Leading a Horse to Water



As Foreign Policy Chairman of the Williamstown League of Women Voters, I took a good look at the League members in the attractive room at the new Adams Memorial Theatre. They had no need of forums. They wouldn’t be members of the League if they weren’t already politicallyminded and already more intelligent on the subject of foreign policy than the average. It was more important to reach the rest of Williamstown, not just the few conscientious enough to join the League of Women Voters. But how?

The idea of the Community Forum began to stir in my eager mind — and nearly passed out from cold water before it could take concrete shape. “You can never put it over in Williamstown, never!” people said. What were my poor enthusiasm and faith of eleven years’ residence against the practically unanimous judgment of citizens who had all but fought the Indians?

A Community Forum does not mean a list of imported speakers paid for out of a fat budget, a few staid meetings a year on the Important Things of Life, an average of three polite questions from the polite and well-groomed audience, and an “Interesting, wasn’t it?” on the way out. A Community Forum means something approaching the old town meeting idea, a getting together of a crosssection of the town, rich, poor, young, old, black, white, men and women, brains and brawn, business and professions, to discuss informally the national and international problems facing us all — and to keep our elected officials aware of our concern. From the start it must have the backing and encouragement of all elements of the community, and not be any one-man show.

I first sounded out the potential response to the forum idea by using one of my columns appearing in the North Adams Transcript to ask how many would be interested in such an undertaking. I’d show the scoffers! A handsome pile of letters would prove how unwarranted was their cynicism.

I got two postcards in reply — one from an elderly woman in Williamstown, one from a woman in North Adams. Never before have I let a soul know those statistics. I merely referred to the “immediate response” to my column. And it was immediate — the two cards appeared the very next day. A short time later, I got a letter from Dr. Leonard of the local Lions, expressing his personal interest in that column and asking if I would speak at the next Lions’ meeting on the subject of interesting the community in lasting peace. That letter and invitation crystallized my somewhat wavering faith in the forum idea. So the “response” to my column actually did start the Williamstown forum — via Dr. Leonard and Lions — after all.

Representatives of most of the organizations and all the churches in town were asked to an organization meeting at the Williams Inn. A goodly percentage of them came. They were helpful and interested, but doubtful about results. From my dreams of surging hundreds I came down, finally, to a possible twenty. If only twenty saw fit to turn out for a discussion of the pressing issues our country faced, I should be grateful, and we would meet in the Red Cross room on Spring Street.

At this point I wish to stress one of the truest bits of practical advice I know about meetings — and if more high-minded and hard-working souls would take it to heart, the history of appealing to the public, in behalf of whatever cause, might tell a different story. Certainly the morale of speakers and audiences would be immeasurably higher.

My father was a politician in the best definition of the word. He held that there was one criterion above all others by which the success of a meeting could be valued: you must always have to bring in extra chairs. Twelve persons in a room prepared for ten can appear more effective than four hundred straggling into an auditorium capable of holding a thousand. Speaker and audience gaze about with a feeling of sympathy for those who worked hard and faithfully to make the gathering a success — and failed. Evidently there just isn’t enough popular interest in the Cause.

“Don’t risk the success of a Williamstown discussion group by a smattering of persons in a room far too large,” I told myself. “If twenty come, they will nicely fill the lied Cross room. If more than twenty out of over two thousand voting citizens turn up, then we’ll crowd the room and everyone there will report that our initial response was beyond all hopes!”

It became clear before the first meeting that quarters bigger than the Red Cross room would be necessary. The superintendent of schools urged us to have the meetings in the high school auditorium. The very thought was terrifying. I saw my father; I saw those empty seats. So the arrangement was that the very cooperative principal of the high school would have a small classroom lighted and ready. If it looked as if only enough to fill a classroom were coming, then we would act as if we never intended to use anything else.

For seven summer Monday evenings we collected in the auditorium. The first meeting we comfortably filled the hall. The second meeting we brought in extra seats. The third we used all available extra seats, filled the aisles, and had them standing. The fourth meeting we were lucky in combining the Democratic Senator and Republican Congressman, who were touring these parts for the Ball, Burton, Hatch, Hill Resolution — which was the very topic we had down for that week’s meeting. The crowd was large enough to warrant using Chapin Hall on the college campus.

Alas that the steady and responsive increase can’t be reported as holding to the end. It seems to be the story of many such gatherings in many parts of the land. Public interest can hold out for four or five meetings. Beyond that, no matter what the subjects and their importance, attendance drops.

