Givers Offer More Than the Gift of Gab

Published Friday, Dec. 13, 2007 in The Register-Guard.

Traditions take root quickly in a college town. They have to. Twenty thousand residents arrive each fall, expecting to stay only four years. A half-decade here is what they call a generation in most places. We’re all about short attention spans here.

So when something is repeated for a dozen years, it’s crossing three generations of Eugeneans. Imagine your grandparents wistfully recalling their youthful days of 1995. So it is with the City Club of Eugene’s annual Holiday Gifts program. This year’s version takes place today at noon. It’s open to all.

City Club’s mission is simple and powerful: “to build community vision through open inquiry.” Membership is open to all, as are their Friday Forums, which are always at noon and usually held in the Downtown Athletic Club ballroom. Reaching to the far corners of our community is something the group talks about incessantly. This week’s program is when they actually do it, in real time, before our wondering eyes.

Civic involvement in Eugene often resembles a sporting event. Who has the ball? Who’s ahead? Who is beginning to tire? How much time is left on the clock? Retired radio personality and sportscaster Wendy Ray called it “diversified consensus.” I’ve never heard anyone say it better.

But City Club’s Holiday Gifts program hearkens back to an earlier form of group participation: the pageant. A dozen or more citizens from all walks of life give their answer to a simple question: “If you could give any gift to our community during this holiday season, what would it be?”

Nearly 200 people have offered their answer over the years. Dan Williams, special assistant to the president at UO, noted it. “I feel a little like Zsa Zsa Gabor’s sixth husband on their wedding night. I can do what’s being asked of me; I’m just not sure I can make it interesting.” Williams suggested the perfect gift for Eugene would be large doses of Prozac added to the water supply.

ShelterCare’s Executive Director Susan Ban also wished Eugene could “lighten up,” but offered a non-pharmeceutical solution: a mid-life crisis. Because beyond the crisis comes a new sense of proportion, a willingness to let certain things go, a desire to enjoy the present moments for what they are more than what they could be.

George Russell, Superintendent for 4J Schools, also celebrated aging when he asked Eugene to accept bifocals — the better to see both the immediate issues facing the community and the long-range planning that must not be overlooked.

Retired journalist and author Alan Siporin also brought special glasses to give to the community. His made every gleam of light look like a Star of David. He wanted a majority Christian community to experience for a moment what the world looks like to somebody raised Jewish.

Quinn Wilhelmi Reilly, a 20Below writer and high schooler at the time, gave Eugene a simple apple, which he praised from the podium and then ate. Speaking with his mouth full, he reminded us all that community is not to be admired so much as experienced, especially if we ever hope to reach its core. Bits of apple had to be wiped off the podium.

These are the shortest days of the year, so First Congregational Church Associate Pastor Melanie Oomen offered Eugene the gift of darkness. Once we let go of the fear from not-seeing-not-knowing, there comes a humility, then a surrender and solitude, and finally a peace that comes not from knowing, but from not knowing — the “peace that passeth all understanding.”

Indeed.

Community is not easily understood, especially this one! Better to surrender, and then fully experience it.

What will this year’s pageant of gifters bring?

What do John Attig, Alan Beck, George Evano, Felicity Fahy, Alder Fuller, David Funk, Lorraine Kerwood, Scott Landfield, Ev Marcel, Tulku Jigme Thrinley Riponache, Betty Snowden, and Betty Taylor have in common? Probably nothing, save a love for this community and a generous spirit for the season.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) is a past president of the City Club of Eugene. City Club’s Friday Forums (noon, DAC) are open to all. Lunch is available; gallery seating is $3 for nonmembers. Details are available at www.cityclubofeugene.org.