Chapter 10. Honoring the Legacy of our Founders: Leading with Grit and Grace
(Chapters 1-9 can be accessed at http://papta.org/Legacy or in previous issues of PTA in Pennsylvania.)
The first nine chapters of this series of articles have been primarily devoted to the amazing leaders who strived for a better world for children and created the National PTA we know today. Armed with passion, confidence, and resilience, they were willing to accept long term commitments and were unwavering in their efforts to open doors for the future of this country—our children. As previous chapters outlined, they were willing to risk failure and reached out to influential people and organizations to make their dreams come true. But it was also about something else they possessed—grit. Webster defines “grit” as firmness of mind or spirit: unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger. They navigated a different world than we know today, a world where little existed in the way of systems or agencies devoted to child welfare. Would some have described them as aggressive or intimidating? With strong backbones, they succeeded because they also had something else—grace. Today’s PTA
leaders need to figure out why grit and grace are equally important.
An anecdotal story might be in order as we continue to explore these qualities. In the late 1970’s, I became a local PTA officer at Hillcrest Elementary School in the Norwin School District. That June, fellow officers and I committed to attending leadership training with the Pennsylvania PTA Summer Session at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Embarking enthusiastically on the four hour drive, we were enjoying the scenery and making plans as we traveled along Interstate 80 in some very desolate—but beautiful—country. Suddenly, like a speeding bullet, along comes the “holy grail” of cars in the passing lane. A huge brown Cadillac in pristine condition whizzed by us, as though on a mission of utmost
importance. Indeed, it was the upper echelon of roadsters that cruised across I-80, driven by a very distinguished blonde woman whose diminutive stature almost left her unseen behind the wheel. Riding “shotgun” was a prominent looking older gentleman who appeared to be enjoying the ride. Traveling along the highway, we passed each other several times, with the Cadillac always appearing to be leading the way. When we reached the college and proceeded to check in, we noticed the Cadillac in the parking lot, without the mysterious driver and passenger.
The next morning, we began our leadership sessions, and I walked into “Parliamentary Procedure,” greeted by instructor Sarah Johnson. Yes, you guessed. Absent the Cadillac, standing before us was Mrs. Sarah (Horace) Johnson of Pittsburgh who had served as Pennsylvania PTA President from 1957-1960. The essence of true grace, we proceeded through Parliamentary Procedure I and II. The morning flew by. She demanded utmost attention and created an environment in that classroom that created trust and communication. One knew instantly why she had been a great leader—and still was. Her authenticity and caring nature helped us look at
ourselves collectively, with each of us responsible for listening to others and allowing each other to lead. She taught us decorum and grace as no other could. When I previously described the Cadillac as being on a mission of utmost importance, it truly was. It brought Sarah into our lives and we would be forever changed.
We learned that her husband Horace was her traveling companion and equally as notable. With his
support, Sarah lived and served through critical times for the PTA such as the Post World War II baby boom, the building of new schools in the suburbs, and then the painful consolidation of schools. During her state presidency, the Pennsylvania PTA hosted the first National PTA Convention in Philadelphia. We kept in touch occasionally throughout the years. In the early 1990’s, the Pennsylvania PTA invited Sarah Johnson to be honored at a state convention very near her home in Pittsburgh. In her advanced years, Sarah attended the convention banquet and delivered—without one single written note—an acceptance speech for her award that was unforgettable and received a standing ovation. She was the epitome of grace and elegance. Afterwards, I asked her if she could replicate those remarks for posterity. It took some time, but in a handwritten envelope with a 29 cent stamp postmarked June 30, 1993, was the following letter I have kept among my treasures:
Dear Sandra, Please forgive my seeming negligence in sending the enclosed to you. After our telephone conversation, I ran into a little trouble and just couldn’t get into it. I set down as I thought it went through and so the format means nothing at all. It was strictly a “spoken few words.” I have no typewriter, so am imposing a poor handwritten copy on you. Have a good summer and save your pep for the coming year. Fondly, Sarah
“In addition to the very special honor that you, the PTA, have given me tonight, just seeing you in
action here at this very fine convention is being (sic) a gratifying experience, for in my travels for PTA one thing has remained constant: Whether the meeting was held in the noisy, windy city of Chicago where the PTA headquarters building is located, or in the quiet, dignified areas of New England, or in the flower dripping states of Tennessee and Oregon, or on the golden shores of California, or in the vast desert expanses of New Mexico and Arizona, or in the clanging halls of a gambling casino in Nevada, or on the fun loving shores of Florida, or the quaint Dutch country of Pennsylvania, or at the foot of the almost holy Austrian Alps in Garmich, Germany, there have been no differences to overcome for all of the people came to all of these places because they had a real desire to be active advocates for the welfare of all children. And that’s what brings you here tonight. As you leave this splendid convention and carry the information and inspiration back to your units and councils, I should ask you two things: That you use calm mature judgment in choosing your projects and seek God’s guidance in carrying them into completion.”
Sarah passed away a few years after she penned that treasure and is fondly remembered today through what she taught us in her writings and by the way she typified leadership. No doubt, behind all that grace was a good measure of true grit as she waded through changes we can only imagine. I disagree when some hurl criticism that today’s leaders don’t have enough passion or are too “soft.” The world in which today’s children are living demands leaders who exert grit and grace more than ever before. It just takes practice and political will to do so. Technology and social media have altered our lives, transportation has brought the world closer, the headquarters for National PTA is no longer located in Chicago, a beautiful handwritten letter is the exception—not the norm, but Sarah was so on target about the motivation of leaders. The PTA members that come together for children come because they have a real desire to be active advocates for the welfare of all children. Let’s always keep that in mind as we lead with grit and grace and honor the legacy of the PTA founders as our greatest challenge as 21st Century leaders.