Overhopeful, we held on for those seven scheduled discussions and listened to our own townspeople for the most part. They talked on why the United States was forced to fight two wars in twenty-five years, and explained some of the better-known peace plans, lay and church and governmental. Two meetings were devoted to the attitudes of the two major political parties toward international cooperation; at another we discussed how our labor and race problems would influence our international position. And each meeting brought more urgent pleas that we make the more or less formal talks shorter, allowing more time for questions.

“ If you can make a success of the forum idea in Williamstown, you can get one going anywhere!” That was the comment of many a previous scoffer, especially those mindful of the town-and-gown cleavage in our community.

Perhaps you can, if you are prepared to run the whole thing without much help, because nobody considers the chances of success strong enough to justify expending the necessary time and energy. Perhaps so if you dog the footsteps of every influential citizen who dares to show his face in public, scatter leaflets by hand which nobody has a desire to read, turn a deaf ear to all gloom-spreaders, tramp miles in the heat of summer or chills of winter to ring doorbells of persons who don’t want to answer and sometimes don’t answer. Perhaps so if you hound possible speakers, who invariably say “Horrors, no!” at first, and possible moderators (“But I never did anything like that in my life”), and the local reporter (and did the paper come through handsomely with publicity!). By the end of the forum season will you have a friend left in the town? No.

“Our Town Can Help Win the Peace!” those Williamstown leaflets read. “We are more important than the President, than Congress. Without us a peace of small value, a temporary peace like the last, can be put over on the count ry. Without us the. best peace won’t hold. ... If not enough of us care what role t he United States plays in the postwar world, it can be a peace of party politics, of shortsighted narrowness damaging to our own national welfare and the whole world’s good. . . . Let the towns of this land say, ‘We citizens of a democracy are the power to make a lasting peace and a better America, a better world—and we’ll get it.’ ... A captain wrote from North Africa to a United States Senator, ‘There is a need, a great thunderous, bloodstained need, for the people to generate the energy it takes in a preoccupied democracy to get things done. And only the -people can do it. Congress alone never will. If I were there, knowing even the little I do, I would devote every hour of every long day to winning this greatest of all victories — the Victory of the Peace.’ . . . Will you give one hour a week?”


WHEN the Williamstown experiment survived, the Forum Committee of the Joint Council for International Coöperation in Boston got the notion that I might take over the state, as it were. Their theory was that the localities most in need of forums and most receptive to the idea would be those of between 5000 and 20,000 population.

We had not then learned that the more need, the less receptivity. Mind, in every town I visited, there were activity and ability when it came to Red Cross drives, war bond drives, community chest drives. Women in uniform drove around corners on two wheels, other women in other uniforms rolled bandages, plain-clothes women collected fats. What was lacking was the slightest realization that there will be the whole thing to do over — and it will be far worse — unless we bestir ourselves about the present and future at home and abroad.

The discouraging reactions to the idea of a Community Forum ranged from honest acceptance by enthusiasts who had “no time,” to the contentment of a superintendent of schools who held that “we’ve got a good Republican from this district in the State House in Boston and a good Republican from this district in Congress and I guess we can pretty well leave things in their hands,” to the cynicism of the leading citizen of one community, — by “leading” I mean head of more committees than anyone else,—who asked, “What’s the sense of talking about peace and the post-war world? Soon as this war is over, we’ve got to get busy and fight Russia.”

The original plan had been to interest first the clergymen of the various denominations. In almost every town I visited I talked with ministers, old and young — and on the whole with disconsolate results. In one town of almost 7000 it soon became clear that there wasn’t one minister worth seeing in the whole town. The members of the dwindling churches said so, the editor of the local paper said so, the school people said so. Shades of Governor Winthrop!

In one town I was calling on the president of the Catholic Women’s Club. She was all for the forum idea and eager to bring it up before her club. “Of course, you’d first have to get the approval of Father-. If he’s willing, we can go ahead. If he doesn’t approve, the club can do nothing about it.”

Father-was a hard man to reach. The rectory was imposing, an impressive place in which to wait, and I waited. At last there was Father-. Dear, dear, what a breezy and easy person to meet! No Protestant ever had welcomed me with such fervor and interest in my well-being. And what brought me into his presence?

To obtain his blessing, I explained. Not on me, but on what I hoped to start in his town. Here was a man to draw inspired words. Never had I done oratorically better by the Community Forum idea.

