Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Transitions: Three Great Men

We come today to praise great men – three, to be precise.

Two of them, Tiffany Bingham and Vasco Smith, died earlier this week. The third, Jeff Nesin, announced last week that he would step down as president of Memphis College of Art at the end of the year.

Mr. Nesin – like many of his generation – feels the pull of responsibility for his aged parents, and because of it, he will be returning to New York. While we write often about the economic impact of 25-34 year-old talent, Mr. Nesin reminds us that talent isn’t confined to any single demographic group.

In November of last year, we received an email that asked what we would do to set a “creativity movement” in motion in Memphis. Our answer came quickly: “Appoint Jeff Nesin the Memphis czar of creativity.”

Artful Leadership

That’s because we don’t know anyone who more fully understands the importance of creatives, the culture of creativity and the creative economy than the gifted president of the Memphis College of Art; however, we also know that Mr. Nesin would immediately demur, suggesting that the movement would be best led by the people it seeks to serve – the creative members of our city themselves.

That’s what we’ve always admired the most about Mr. Nesin. He modulated his lively intellect with an accessible personality that inspired the people around him and most of all the students who chose to attend one of Memphis’ most underappreciated distinctive assets – the College of Art.

It’s hard to find another city of our size that has its own College of Art, and over the years, it has been a reliable source of artistic talent and creative expression. Under Mr. Nesin’s leadership, its impact was magnified as he doubled its enrollment, increased its financial and civic support and added more and more scholarships to open up new options for hosts of young people.

After 19 years with him at the helm of the College of Art, it is difficult to imagine Memphis without him. He was a ready source of fresh thinking and new ideas, but at his heart, he was an urbanist, and his ability to blend arts and culture into his understanding of cities will be missed by all of us.

Tif Bingham

Tif Bingham, one of the young Turks who brought Memphis out of its post-MLK assassination decline, died this week. Little more than 30 years ago, as Memphis seemingly spiraled out of control, a handful of well-educated, visionary entrepreneurs decided to apply their skills to civic affairs, and because of it, that period was a seminal moment in our city’s history.

Chief among them was Mr. Bingham, and because of him, Memphis in May was born and the Memphis Jobs Conference took place. He was a founder of the former - which broke down racial walls and opened up Memphis to the world - and he was chairman of the latter – which set the agenda for Memphis for roughly 15 years.

When we talk today about the kind of talent and leadership that Memphis needs to improve its trajectory, Mr. Bingham is the perfect model for it. Born into a general life of privilege, he felt the pain of the poor and fought for fair play and harmony.

When he brought these same sensibilities and uncommon honesty to the Memphis Chamber of Commerce as its president from 1979 to 1984, he made for a very different kind of Chamber executive. He wasn’t prone to kneejerk cheerleading although he was an unyielding supporter of his adopted hometown since 1960. He wasn’t given to the happy talk that’s prevalent in these jobs but he was given to the civility and consensus that welcomed everyone intoi important civic conversations.

Role Model

At a time when Memphis was desperate for some positive publicity, a number of city leaders – both public and private – went after the Miss Teen USA pageant for Memphis. They got it, but in the end, it came and it went, leaving few ripples in the water here and even fewer across the country. At a time when Memphis needed desperately to send a message about a city serious about coming together and producing change, he was honest enough to stand in front of the stampede chasing the beauty pageant, saying that it was not the best use of scarce marketing dollars.

In the aftermath of the crowning of Miss Teen USA, it was inarguable that he was right. It was the kind of resistance to groupthink and to jumping on the bandwagon of the latest, greatest big idea that made him so special and made him a role model for those of us who strive to remain true to our convictions while pushing for progress.

But in truth, we remember him as a role model in courage in a different battle altogether. After leaving the Chamber of Commerce, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, an unforgiving degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that often impairs motor skills, speech and other functions. Although speech often came with increasing difficulty, it nevertheless was always laced with kindness and concern for the other person.

