“The WGHQ Happy Christmas Fund held its annual holiday drive collecting $49,108,” announced the email from Walter Maxwell on January 9. In its 49th year this past holiday season, the local fund helped over 400 area families.
Except for the fact that Walter had died August 12 of last year, the email was all good news. Well, I consoled myself, if anyone I know could successfully communicate from the world beyond, it would be Walter. Good for him.
The email came from Laurence Maxwell, Walter’s son. Remember the graffiti slogans claiming “Bird lives!” in New York City after saxophonist Charlie Parker died in 1955? The work Walter Maxwell did survives him. The Happy Christmas Funds thrives. Kingston Community Radio (KCR), at 920 on your AM dial from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. every weekday, is alive and broadcasting.
Though no performing legend himself, Walter was the man who made a lot of things in Ulster County possible. Year after year, he led the Happy Christmas Fund in holiday fundraising for needy local families (the list of needy families came mostly from schools, nurses and social workers). The fund has become a Kingston institution. Launching the effort each year with a big day opening day at the Boice Brothers Milk House in Kingston, Walter made sure the contributions kept flowing right up to Christmas Eve. The fund allocated not a single dime for administrative costs. It “all went directly to the families.” That was a point of pride for Walter.
Walter ran Kingston Community Radio going from its founding in 2002 to his unexpected and untimely demise. Now his son Laurence and Walter’s wife of 48 years Jean are keeping the flame of this unique Ulster County institution lit. They’re preparing for the annual breakfast get-together of their radio community on March 4 from 10 a.m. to noon at the Spring Lake firehouse off Lucas Avenue Extension in Ulster. The cost is $10. You’re invited.
As is almost mandatory in any quixotic all-volunteer organization (except for the modestly compensated morning board operator on the other side of the glass at the second-floor office of KCR in one of the stone houses on the corner of Crown and John streets), the innovative radio program Walter headed needed a leader to keep everything on track. Walter led from behind (a characterization he might have winced at). He believed in his cause. He was great on encouragement. He praised people generously when they deserved it and liberally when they needed it. A lifelong acknowledged maverick conservative, he was renowned for his personal liberality.
Walter was a quintessential community guy. He personified the social engagement in the pre-Facebook age by which service clubs and networks of individuals in the small cities and towns of America built lasting relationships. Through his radio activities, Walter was a one-man social medium unto himself. For decades, he was the glue behind the Kingston Lions organization. He served on the United Way, and was on the boards of the Kingston Children’s Home and the Town of Ulster Library.
Walter worked selflessly with other people. His son Laurence says his father never had an enemy. More accurately, no one ever stayed an enemy.
Few things were as important to Walter than his New York Giants season’s tickets. Laurence tells of his father getting into a rowdy confrontation with a fellow fan after a Giants game. Five minutes later the two combatants were pals. A year later the other guy was sitting in Walter’s seat at a Giants game.
Ever since Walter Maxwell and Orvil Norman teamed up to form and run Kingston Community Radio, believed to be the only show of its community-supported kind in the nation, most of the best-known Ulster County personalities have participated as hosts. The daily format has always featured one to three guests: community leaders, spokespersons for worthy causes, and folks with their own causes. Each year, many hundreds of people participate in this live on-the-air forum.
The program remains strong. It has never lacked for volunteer hosts. The number of underwriters, folks who pay to sponsor a radio hour in exchange for a couple of on-the-air ads, has if anything increased, Laurence said. The same callers are likely to phone in every day, and the size of the listening audience has always been hard to gauge.
Jean Maxwell would like to do even more. She said she’d like to be able to provide year-round help for kids, not just at Christmastime.
Times change. Consisting of businesspeople and professionals, the service clubs, along with the churches and the local PTAs, were once the mainstay of American civic life. People seem no longer to have the time to participate in these activities. Increasingly, younger people have turned to other ways of connecting. Though the forms of civic engagement may have changed, its intensity continues. The service clubs have been supplanted by the monthly meet-ups, weekend intensives, 24-hour wi-fi cafes and frenetic friending of a new generation.
French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville was much impressed in the 1820s by the American propensity for civic engagement. He thought that characteristic key to the nation’s unprecedented ability to make democracy work. “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition” he observed in Democracy in America, “are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types — religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute.”
Successful outcomes, contemporary social-science research has shown, are more likely in civically engaged communities. Because we are so different from each other, inclusiveness in our discussion is essential. American diversity flourishes only in an atmosphere of community engagement. Social capital must cut across the cleavages of American society, engaging all of us with each other.
As political scientist Robert Putnam, author of the turn-of-the-21st-century classic Bowling Alone, America’s Declining Social Capital, expressed it, “If we can get more people engaged in community life in contexts that respect American pluralism, many of our other problems —to begin with, our politics — will be different.”
Walter Maxwell lived that belief. Walter got it. Walter lives.