Fatherheard me out. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll put the whole weight of the Catholic Church in this community behind you if you’ll promise me one thing.”

(Only ask me, holy Father. What wouldn’t I promise for the Cause?)

“Will you promise that at the first meeting of the Community Forum in this town you will get up and start the meeting with the statement, ‘Divorce is a crime’?”

“But Father-,” I gulped as soon as I could get my breath, “the object of the forums is to lead up to an interest in international issues and the international peace settlement.”

“Exactly!” continued the unruffled Father. “What’s the use of peace if you have nothing but a lot of broken families all over the land?”

“If the community decides it would like one forum meeting to discuss the subject of divorce,” I kept on weakly, longing not to forfeit the support of the most influential man in the large Catholic population of the town, “one side most certainly could make such a statement. But to start the entire forum series with that announcement —”

“Either that or you get no support from me!”

In contrast to a certain amount of Christian apathy, in no town visited did I receive anything but enthusiastic coöperation from the Jewish element in the community. Every rabbi was a joy to talk to; every Jew, male or female, backed the forum idea.


THE first morning in Taunton, I tried phoning to make an appointment with the president of a women’s club. She was busy; no, she couldn’t spare even five minutes. Perhaps if I wrote what I wanted to see her about she might take it up with “her board” — it didn’t sound as if it were anything the club would be interested in. (Ah me, the difference between the time when you want the president of a club to listen to a new idea and when one of them, orchid-bedecked, welcomes you to the platform “to honor us this afternoon with an Important Message” — check to follow.)

That conversation left me sputtering. I vowed I’d never again try to remake the world over the phone. In that frame of mind I turned my outraged back on the other female names on my list and made for the president of the local Lions.

The president was in his shopwindow arranging jewelry. “What do you want?” demanded the vexed man. “I’m very busy and can give you no time.”

Then and there I made up my mind that not one more person was to be allowed to treat International Cooperation with disdain. “How dare you talk to me like that!” I heard myself blurt out, and me an Alice Ben Bolt. “Get that glare off your face and come down out of that window at once! ” And down he came, chastened in mind and spirit.

From that moment, the president of the Lions was one of the most helpful and cooperative souls in all Taunton. The impetus may have come from fright. So there was Mr. L-leaning on a glass showcase, phoning the program chairmen of Rotary and Kiwanis, urging me to speak at the next Lions meeting, thumbing through the phone book to ring up so-and-so “you ought to see.” In deep gratitude I spent a dollar in his shop not charged to my expense account.

Mr. Kof Kiwanis was friendly and cooperative, although his initial approach as I entered the office of the Water Department bespoke a certain wariness which might have been caused by some stored-up unhappy memory having to do with lady reformers. He thawed out handsomely and asked me to speak at the next Kiwanis meeting. It was impossible to spend a dollar on the Taunton Water Department.

Mr. Hof Rotary was more than agreeable to the idea of my speaking at their next meeting, but then he left town — and left me to the mercies of a fellow official, in the furniture business, whose suspicions of me and my cause left us both unhappy. What a forum would discuss and why and who would pay for it troubled him sorely.

I spoke before the Lions Club at a U-shaped table in a corner of a large ballroom. When I finished, a member immediately rose and moved that a committee immediately be appointed to coöperate with me to see that the Lions backed the Community Forum idea 100 per cent. A somewhat stouter member immediately rose to move that the Lions have nothing to do with any of it. “What’ll you get at meetings like Mrs. Parker here was talking about? A bunch of crackpots, that’s what. Nothing but crackpots. I move we drop the subject right here.” At that point I tactfully retired while the Lions fought out some fine point of parliamentary law and their own regulations.

I spoke before Kiwanis beside the famous indoor waterfall. Everybody stops at the Taunton Inn to eat beside the waterfall. What with the basement being too dim to see and the falls too loud to hear anything else, it ought to be the most popular spot in the state for shy women past forty. But for a woman yearning to get over an idea eloquently before a group of some fifty men, it was agony.


SUPPOSE you succeeded in spreading forum enthusiasm over an entire community, what was the good of it if no person or group in the town was walling to take the responsibility of getting a forum started and keeping it going? It wasn’t my business actually to start a forum. No community would relish a total stranger’s coming in for such a purpose, nor could I possibly take the time. From experience I knew that to launch a forum might take weeks on end. My job was to try to get a local group toget her, called by one citizen who was willing to take the lead or to have the group appoint a leader. Each community was to decide for itself what type of meetings it would hold, and how often and where, according to local sentiment and conditions. The Forum Committee of the Joint Council for International Coöperation stood ready to supply suggestions, and speakers if they were desired.

