Yesterday I attended the ceremony for the opening of the final phase of the Georgetown Waterfront Park, a project which has been in the works for almost 30 years. In what was formerly a derelict, industrial wasteland, and before that a thriving port from colonial times, residents of the village now have a beautiful, landscaped public place in which to stroll, sit and relax, stretching from the Key Bridge to the Swedish Embassy, and connecting pedestrians to and from Georgetown to the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Memorial, and beyond. And yet the man whom all universally acknowledge to have been the driving force behind the project could not be there to celebrate this achievement. This fact ought to give us an opportunity to reflect on the point of service to others, and how we measure our own accomplishments.
Senator Charles Percy (R) served the people of Illinois in the U.S. Senate from 1966 through 1985, settling into a beautiful house in Georgetown and raising his family here. For decades he worked with the community, private land owners, and government to help turn the Georgetown waterfront from an embarrassment to a public space which mixes both green and hardscape elements into a pleasingly civilized whole. If you want to see what this area used to look like prior to its rebirth, rent the 1987 movie “Suspect”, starring Cher, Dennis Quaid and John Mahoney, and you will see in one of the opening sequences the discovery of a murder in a tangle of Georgetown riverfront parking lots and industrial buildings, where today there are cyclists and joggers exercising, dogs taking their constitutionals, and families picnicking.
Unfortunately Senator Percy has suffered from Alzheimer’s for many years, and he could not be at the dedication ceremony last evening. Instead his daughter, Sharon Percy Rockefeller, wife of Senator John Jay Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia, attended along with members of the family and spoke on behalf of her father’s vision. In an address punctuated by emotion, and one which I suspect virtually everyone assembled, including yours truly, would have found impossible to make under the circumstances, Mrs. Rockefeller explained that her father was gravely ill and in hospital, and that her siblings were flying in to see him, so without directly saying so the implication was that he will probably not be with us for very much longer.
Nevertheless, Mrs. Rockefeller managed to get through her remarks, and celebrate the spirit of public service which her father embodied, in order to provide a great benefit to his community. She spoke of her father’s love of the beautiful public parks of his native Chicago, his equal love of his adopted home of Georgetown, as well as his enthusiasm for being on and in the water whenever possible. And at the conclusion of her address, which must have been incredibly difficult to get through, she received a standing ovation, not only for her words, of course, but also as a tribute to Senator Percy himself.
The way in which we measure our achievements is not, oftentimes, something which we can gauge by seeing our goals realized. Moses, after all, got to see the Promised Land of Israel, but did not enter it. Michelangelo designed the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, but only lived long enough to see the completion of the drum which supports the dome itself, while JFK encouraged men to go the Moon, but never lived to see that momentous event in human history. And as the great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí replied, when asked why his monumental Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona was taking so long to build – and which, by the way, is still under construction, nearly a century after his death – he left such matters up to the Almighty, noting, “My client is not in a hurry.”
As I listened to the speakers who followed Mrs. Rockefeller, I watched some children playing in the new fountain that marks the entrance to the park. The bright, late-summer afternoon sun glinted everywhere, as they laughed and ran through the pulsating archways of water, oblivious to the portentous words being spoken around them. It struck me that this, a childhood remembrance of play, sunshine, and the great joy of being alive, may be the real legacy Senator Percy has left for the people of the village, as well as those who visit us, and for all to take away with them.
No matter how lofty your goals, gentle reader, it is entirely possible that you yourself may not live long enough to see all of them, particularly the grander ones, come to fruition. That does not mean, however, that you should not attempt to reach those goals. Our society today often encourages instant gratification over patience and perseverance, but while some things need to be remedied as quickly as possible, other times we must allow that to do something right, we must often be willing to stick to it, even if it seems the project will never be finished. It is in the example of selflessness and dedication to others, that human beings can provide truly lasting legacies.