Monday, December 5, 2011

Building A Civil Society: Reflections On The Moral Legacy Of The First Lady Of Las Vegas, Helen Stewart

Helen Stewart is the kind of hero we need to keep in mind today.
She is a hero for women – pioneering the place of women as leaders
in the public square.
She is a classic Western hero – making a go of ranching for decades
in this hard land.

To me, she is most of all a hero as a builder of civil society,
a former of community.
The first great work of literature is the Epic of Gilgamesh from Ancient Sumer.
In it, young Gilgamesh is something of a super hero run amok.
Although he is the king, he does not care for his people.
He lives for himself.

His reckless youth comes to an end when he discovers that people are mortal.
So he sets out on a quest for the way to overcome mortality
or to live with enough gusto that his life can be worthwhile
even if it will end.
After many adventures, he realizes his quest is futile;
so he returns home to Uruk, the capital of his kingdom.

On his arrival, Gilgamesh looks up and sees the walls of Uruk.
At that moment, he finally realizes that authentic human life
is lived in a community, a civil society, a neighborhood of people
who are intentionally neighbors to each other.
He realizes his quest for his own individual well-being is futile
because our individual well-being cannot be split away
from the common good.
So he dedicates himself to the service of his people.

The myth about the Westerner is that we came here to escape civil society.
The truth is that Westerners began constructing civil society
from the time they got here.
The myth of ranchers is that they lived in their own fiefdoms
Ignoring -- or even riding roughshod over -- townspeople and others.
Helen Stewart is proof that is far from the case.

As a widowed rancher and mother, she had her hands full.
But she was determined to build a civil society in this Valley.

Aside for providing the land for the railroad,
she was a founder of Christ Church – a church which has never
been a haven of spiritual escapism but has always been
committed to the welfare of all of Las Vegas
– a church from which many charitable and civic organizations
have been born.
She was a founder of the Mesquite Club,
Nevada’s oldest women’s charitable organization.
As Postmaster, she worked to help us to exchange messages
essential to social and business life.
As a founder of the Society of Nevada Pioneers,
she worked to preserve our history
because a culture has to know its own story.
On the school board, she worked for the education of our children.
While she sold the land that became Las Vegas,
she donated the land that became the Paiute Colony.

The list of her accomplishments goes on.
But the point is simple:
she was dedicated to our common good.

We do well to honor her with this excellent statue.
But this statue should do more than remind us of a time
when people cared enough about each other
to do their civic duty.

Helen Stewart would want us to remember
that the task of building and sustaining a civil society in Las Vegas
is as challenging today as it was then.
The challenges are different, but just as great.
Our sense of community is wounded today.
The institutions Helen Stewart helped to build -- from the Postal Service
to the education system – are in trouble.
We see a reversal of her efforts
in the neglect of our schools and public institutions,
and in the neglect of needy people which the First Lady of Las Vegas
would never have countenanced.

But there are people today working on several fronts to continue
the good work Helen Stewart began in her day.
Communities in Schools works to restore our education system
so our children have hope for a better future.
Las Vegas Valley Interfaith unites our people across lines
of race and religion to work for the good of families.
3-Square combats hunger on our streets.
Not For Sale combats the sexual exploitation of children.
We might ask: if Helen Stewart were here today,
in which of these organizations would she be a leader?
The answer is clearly most of them, and maybe others.
She would be a leader in different groups so she could network them
together for the benefit of everyone.
I believe that is what she would hope we will do.

As we dedicate this statue to the memory and honor of Helen Stewart,
we rededicate ourselves to building a community of decent folks
who care for each other – neighbor to neighbor –
to make this city a home where all our people can prosper and thrive.