“In the United States, as soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea they wish to promote in society, they seek each other out and unite together once they have made contact. From that moment, they are no longer isolated but have become a power seen from afar whose activities
— Alexis de Tocqueville,
Democracy in America (1831)
America has always been a society of joiners, and it was in that spirit that Ulster County executive Pat Ryan last Friday signed resolutions at the historic Volunteer Fireman’s Hall on Fair Street in Kingston to authorize up to $6.2 million in bonding for construction of a public safety training center on Ulster Landing Park in the Town of Ulster. The funding, which will also pay for equipment and hands-on education, specifies that the facility will be available for training purposes to law-enforcement agencies and other first responders.
Noting in a self-deprecatory manner that he had had nothing to do with the legislation which was being celebrated that day, Ryan praised its intent. In its emphasis on cooperation, sharing and working together, he said, it reinforced that volunteers felt they were “part of something bigger than we are.” It’s a theme he has often voiced before.
Ryan was blunt in what that concept of service might involve. Volunteer firefighters and emergency personnel had to overcome “the instinct to run away rather from than to run toward the danger.” For being prepared to risk their lives to help others, the West Point graduate and former Afghanistan combat veteran said, they deserved the best training they could get. “Let no man say his training let him down,” he said.
Affixed to the front of the table where Ryan sat was the appropriate three-word slogan for the photo opportunity: “Support Our Volunteers.” Standing around Ryan as he signed were five county legislators, the sheriff and undersheriff, and volunteer firefighters in spiffy uniforms and shined shoes from some of the 49 independent fire companies in Ulster County whose badges identified their allegiance: Clintondale, Esopus, Marlboro, New Paltz, Olive, Rosendale, Spring Lake and Wawarsing.
The inevitable county staff took photographs to commemorate the event. A press release with laudatory sentiments about the occasion — quoting even those who hadn’t shown up for it — appeared promptly after the ceremony.
In recent years, there has been considerable literature about the decline of American volunteerism. It’s clear that the kind of volunteering represented by the firefighters and emergency personnel at the ceremony last Friday has been in decline. Most community fire companies in Ulster County have been finding it difficult to sustain their membership.
But the traditions of local government, where people can most easily see and evaluate what they’re getting for their taxes, remain strong. Residents show up for meetings of school boards, town boards, planning boards, environmental committees and other agencies when the right occasions arise. Non-profits continue to proliferate. Human-service agencies are much more active.
A local historian once reminded me that there once had been a time, perhaps now before the recollection of our oldest residents, when it was a point of pride among long-time citizens in many Catskills towns not to pay their local taxes in cash. Instead, I was told, they would work a few days on the local roads instead or cook meals for the community’s unfortunate and indigent. A few remnants of these practices, I am told, such as the highway department showing up for lunch when they’re working in the neighborhood, still persist among the oldtimers.
Volunteerism takes many forms. Though there’s still a premium, as there always should be, on risking one’s life for one’s neighbors, the occasions for such behavior have diminished. That’s a good thing, not a bad one. Now community-minded Americans will need to explore new ways “to unite together once they have made contact.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. may have expressed the communitarian ethic best. “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve,” he said at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in 1968. “You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”