While he was widely traveled – a genetic disposition inherited from the grandfather, the noted National Geographic explorer who discovered Machu Picchu and U.S. Senator Hiram Bingham – there was no place more special for him than his house on the rocky beach at Tenants Harbor, Maine. With lobster pots down the road, rhubarb pies sold at a house at the corner, with Andrew Wyeth scenery nearby along with the artist himself, there was a lilt that came to his voice when he talked about this special corner of the world.

We extend our sympathies to his wife Sandy and to his family for the loss of a gracious friend and gentleman.

Vasco Smith

Vasco Smith was many things – a lion of the civil rights movement, a dentist, a politician and a jazz aficionado who had few peers. More to the point, he was a loyal friend and a fascinating conversationalist.

There was a time when he and his wife of 56 years, Maxine, were anathema to a large segment of white Memphians struggling mightily to hang on to a world of segregation and deprivation for African-Americans. They were vilified, they were ridiculed in the media and they were threatened with murder.

And yet, he never wavered, and as he and Mrs. Smith relied on each other for strength in the face of such hatred, their already strong bonds grew even stronger. They were inseparable and singularly dedicated to each other, and we know that today it is difficult for her to imagine a world without her life companion.

We were fortunate to call Mr. Smith a dear friend, and despite what many people thought, he was a friend to the city that he so dearly loved. Judging from some of the comments posted to his obituary in The Commercial Appeal, racism is alive and well in Memphis, and our only regret that it outlived Mr. Smith himself. That said, at least today, its comments come under monikers that hide identities because today, as a result of Mr. Smith’s legacy, these kinds of people hide in the shadows where they hurl their racist comments anonymously.

The Movement

Mr. Smith could be a firebrand, but it was always rhetoric with a reason. Once he was able to move from outside government calling for equality to an elected official of government itself, he was often able to deliver his blistering indictment of a white-dominated county legislative body with a wink. Once, after increasing his decibel level and his emotional delivery, he turned in his chair, winking and saying, “I bet that gets things moving.”

And, as usual, it did, because although he was inside government, he was still doing what he had always done: speaking truth to power (or the power structure). As he once explained it, if the civil rights movement had taught him anything, it was that often the rhetoric had to be overblown. “If I want to move these folks to the middle, that means I have to move way over there so that when they compromise with me, they end up where I wanted them in the first place,” he said.

Some memorable days were created any time we could with libation in hand, spend a few hours listening to Mr. Smith playing jazz records at his house. He was a veritable encyclopedia of jazz and his record collection was without peer in Memphis. And so was he.

In a world desperately in need of role models, here are three of our favorites – Mr. Smith, Mr. Bingham and Mr. Nesin.

Note: We’d like to make the modest suggestion to our daily newspaper that comments should not be allowed on some articles. What possible comfort could Mr. Smith’s family find from reading his obituary online and coming face-to-face with some all too familiar hateful comments? These coarse voices are becoming all too familiar on The Commercial Appeal website on articles of all kinds where some intellectual illiterates drag race into everything.


Anonymous said...

The title of your post should be "Transitions: Two Great Men and Vasco Smith"

Smart City Consulting said...


And clearly you don't have a clue about Vasco Smith and all that he did for the cause of civil rights.

Rather than take a shot at him, tell why you say such an unsubstantiated thing.

packrat said...

Yes, anon, tell us why you have a low opinion of Vasco Smith. really, go ahead, please. we're waiting...

Anonymous said...

another anon:

Vasco and his wife did great things for my family. Without their singleminded drive to forcibly desegregate the city schools, with the able assistance of a yankee judge and a recently certifible attorney-My folks would have stayed inside memphis, instead of fleeing along with 42,000 other families in the 70's-80's to the suburbs. Where we found a larger house, peace of mind
no car inspections and a great job for me.

I know how much maxine must miss him, and hope fervently they are reunited soon.

B. Burch said...

Amazing how hateful and ignorant people can be when they don't have to attach their names to their comments.

packrat said...

yes, blame vasco for that...if the city powers at the time had actually been sincere about having an integrated school system, they wouldn't have had to do what they did. Gosh, if those gosh-darned blacks hadn't insisted upon thier civil rights, we could still have and forever....coward.

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