In 1967 I left New York to help set up a new UN organization in Vienna, Austria. In the process, I left behind a girlfriend, who expected more of our relationship, with these words in a song: “But time has been too easy on the surface of this life, and it takes a time-worn man to choose a wife.” Thinking back on my school days, it does seem that they were too easy and, regrettably, too superficial. There were many lost opportunities to connect with friends and classmates, which I now regret and am trying to correct. I was given a golden opportunity to learn in and out of the classroom but, until I graduated from college, I didn’t fully appreciate how special, and unique, this was. In a perverse sort of way, my loving parents protected me from the hardships, which might have helped me mature earlier.
Maturing, for me, has meant increasingly focusing in on the messy details of life. In Vienna, my role was modest, but we established the UN Industrial Development Organization, which is now a major arm of the UN. With the UN Development Program in Iraq, Pakistan and Tanzania, I worked with governments and UN Agencies on broad development schemes like the establishment of irrigated rice production in Tanzania. At the UN Development Program’s Headquarters in New York I managed global programs in fields like climate change, water management and electoral assistance. Under the latter program, we helped 36 African countries hold their first elections. Things weren’t easy, but I was still operating in the stratosphere – or the surface. While my family life was rich and rewarding, I had limited interaction with my neighbors and their problems. Outside contacts were mostly “official”.
It was only in retirement, that I began to delve into the messy details of life in my community. In my 15 years as a community and court mediator, I have had the opportunity to help neighbors live in peace, to help a poor African American mother stay in her home, to help divorced parents make a plan for their children and to help convicts return to their communities as normal citizens with the support of their families and friends. I serve on the board of the Community Action Agency, which helps reduce extreme poverty through energy assistance, preventing homelessness, supporting delinquent youth and giving poor preschoolers a Head Start. It is amazing how even a relatively prosperous city like Annapolis has a soft underbelly of poverty. Rotary has given me a crash course in self-consciously getting to know others and working together on service projects. Lobbying for the UN, the environment and mediation in Washington and Annapolis has given me an appreciation for the strengths and weakness of our legislators. Living in a cul-de-sac court has given me the privilege of getting involved in the lives of my neighbors – with all the adventure that involves. My family is still my core joy, but I feel that I am now connected with my neighborhood and my neighbors.
I have heard, and seen, that aging causes one to become more self-centered. Indeed, my doctors are increasingly calling attention to my failings with words like “degenerating” this or that. As a result, I am obliged to become increasingly aware of my own condition. Like Ashley Brilliant said: “ I’m not perfect, but parts of me are excellent”. So I feel that my days of exclusive navel gazing are still in the distant future.
Life is good.
Phil Reynolds ’59