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GRAVES: But for the grace of God

If you have read my column even occasionally over the years, you may have noticed that I have an inordinate fondness for adages, those wise, pithy saying that your parents or grandparents bored or tortured you with as a child. I won't say that my investigations into these are entirely productive but, like the time I spend studying urban myths, I can say that they do broaden my general cultural understanding and are, if nothing else, endlessly entertaining.

Of particular interest are the sources of, as well as the typical existence of corroborating and contradictory, adages. Thus, the maxim "There but for the grace of God go I" is often attributed to John Bradford, but probably incorrectly so. A corroborating adage is, "Count your blessings," and an at least partially conflicting adage is generally attributed to Thomas Jefferson (though it never appears in any of his extensive written works) who noted that "I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it."

As an aside, my interest is also piqued here by the fact that of the two similar adages, my father generally stated the former while my mother the latter. Is this a gender issue, or one related to their specific personalities or do I simply have way too much time on my hands?

Regardless, the real reason I focus on these adages is that I find them extremely useful. Whenever I am feeling a bit self-congratulatory about one truthfully small thing or another or, worse, judging another for their supposedly earned difficult life situation, it helps to think just how easy it would be for me to find myself in more perilous straits through no genuine fault of my own. Whenever I am feeling sorry for myself, nothing clears the rain clouds like reflecting on just how good I, like most Americans frankly, have it.

The same sort of compensating utility of these two adages can be applied to our home, Mitchell. It may be that I am a bit of a cynic or just someone who always seems, like Joe Btfsplk, the character from the Li'l Abner comic strip who always appeared with a small dark cloud directly over his head, to see the gloomier side of human nature, but frankly Mitchell seems to suffer from a fear of success. Our unemployment rate is lower than the approval ratings of the Ebola virus, commercial and housing construction as common as a teenager with a smartphone stuck to his ear, and population, if not skyrocketing, is at least moving noticeably upward. Wonderful things are afoot in Mitchell, but one would not necessarily draw that inference from any manifest signs of the joy or satisfaction that should accompany them. We always seem to greet the good things either with unimpressed expectancy or a sense that such supposed "goods" come at a high, often unstated or misunderstood, price.

But rather than deal only in glib generalities, perhaps a specific example might help: Dakota Wesleyan University. During my decade-and-a-half tenure as school district superintendent, DWU has increased its enrollment, transformed its campus, built a new and stunning library, completed a health sciences center, and generally bucked the depressing national trend away from small, liberal arts colleges. The professors and other employees it engages, the hundreds and hundreds of students it brings to our community, the cultural offerings it provides, the spiritual witness it holds aloft, the compelling vision it offers through its current president, and the highly trained citizenry/workforce it polishes have a positive impact on Mitchell that no economic statistic can hope to represent (though such statistics do exist and they are impressive).

Yet, it seems whenever they become or may become a player in the community for building an elementary school, erecting a library, or raising a wellness center, rather than greeting such community-spiritedness with exultation, we cluck our tongues and wonder just how this might benefit DWU to the detriment of others, as if everything in the world were a zero-sum game. Dozens of communities around South Dakota would involuntarily salivate at the prospect of a postsecondary institution coming to their community, but we tend to treat DWU with, at best, a tepid regard and, at worst, a suspicious stink-eye -- as if its presence among us was an inconvenience, a mild threat if not to our persons than to our pocketbooks, or the institutional equivalent of the distant relative who accompanies every visit with some unhappy request for assistance. Yet DWU rarely asks for anything resembling any of these and, in fact, typically provides enormous benefits to the Mitchell community with minuscule or no requests in return.

In truth, Dakota Wesleyan University is one of the foremost blessings Mitchell should be counting. And if you don't believe that, consider the communities in South Dakota which have lost postsecondary institutions in the last several decades. What would they give to bring their colleges back? Better, what wouldn't they give?

There but for the grace of God go we.