John Ben Shepperd: Young Man with a System

January 21, 1957

Junior Chamber of Commerce Distinguished Service Awards Banquet (Monahans)

Young Man with a System

In the first half of our century an organization was born which was destined to become one of the most vital and significant currents in the stream of American life. At thirty-seven years of age that organization—the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce—is well on its way to the fulfillment of that destiny, the destiny that was not a matter of chance but a matter of choice. The Junior Chamber of Commerce taps a reservoir of energies and potentialities for good which no other organization has yet been able to utilize in such abundance—the idealistic, unselfish and unquenchable vitality of young manhood.

Young manhood is not a time of life, but a miracle of human intelligence, vitality and genius—a moving force out of which come Napoleons, Alexanders, Lincolns, Einsteins, Edisons and Rockefellers. Out of the reservoir of young American manhood has flowed a stream of energetic genius that has made our country the greatest and best the world has yet seen.

They say young men are just little boys grown up. That is at least partly true and I am thankful for it. They are little boys inasmuch as they are full of curiosity end energy. They do not know that a thing is impossible so they go ahead and do it. They are not yet blanketed with the snows of skepticism and have not traded the spirit of adventure for dusty sophistication and worldly wisdom. Young men go forward where others fall because life is a moving force which responds to the law of action.

The Junior Chamber of Commerce is an action organization with the object and purpose of producing leadership. It doesn’t try to build communities. It builds men and it is men and women who build cities, states and nations. The Junior Chamber of Commerce is a training ground for young men who want to have a part in shaping the destiny of their communities and their country.

The greatest strength of the Junior Chamber of Commerce is that its ideal is far outside itself. Young men are not Jaycees for the sake of being Jaycees. Jayceeism is not an end in itself, but a means to a much larger end. It is only a vehicle to help young men get where they are going—to help them achieve leadership.

It doesn’t try to hold onto its members, but pushes them out at the age of 35, trained to lead in community affairs without the help of any parent organization. It says goodbye to them at the age when they are just beginning to show their greatest value and capabilities. It stays behind while they go on to whatever heights God will lead them. It’s a very unselfish mother and it raises good boys.

In the last few years I have had considerable experience as an employer of young men and have had the new experience of looking at the Jaycees from the viewpoint of a boss whose “boys” were not available for an important conference at noon on some weekdays because they were with the Jaycees, either having lunch, rattling buckets on the street corner or planting trees on the grounds of the School for Retarded Children. I know how it feels to need one of them at night and to phone their homes and have their wives tell me I’m out of luck because they’re out do-gooding with the Jaycees. Any bosses who might be present will be pleased to know that I too have looked at the Jaycees in a different light since I stopped running with them and am forced to run after them.

But it didn’t change my mind about them. You have probably found, as I have, that the men in the Jaycees make the most valuable employees. I’ve seen many a transformation brought about by this organization. Today, a young man may be an obscure clerk; but after a while in the Jaycees, after getting into the bloodstream of community affairs, he’s in a position to hire and fire clerks by the dozen. Today he may be a follower; tomorrow he’ll be a leader. But in the meantime he’ll spend time on committees, running around on cold nights helping on some kind of improvement project or standing on the street corner with a loud speaker telling people to give, and vote, and go, and come, and listen, and be concerned. He’ll start getting public recognition. People he doesn’t know from Adam will call him by name on the street and he will be on speaking terms with hundreds he never knew before. His boss will begin to realize that all this civic activity inspires the community’s confidence and appreciation and results in new business and he shouldn’t be surprised to find the community looking to his clerk, his salesman, his assistant or his employee for civic leadership.

What is it about a Jaycee that makes him want to pay the price of leadership? What kind of person is a Jaycee anyway?

A Jaycee is a crazy, mixed-up kid who gets everything backwards. He thinks personal happiness depends not on how the world treats you, but on how you treat the world. He thinks the only thing you can take with you is what you have given to others and the only way that you can rise in the world is to keep your feet on the ground and stay on the level.

A Jaycee has a bad sense of proportion; there is no job too big for him and there’s no job so small that he things he is too big for it. He’s also very superstitious. He believes in luck and the harder he works, the more of it he seems to have. He is so weak and helpless in the face of a really tough problem that he has to call on God for help and he thinks an ounce of sweat carries more weight with God than a bucket of tears.

I have faith in the Jaycees.  I’ve seen them roll up a sleeve and get things done that others called impossible. I’ve seen them wade in and solve a problem with muscle and elbow grease before older and wiser men could even get it outlined on the conference table. I’ve seen them pump the breath of life into towns that were dead on their feet and slap the wind out of crooked demagogues and private interests that were holding whole cities in their grip. But more than that, I’ve seen them turn pipsqueaks into men, pessimists into optimists and quitters into fighters.

I’m sure that as members of the Junior Chamber of Commerce you wonder at times what the public thinks of you as an organization. In every town there are always a few cynics, generally nursing some personal inadequacy, who criticize the Jaycees for being eager beavers without the mature judgment of older men. But since I was kicked out of the nest at 36, I have discovered that the majority or the public likes and respects the Jaycee because of the things he does.

