Excellence serves the betterment of community

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, September 1, 2004

The 2004 Athens Olympics celebrated once more the value of excellence in human endeavours. For many of the competitors – indeed for most, I hope – their striving after gold was not so much about self-aggrandizement as about bringing recognition to their event and honour to their nation. Their pursuit of excellence was less about themselves and more about others – excellence for the sake of community, achievement for the sake of making this a more beautiful world.

This value dominated my thoughts last week as I watched the Olympics on TV from the Victoria seaside guesthouse of Rocky and (now-retired Senator) Jean Forest, the distinguished couple who are especially responsible for instilling in me some years ago my profound appreciation of excellence for the sake of community.

Rocky, also retired, used to own and operate one of the most successful commercial construction companies in Alberta, building hospitals, hotels, schools, churches and industrial complexes. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, he quietly helped many charitable institutions with their various projects. (He's also a skilled woodcarver whose waterfowl grace the shelves and desks of many grateful recipients around the world.)

Jean, educator and businesswoman, is chancellor emeritus of the University of Alberta. Widely honoured for her work on behalf of human rights and social justice, she was named to the Order of Canada in 1987.

You might think that people of such prominence as this would be really stuck on themselves. But Rocky and Jean are anything but. I commented on this once to their daughter Leanne Forest, a coffee companion who frequently contributes to this column.

"It's all about my parents' philosophy of life," Leanne told me: "Do the very best you are capable of, and do it not out of selfish ambition, but for the sake of community."

While we're still on the topic of excellence in the service of community, I'd like to remind you about another of our coffee companions, a giant of a man who has the lean build and determination of an Olympic marathon runner, but has as his goal neither a gold medal nor applause from the grandstand.

This former Alberta provincial medical health officer is in a race of a different kind and for a higher prize – a race against time and despair to help restore quality of life for kids, parents and other ordinary folks who struggle to rebuild their lives and their communities in war-torn Iraq.

I've written about Dr. David Swann previously, and no doubt will write about him many times again. (The story of his spring trip to Iraq appears in my March 31 column.)

Here is a champion who has focused his competence and commitment for the sake of humanitarian outreach to others. David walks in the spirit of Rocky and Jean's philosophy.

Earlier this summer I ran some columns on the Burma-Shave signs that used to entertain travellers along American highways. I'm still receiving comments about them.

Cochrane coffee companion Robin Harvie even loaned me a compilation of all the Burma-Shave slogans that ever appeared. They're contained in Frank Rowsome, Jr.'s 1965 book, The Verse by the Side of the Road.

One slogan in particular suggested itself as a happy way to wrap up this week's column:

Every day
we do
our part
to make your face
a work of art

Well, here's my paraphrase of those lines as a tribute to Rocky, Jean and David – and as a challenge to the rest of us to follow their lead:

Every day
they do
their part
to make our world
a work of art

By the way, David will be sharing lessons he's learned in Iraq at a free public lecture 7:30 p.m., Sept. 10 at the Cochrane RancheHouse. We'll be gathering around the friendly fire in the Hall of Vision, where there'll be plenty of time for questions and discussion on an issue of great concern to all of us. Hope to see you there.

© 2004 Warren Harbeck

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