. This year the honoree was WAMC’s Joe Donahue.
We chose Joe this year because of all the amazing work he does throughout our region to help and highlight the community – and the arts in our community specifically. Before this process, I knew Joe Donahue was an accomplished broadcaster, host of WAMC’s Roundtable and The Book Show, with over 30 years of experience, having interviewed almost everyone of note, from the past seven presidents to the Dalai Lama and Maya Angelou. I also knew that Joe is very driven, reading hundreds of books each year and conducting smart, insightful interviews each and every week on air. He represents the Capital Region very well, giving national authors and politicos the sense that this region is smart and socially active.
What I didn’t know was how deeply Joe approaches his work and life with a sense of purpose and service – and where that sense of mission comes from. Or that he and I share this sense of purpose in our lives as well as a deep admiration for two people – Rev. Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood) and David Letterman. I learned that early in college Joe reached out to Fred Rogers and began a conversation and friendship. Rev. Rogers started to mentor Joe in 1988, and they remained dear friends until Rev. Rogers’ death in 2003. According to his wife Kelly, Joe learned about the importance of community – the neighborhood, if you will –from Fred. Joe realized the importance of listening carefully and shining a spotlight on those in the community who were doing great work and making sure people knew about what they were up to. Kelly also said that Joe also developed his gentle, non-confrontational style from Fred, who was insistent that media be used for good and for spotlighting the arts and artists – as Mr. Rogers did in the infancy of Public Broadcasting.
During his acceptance speech at the Gala, Joe shared that his biggest influence in his life was – and is – his mother. As a librarian she inspired Joe’s love of books, even carting him around as an infant in the bookmobile she ran. As someone devoted to education and service, she inspired Joe’s core drive to serve others. As the child of parents with a deep sense of mission as well (one a UM Minister and the other a teacher and social worker), I share Joe’s sense of mission and purpose in life.
Joe also spoke of the negative times we’re living in – and our tendency to attack each other – to find fault in our neighbors, colleagues and opponents and to always highlight the negative. But Joe learned from author Alex Haley, from his mother, from Mr. Rogers, to “Find the good – and praise it.” These wise words remind us that there’s another way – a way to see problems or oppositions – and to forgive them, before we speak. To realize that people mean well, they do good work, that we are all struggling with our own problems that may be unseen and unknown by others – and that we all will be much better off if we stop picking on each other’s foibles and instead pick out each other’s strengths – and praise them. If we can start conversations on the basis that we respect each other and see how much we have in common – and see the good that each of us does – and praise that – we will build a better world for all of us. And if we focus on the good in others – and praise it – we probably will more easily and actively see the good in ourselves and be able to share that with the world more often – to offer up our own service, our sense of purpose, our mission to the world. Joe Donahue has touched so many lives by finding the good and praising it – and he’s made a successful career out of it. If we can follow even a portion of his example, we’ll make the world and our own lives, even better. I welcome you – urge you – to begin this practice today, even in your own backyards. Find the good – and praise it.
This post was originally published as an arts column by the author in The Eagle.