To hundreds of poor children at Christmas time he is the Santa Claus they didn’t believe in. To thousands of citizens who see him sweating on a street corner by a traffic light, munching a sandwich for lunch, shaking a bucket and asking for pennies to give the little fellows in the polio wards a fighting chance, he looks like a pretty decent guy. To millions of people who see him riding on a truck bed in the heat of summer telling them to go and vote, he looks like Uncle Sam in a limp shirt. And to the crooks and false leaders who creep into local government to pull down the curtain of secrecy, close the open doors of public office, lull the people into apathy and steal them blind, he looks like the hangman.

You can be sure that your community respects you as an organization of young men who work together for the common good and nothing you do with a worthy motive will ever fail or be unappreciated.

But are you everything that your community would like for you to be? Are you everything your town needs? Is it enough to get out the vote, collect the money for a good cause, beautify the city, sponsor worthy projects and so on until you are 36? Are you through when the awards are locked in the trophy case and the scrapbook is closed? You’re training for leadership in your community. What do people expect a leader to do?

Leadership means doing everything for the good of others, which often means doing it at the sacrifice of personal popularity. Very often it means standing alone in the belief that you are right and the crowd is wrong. Sometimes it means being a busybody and other times being stubborn—having a strong will and a stronger won’t. But sooner or later the community will follow the man who does what he knows is right whether the crowd is with him or not and in spite of the pressures of self-interest and convenience. The city you live in will respect you as long as you respect and follow your own civic conscience. Such a man is never poor, is never without friends. There is no cabinet that will contain his trophies and no scrapbook can tell his deeds.

Oh yes, there are too many so-called leaders who are not willing to serve their communities because they are waiting for the call of bigger things. They want an appointment to a big national council, a regional presidency or a state board and don’t have time to heed the call of the school board or the P-TA. They want to fight federal encroachment and preserve the good old Constitution. They want to preserve private enterprise from the effects of creeping socialism but they don’t want to grab the bull by the horns where it will do the most good—down on the local level. They want to change everything they don’t like just by changing the federal government.

But it is high time we realize that Democracy does not give people the government they wish for, but the government they deserve.

The towns and cities of the United States are begging the Jaycees to give them community leaders who will put courage into local government by serving in office and executing policies consistent with our basic beliefs of integrity, economy and efficiency. We need business men who can use their heads to stimulate local enterprise and to keep people from having to depend on federal help to develop local resources and finance local improvements.

We need bankers who will be quick to give loans to young people who are just getting started so they won’t have to go to the Federal government for the money to build their homes and start their businesses. We need local leaders who are not afraid to start local projects without a guarantee of federal aid, which is also a guarantee of federal control.

When leadership on the local level breaks down, the people are forced into the position of having to vote for prosperity instead of working for it.

We seem to have an abundance of able men who want to be leaders but who want to steer clear of controversial issues They refuse to get mixed up in politics or tell how they stand because they think it will hurt business, antagonize the boss or the union. Show me a man with no identifiable stand on a clear-cut issue and I’ll show you a man with no identifiable character or value to his community. You can try so hard to stay away from the pro and the con that you become blind to the right and the wrong.

Can the Jaycees give us this kind of leadership? Can they put men in places of responsibility who will make their own records and stand on them instead of jumping on the other fellow’s? We need men who won’t get to the top through pull and then stop pulling—who won’t let the American way of life die of cold feet because they are afraid to get into hot water. We don’t need leaders who can sit on a podium or stand on a platform; we need men and women who can stand on their own two feet and kneel on their own two knees. We need the kind who can be right and be president too.

I don’t know what the Jaycee lapel pin means to you. But to me it means that the man behind it, wherever he is, is trying to create an atmosphere in which every mother’s son is a future president . . . where the size of man is not measured from his feet to his head, but from his head to the sky . . . where men and women are free to work and enjoy the fruits of their labor . . . where people can walk with their heads up, take off a hat to nobody and choose their own God. It means that in any community where there are Jaycees, the industries will hum; the markets will bustle, the sick will be cared for; the downtrodden will be lifted up; the children will laugh; the old people will smile, the women will sing.

It is a common fallacy of young men to measure success in terms of prosperity and to fix their eyes on a horizon of gold. We must always remember that the good things of life are not bought with money. Nobody can open a safety deposit box and file away a title to a West Texas sunset. No one can lay gold on the counter and buy the look of trust and innocence in a child’s eyes. No man can trade hard cash for the companionship of a true friend or purchase at any price the love and devotion of a faithful wife. And all the money in all the treasuries of the world is not worth the sound of a mother’s lullaby or the laughter of a free man.

Because freedom is old, not young, yet it is born anew in the first cry of a free man’s son;
It is not a living thing, yet it dies if we do not love it;
It is not weak, yet it must be defended;
It is light, yet it weighs heavy on him who is without it;
It is without price, yet it dearly costs the one who sells it;
It is not small but great; yet once lost, it is never, never found again.

[Note: The views expressed in this speech were those of John Ben Shepperd, and do not necessarily represent the views of the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute or the University of Texas Permian Basin.]