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Remembering Martin Luther King

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By Roger Snodgrass

Los Alamos National Laboratory continued its tradition of outstanding diversity programs Tuesday with a talk by Julian Earls, former director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center.Communities across the United States will commemorate the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. this week and on the official holiday next Monday with talks by preachers, sociologists, politicians, distinguished African-Americans and former lieutenants of the visionary martyr himself.It may be easy to take these occasions for granted and perhaps hard to imagine what a NASA administrator from Ohio might bring to the occasion.Earls’ talk, delivered with emotion, passion and sidesplitting humor was appropriately aimed at applying King’s expansive moral legacy on the personal level and in the workplace.Earls spoke of common humanity, humility, love and honor and appreciation for family and friends.Although he has been a presidential advisor, carried the Olympic torch through Cleveland, has nine degrees – including his doctorate from the University of Michigan and a business degree from Harvard – Earls didn’t reveal an ounce of vanity.Of his own parents, he recalled that they prayed for rain during harvest seasons so they could go to school rather than work in the fields. Although they may not have reached high school, he said, “They were self educated. They’re the ones who gave us the lessons to see us through the ages.”Several wisdom-sayings that came to mind: “Never argue with a fool because a distant observer won’t be able to tell which one is the fool,” “A mule can’t pull when it is kicking and can’t kick when it is pulling” and “If you see a turtle sitting on top of a fence post, you know it had to have some help.”After a deeply moving tribute to his wife, Zenobia, he said, “The message is clear: You must always acknowledge the people who help you. Don’t take it for granted.”Zenobia, sitting in the audience, laughed at each funny story as if she had never heard it before. Listeners also found themselves laughing and then suddenly with tears in their eyes.Speaking of his wife, Earls recalled returning to the college town where they had met and the mean satisfaction he felt seeing one of her former boyfriends working at MacDonald’s.Zenobia had a different view. “If I had married him, he would be a physicist at NASA and you would be working at MacDonald’s,” she told Earls.In an elegant parable, he compared the V-formation of migrating geese to a team of workers.They fly that way, he said because the wing-strokes of each of the geese in front add lift to those behind. Together, they can fly 71 percent farther than alone. When a goose falters and has to land, two of the geese in the formation stay with the straggler to help.The moral was that it is more difficult to work alone.“The geese in the rear honk to encourage those in the lead; our honking is for discouragement,” he continued.The geese take turns in the difficult lead position.“Share leadership,” Earls said. “You can learn as much from following as you can from leading.”Puncturing any sense of pomposity, he said he had told the story about the geese once and somebody asked him why the two sides of the V are rarely equal.“Why,” he answered, “because there are more geese on one side.”The talk was infused with the spirit of King. King’s teachings were effortlessly exemplified by Earl’s grace and style.  Quotations from King took their place within the wisdom of humanity, in the company of Socrates, Cato, Elie Wiesel and other great moral teachers of all time.Earls talked about change and commitment, personal responsibility, the importance of persistence and evaluating people not by how they treat co-workers on their level of the hierarchy and above, but how they treat people below them.“The ark was built by amateurs,” he said. “The Titanic, by professionals.”A final story summed a simple piece of advice.An 80-year-old man found himself facing a 30-year sentence. He wept to the judge that he could not live long enough to get out of jail.The judge said, “That’s alright. Just do what you can.”Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday was Tuesday. He would have been 79.  He was assassinated in Memphis while supporting a sanitation workers’ strike 40 years ago.