Going to have a baby . . . just had a baby . . . war orders . . . Red Cross . . . nurse’s aide . . . sick father-in-law . . . new men’s club in the church . . . leaving for Washington . . . Boy Scouts . . . or just a general “I’m not the person to run a thing like that.”

And how often the weary words, “You just never could get any group like that together in this town — nobody would come.” Indeed you could tell that even the worthy citizens who so fervently asserted, “A forum would be the best thing in the world for this town!” wouldn’t attend the meetings. Yet only once did we come across a person openly dead-set against the whole forum business. An American Legion florist informed me (by what malice I was directed to him both he and I were at a loss to make out) that he was hostile to the idea of forums, had no use for them, wouldn’t go near one if it was right next door. There.

I had arrived in my first town well-heeled with letters of introduction. What good did they do? I pleaded to be allowed to descend upon a community in my own sweet way — since at least, if I had no concrete results to show for my visit, I could get. a good bit of fun and adventure out of the experience. And so the technique came to be that I get off a train or bus in a strange town, not knowing north or south, god-fearing or delinquent. I walked along the main street until I spied a person carrying a book, or preferably books. Of him or her I asked (1) where the library was and the name of the librarian; (2) where I could find the editor of the town newspaper (weekly as a rule in the sized towns I visited); (3) where the office of the superintendent of schools was.

According to (1) hunch or (2) weather and nearness to where my feet then stood, I made a determined march to one of those headquarters and asked with the assurance of a Fuller Brush Man for the librarian, editor, or school superintendent by name. My air became so masterfully confident that no one would dream of shoving me aside. Once or twice I found the school superintendent decrepit physically or functioning mentally in the Chester Alan Arthur era. If both librarian and editor said, “Don’t bother with him,” I didn’t. If the librarian had gone too long underfed and had become musty (don’t inquire as to her salary voted by the town fathers and lived on forty years or you’ll begin to cry), I didn’t bother her either.

Of all the human beings I talked with on my mission to Massachusetts towns, I treasure the memory of small-town editors among the highest. What an editor doesn’t know about his community and its leading citizens isn’t worth knowing. And most of them are just plain fun to talk with. They put their feet up on a desk, draw on an unresponsive pipe, and appear gayly willing to visit forever. When you tear yourself away, you have the lowdown on that town. I have never found an editor wrong yet.

The one editor I called on who was totally unenthusiastic over forums and glared at me stonily was Charlie, brother of Joe in Congress. Nobody in the town calls him anything but Charlie. He looked like a small, disheveled Heywood Broun — with all comparisons stopping there. His face was expressionless, indifferent. He didn’t rise when I entered or ask me to be seated. I stood. His comment on my less than eloquent plea for interest and support for a Community Forum (it’s hard to be eloquent in the presence of a bored stare) was: “You can’t start a forum in this town. You got to have some intellectuals to start a forum and there aren’t any intellectuals in this town. Besides,” he added defiantly, “the people of this town aren’t interested in peace and such. They’re interested in war. They’ve got no time to talk about peace.” So much for the heartfelt backing of the Evening Chronicle.


NOBODY else anywhere was like Miss — shall I call her Miss New England? She was the embodiment of the country’s idea of a typical New England spinster in hair, dress, house, manner. Everyone in that particular town kept telling me, “You must see Miss New England! If you can get her on your side your cause is won.”

But Miss N. E., running the town as she did, was difficult to catch. Finally, when the bell echoed in the tidy Victorian cottage, the door was opened by a woman who seemed six feet tall and about fifty years of age, and who glared. She continued to glare as I stood on the porch reporting weakly on how everyone told me she was the one person l must see and interest in what brought me to her town. Her expression said plainly, “Baby, don’t try to put over any of your flip on me.” Resignedly she sighed, “Well, come in.”

Hardly had I begun to tell her about the Community Forum idea than she asked sternly, “Who did you say sent you here?”

I again mentioned the Joint Council for International Cooperation. “The name means nothing to me. Who are they?”

I tried desperately to recall the names down the letter paper: Association of University Women; Massachusetts League of Women Voters; League of Nations Association, Boston Branch; Boston Young Women’s Christian Association; American Defense, Harvard Group — a few of the thirty or so affiliated organizations. As I feebly neared the end, my memory grew vague and I trailed off with “and some of the labor groups.”

