Monday, February 14, 2011
There is something in life that seems to precipitate huge moments in few days across a calendar year upon year. Valentine's Day was my Mom's birthday. Two years ago yesterday she passed. Two years ago today she was supposed to be in Utah at the Best Friends Animal Shelter caring for rescue animals -- it was her idea of a way to live in service of creatures abandoned and abused by people who should know better and care more. Her humanity was endless, my Mom's. It was always about what was needed, and for her there could be no better birthday than to hold a battered animal, to dish out a needed meal, to encourage an exhausted keeper.
Valentine's Day was the day I got engaged -- Francesca surprised me as no one else ever has when she couldn't get the words out as she asked -- or, more, I guessed. There's a warmth in that memory that nothing will ever touch.
Valentine's Day is the day I learned that one of the most caring, giving and selfless public servants I have ever known in my life -- and I have been honored to know many -- died.
His name was Jeff Coudriet. He was, if titles matter at all, the Committee Clerk for the Committee on Finance and Revenue of the City Council of the District of Columbia. He was the boundless, relentless energy in the room, the guy who knew so much more than he would ever say, but never boasted about his knowledge. The guy who looked you dead in the eye and told you straight what was and what was not possible. The guy who got it done because he believed in you and believed in the fundamental power, and the profound responsibility, of government to make the world better. He did make the world better. He changed mine, and CityDance's. He made it possible.
That's no exaggeration. He made it possible. At the end of the day, when all the ideas have been put forward and the talent laid out like so many offerings at the reception, when someone has to stand up and say "I believe in you and what you do, and I will help you get there," it was Jeff, more than anyone else, who stood for us. Year after year as we realized that no amount of fundraising from individual donors or grants or bank robbing could get you where you had to go financially, it was Jeff, and his boss Jack Evans, who made it happen. They didn't have to. They chose to.
When the bottom fell out for us 18 months ago when then Council Chair Gray finally led a successful effort to eliminate DC Earmarks, I knew that it was Jeff who was the very last to relent.
It wasn't about friendship, though I considered Jeff a friend. It was about service. He believed in the power, in the vitality, in the deep grace of the arts to make the life of a city he cared deeply about better.
That whole conversation is yet again underway, and that idea once again under assault. The emails swelling up my inbox of the latest effort to wipe out NPR and PBS, the desire to make a point by obliterating the NEA and the NEH tell the now familiar story of cynicism in "fiscally responsible" clothing. Its not that. The notion that a civil society does not need inspiration from the talent that swells in our land, and that, even if it does, there is something vile about the notion that we can, we must, all support it is once more afoot. It's not even pennies on the dollar. Its fractions of pennies. Yet somehow even that is too much.
Art is a money-losing venture - maybe it shouldn't be, but it is. Its just the way it it. So is scientific research and the quest for knowledge by the way. There is a message looming in my own organization to the young artists we train every day that a career in the field is well-nigh impossible. There isn't the money for even the most meagre salaries for professionals who amaze and who give real-life and breath to dreams. There isn't the will to stand up in the corridors of power and say "enough." You cannot thrive in the experience of that which you cannot sustain.
Through all of that, through watching the support which had been so fundamental as a differentiation point between Washington, DC and so many other municipalities vanish, there was Jeff, the person who believed. It didn't matter whether there was a day when no amount of care could make money materialize in a recession. You knew that someone in a position of power cared about making a difference and understood that sometimes you had to do more.
When I was on the Hill for those seminal years in my life I found people like Jeff in every corner of the legislative branch. He was someone who understood that service was not about convenience nor expedience. He knew the system and he knew its strengths and weaknesses and he celebrated those and stood by them as he listened and cared and tried to find a way to make better the lives of those who came to him.
The longer I live the more, not the less, do I believe that "one person can make a difference" is in fact a maxim not simply an idea. I see it every day. I see it writ small and I see it writ large. Rarely have I seen it larger than in the devotion Jeff Coudriet gave. The number of lives he touched, and the subtle and vibrant way he touched them are something I know I will never comprehend. I think none of us will because he wasn't that kind of guy. You knew he'd done something powerful for someone when you'd ask him a question and in deflecting it there's be a small smile at the corners. That smile wasn't for you. It was for him and the people he'd done something for.
We live in stunningly difficult times when the words funding and art are combined. Those times, and the vitality of a city we call home, are a bit tougher today.
Thank you, Jeff. Thank you for believing in so many, and for doing so much for a city that needs the care you gave and the meaning you brought to a too-often cliched phrase -- that government exists to serve, and that service has a meaning that lasts beyond the day and into the future.