In 1999 West Mt. Airy Neighbors (WMAN)celebrated its 40th anniversary. As part of that celebration, a committee led by Mark Hartsfield and Dick Cox honored forty people (or families) as West Mt. Airy’s Forty 40 Good Neighbors. Though new to the neighborhood, I was then the Vice President for Community Affairs of WMAN. I volunteered to write most of the short biographies though I had help from Lois Frischling, Mira Rabin, Laura Siena, Melanie Black-Sellers, Elizabeth Werthan, Betty Gottlieb and the people who took the time to nominate the people from whom the Forty Good Neighbors. I also wrote this introduction to them. Writing these pieces was great fun and introduced me to the community and so many people within it. Links to the individual biographies are below.
In the following pages you will meet our 40 Good Neighbors. These short biographies cannot do justice to the varied activities and intense commitments of these good men, women, and children. They attempt to give you a sense of the central concerns of the 40 Good Neighbors, as well as an outline of their major contributions to the community. While each biography tells you a little about a good neighbor, taken together they say much about a good neighborhood. A few themes recur in them.
It sometimes seems as if one can’t talk or write about Mt. Airy without diversity being the central topic. If we look at the background of these people, it is evident that they are a diverse lot. But what is especially striking about them is the diverse ways in which they have contributed to the community. Some have devoted their entire efforts to one central theme, say, education or the arts. Others have gone from one project in one area to another project in a very different field. Some have worked mostly by themselves, others have worked with a few friends and neighbors, still others have founded major organizations, and a few have led large groups of people. Some have created original programs in Mt. Airy. Others have looked beyond Mt. Airy and brought programs to us from elsewhere. Some take the lead in one project. Others stay busy helping three or four good causes at a time. Some of our good neighbors have helped a particular block, others a whole city. Religion has inspired some of our good neighbors and provided an organizational basis for their activities. Other good neighbors are utterly secular in outlook. Some of the good neighbors build on their business or professional interests. Others look to community participation as a change of pace from their work. Some of our good neighbors are dynamic fundraisers and wizards at organizational finance. Others find it very difficult to even talk about money. Some focus on kids, others on the elderly. Athletics are most important to some of them, the arts are most important to others. Some see their work as political in nature. Others have little or no interest in politics.
So one thing this diversity of the contributions made by our good neighbors reminds us is just why the racial, ethnic, sexual, religious, and economic diversity we usually talk about is so important. For, doesn’t integration, in the broadest sense, aim to lead us, in the words of Duke Ellington, to move “beyond category” and recognize people for their distinctive qualities and achievements? And isn’t a diversity in background characteristics most valuable to us precisely when it encourages those differences in personality, style, interest, and activity that make our community so vibrant? Though diverse, these 40 Good Neighbors are not here as representatives of this or that group. Rather, they are here because they have found distinctive and distinctly effective ways to make life better for those of us who live in Mt. Airy.
A second thing we can learn from these biographies is just how easy it is to be a good neighbor in Mt. Airy. This is not to disparage the achievements of our good neighbors. That they have worked extremely hard and made sacrifices for the community is without question. But, every one of the good neighbors has found joy in their contributions to the community. And everyone claims to have gotten more from the community than they have given. That their community involvement brought them fulfillment should not surprise us. Our good neighbors all seem to have found a niche in which they could express their unique talents and abilities. And, again and again, our good neighbors said it is relatively easy to take the lead in Mt. Airy because so many people here are ready to plunge in and help out. Many of our 40 Good Neighbors also said that followers here are not long content to be lead. Rather, they tend to develop their own ideas about where we should go. This is one source of the creative tension mentioned by more than one good neighbor. That tension so often leads to creativity in Mt. Airy (and not just to headaches) testifies to the broad and varied interests of people here, to our tolerance for differences, and to our energetic search for practical solutions to the difficulties we face. These features of Mt. Airy, too, are sustained by our diversity. And they make community involvement a source of pleasure rather than a burden.
So, as you look over these biographies, our hope is that you will be moved and inspired, not just by the splendid achievements of these good people, but by the kind of community they have done so much to create. They show us so many ways to be a good neighbor, so many opportunities to help ourselves while helping others. We honor them, and our community, by speaking and writing about them. But the highest honor we can give them, and the greatest service we can give our community is to emulate them in our own actions.