Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Senator James Jeffords

It is impossible NOT to join the chorus of so many others in celebrating the life and career of Senator Jim Jeffords. He was a thoughtful leader in so many areas – disability rights, education, the environment, and, of course, the arts. He was the co-founder of the Congressional Arts Caucus, the Senate Cultural Caucus, and the Congressional High School Art Competition. He fought tirelessly to retain funding for the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. Senator Jeffords’s efforts in support of the arts led to his becoming the first recipient of the Americans for Arts and the United States Conference of Mayors joint inaugural award for Congressional Arts Leadership in 1997.

Senator Jeffords touched Vermonters and Americans in myriad ways. For me, a highlight was in May, 1999. I was invited to testify on behalf of the reauthorization of the National Endowment for the Arts in front of the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. There was much articulate, thoughtful, and passionate testimony that day, but the “main event” that afternoon turned out to be Jacques D’Amboise, a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and the founder of the National Dance Institute.

I will never forget him sitting in front of the committee, asking them to imagine a group of early hominids lying under the stars and seeing, perhaps for the first time, a shooting star. “What would their reaction be?” D’Amboise wondered. “An ooh, then maybe an aah, and spontaneous clapping?”

As D’Amboise continued his story he became more and more animated, oohing and aahing and clapping and exhorting everyone in the hearing to do the same. Within a minute he was on his feet and creating a dance from just the rhythm and sounds of his voice, his hands, and his stomping feet.

It was suddenly a very lively HELP hearing. Decorum prohibited the committee members from joining D’Amboise’s impromptu performance, but I will never forget the smile on the face of the committee chair.

Senator James Jeffords was beaming.

From his expression, I could tell Senator Jeffords felt that THIS testimony showed the Senate at its best: helping people to understand the importance of dancing, singing, and finding joy in life. For years after this testimony, I remember thinking how well D’Amboise delivered his message. Now I have come to understand that the more profound message was delivered by the Senator himself, and he hardly said a thing.

Rest in Peace, Senator, and thank you. Each time a shooting star streaks across the night sky, I will remember your smile that day and think of you oohing and aahing and stomping your feet and clapping your hands.