Choice and Accountability

I  shut my eyes and still see him in a brown, double-breasted suit, complete with a fedora each time he went to town. But clad in his second skin, simple overalls, he graced the halls of the Syracuse Elementary School during the 50’s and early 60’s. He was Mr. Marlin, the custodian, every child’s best friend. He sneaked taffy made by the cooks to children on a regular basis. My favorite, however, was the very sharp cheese he commandeered from the walk-in cooler. The cooks jokingly shook their ladles in pretend anger. Every afternoon as class would end, he was sure to be in the hallway with his buffing machine, ready to position a youngster atop, “adding extra weight”, he said to help polish the hard wood floors. Rain or shine, those floors glowed. He, as much a fixture in that old school as were the chalkboards, adored us all.

Never reaching retirement, he struggled through those final years at the elementary school with a worn-out heart. In the spring of 1964 he quietly slipped away from the school and the children forever, just as they all would eventually be forced to abandon childhood. In his honor the boys and girls raised funds and planted an evergreen tree in remembrance of Mr. Marlin.

I shared Mr. Marlin. I call him Grandpa!

Motherless at 9 and orphaned at 17 he was nurtured by a spinster sister, Bessie, until his marriage at 20. During the 1920’s and throughout the Great Depression, Grandpa, a subsistence farmer, sought every odd job to support his family. Motorized transportation was a luxury in those days. During sugar season he walked daily to the sugar factory in Layton regardless of weather, leaving at 4:00 AM to arrive on time. He was never late.

He was a quiet man; some would say shy. I find comfort in that. I’m shy, too. He taught me to love horseradish! Lacking formal education, nevertheless he was a great tutor. Odysseus’ son Telemachus would call him Mentor.

Shortly before his death while digging in the soil together, I uncovered a very large night crawler. I reached down for the earthworm and placed it onto the spare tire of the pickup my father owned. Within a few minutes, that crawler had wriggled itself down into the tread of the tire, its body forced to conform to the zig-zag pattern of the tire’s tread. Standing next to me, Grandpa in a whispered tone asked me a simple question.

“Mike, do you think that crawler knows where he’s going?”

Not giving me any time for response, he chuckled; grinned and then quipped, “He doesn’t have much choice now, does he?”

In 18 words, Grandpa taught me the relationship between choice and accountability.

Many choices await us in life. Today, the City faces important choices. The path that we choose will have consequence. Both are possible: good and bad. We will be constrained to consequence, just as the crawler was.

Change is inevitable. In leading change, there is choice in change. Knowledge brings clarity and peace to decision making. The decision-makers that you have elected are thorough students. They are also good stewards. I invite you to become students of the issues we face as Syracuse City steps into the future by visiting with those that represent you.

When grandchildren return to our home, they always seek out Grandma first. How I long for the mentoring influence of Grandpa!  I’d have much to ask . . . and then listen carefully.

Michael Gailey,

Mayor of Syracuse City