“You mean to say the unions sent, you here?”

“Oh, dear, no! There isn’t a union knows I’m here.”

“Then what sort of organization is this Jointwhatever if they do things without their membership’s knowing anything about it?”

I tried to placate her by explaining the organization of the Forum Committee within the Joint Council, and described the monthly reports on the formation of forums about the state.

“What’s the Forum Committee? Who is on it?”

I longed to tell her three anarchists, five trade unionists, six CIO’s, and the rest Communists speaking nothing but Russian. As it was, I mentioned some of the most worthy and high-minded of Bay State citizens grown gray in the cause of international organization toward lasting peace.

“Never heard of any of them” was all the good their names did me or their cause.

“What’s your connection with all this? I don’t understand.”

Painfully I explained that if my funds had allowed I’d be doing what I was doing with no help from anybody. As it was, the Forum Committee was paying my expenses, for which I was deeply grateful.

“If they’re paying your expenses, they must expect to be getting something out of it!”

“What they hope to get out of it is a forum!”

For one second that floored her. Then she burst out with “Will you tell me why in the world they sent you to this town to start a forum?”

At which point I looked her in the eye and laughed. “You’re asking me?” And bless my soul, she smiled.

She started giving me names of persons to see (after she had made it plain how she felt about Catholics and Jews — and Democrats). By the time I was in a stale to pick myself up and be off, she was actually friendly. “Mind now, ” she said at the door, “it isn’t that I have any doubts about you personally or your organization. But before I make up my mind to give my support to any cause I want to know all about it. You put down in writing all the information possible and I’ll be much obliged.” As a last fling she called after me, smiling again, “If you can succeed in this town, every other place you try will be child’s play!”

Later I ran into the minister who had specially urged me to see Miss N. E. “That’s herself all right!” he laughed. “But boy — if you can get her interested, she’ll work herself to the bone for you. She has brains, she has time, she has money — you’d better keep after her!”

But I don’t know. It seems to me forums will have to stand or fall without the blessing or backing of the Miss N. E.’s of the land. I’d say brains, time, and money were three very pleasant assets for anybody interested in any cause; but for forums to discuss all sides of all sorts of problems, a warm tolerance needs to be added. A little less of what goes by the name of New England, a little more gutter; a little less stern sense of duty, a little more “Hiya-Keed!”

I had some success. I breezed into Norwood and out again within an hour and a forum was started. More than a forum: Miss Phillips, one of those librarians to make you feel God will pick the angels at His right hand and at His left from among librarians, promised to get a weekly group going at the library, basing their discussions on the top books dealing with international coöperation.

She recommended that I see the superintendent of schools first, his name heading the list of likely citizens she generously furnished me. I had hardly begun to expand to Mr. Lynch on the role school boards and school superintendents are playing throughout the country in starting forums in their respective communities when he broke in with “I want to get a forum going in this town!”

It was always an adventure I looked forward to with high anticipation, that tracking down of ministers, teachers, club men and women, editors, crackpots, and the overstaid. I was a mite regretful to have to depart from Norwood with my two calls removing the need for further ones.

In Sharon, after approaching saint and sinner, dubious male and dubious female, the angels led me to a professor who wanted a forum — and if no one else could be found to take over the initial responsibility, he would. I found it hard to keep from hurling my arms around this strange man’s neck.

At long, long last, forums got started here and there in the unenthusiastic state of Massachusetts, and often as not the gloom-spreaders were right. Only a handful turned out. In numerous towns I visited, forums had been tried in the past, usually under the initial supervision of some intellectually eager minister of the gospel. They drew a pitifully small group - and expired.

Is it really that people don’t care enough, aren’t interested in the issues their nation faces? I think it is just that. The complexities of the nation and of the world discourage the average citizen from ever trying to understand them. Does education leave the majority indifferent? In part — but where are you going to find enough interested teachers aware of the responsibilities of citizenship?

The experience of trying to start forums has left me with the conviction that for many a community it is a misuse of time and a drain on spiritual vitality to aim for numbers. Our democracy functions through minorities, some infinitesimal, too many with selfish and subversive designs. If in each community in the land only five persons can be found willing to get together to become more intelligent, to increase their value as citizens, with the good of the nation and the world their goal, sooner or later the far corners of the earth will know the difference.