John Ben Shepperd: “Young Man with a System”


 July 26, 1957

 United States Junior Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors (Tulsa, Oklahoma)

Young Man with a System


Thank you for that kind introduction.  Seldom have I seen such an important subject handled so well and with such masterful self-restraint and understatement.

I imagine President Shearer found himself in the same predicament as the Master of Ceremonies who got up and said, “Our next speaker needs no introduction.  Even if I reminded you who he is, you still wouldn’t remember him”.

Seriously, I’m honored to be here at the beginning of President Charles Shearer’s administration.  I feel sorry for him, of course, because even working day and night and getting every conceivable break, he can never hope to become more than the second best President this organization ever had.

I’m very flattered that you have allowed me to come back and mingle with you socially, now that I’m only an ex-Jaycee.  I do miss the old Jaycee life – the charged atmosphere, the great challenges, the bold decisions, the agonizing reappraisals, the hasty apologies.

I’m supposed to talk about the value of Junior Chamber training after you get out.  I consider myself an excellent example.  When I was a Jaycee, I would walk down the street and people would say, “There’s that little squirt”.  Now I walk down the street and people say, “There’s that big drip”.

An old uncle of mine put it this way.  “Son, I’m worried about your future.  You spent the first part of your life in the Junior Chamber of Commerce.  Then you went into politics and now you are in the oil and gas business.  You’re going to hell gradually; you ain’t going to know when you get there.”

Speaking about politics – I could talk all afternoon about the brilliant and outstanding record I made in public office because I like to speak on this subject whenever there is the slightest interest in it.  And frankly, you have shown the slightest interest of any group I have ever appeared before.

Of course Jaycee training helps in politics.  In fact, a Jaycee and a politician have many things in common.  To be a good Jaycee or politician you have to be as agile as a monkey because you spend most of your time out on a limb.  You need a big chin as you lead with it and a thick skin to ward off the stings of insult and ingratitude.

You have to have strong knees so you can stand on your own two feet all day and still be limber enough to kneel at bedtime.  You’ve got to have a big mouth so you won’t choke when you put our foot in it and a good appetite so you can swallow your pride and eat your own words.  You need a deaf ear for flattery and a good ear for criticism and advice and sense enough not to get them mixed up.

But most of all, you need a rubber neck because you’re expected to turn the other cheek, face reality, look backward at history and forward to the future, confront the issue and face the music all at the same time.

Both Jaycees and politicians work under more pressure than a deep-sea diver, take more criticism than a poor man with an ambitious mother-in-law, suffer greater temptations than a shoplifter in Fort Knox and are expected to be everywhere at once with their eyes open, like a chaperone at a Senior Prom on a warm spring night.

But getting out politics has its advantages – kinda like finishing a hard year as state president or a national officer of the Jaycees – you find that you can mingle with your children without a formal introduction.  They soon get accustomed to seeing you around the house even though they can’t figure out exactly where you fit into the picture.

But I guess the best thing about being a civilian again is getting away from disgruntled constituents.  In Texas all the state officials are issued license plates on which the number is preceded by the letters “SO”, standing for State Official.  I just presumed it was a disgruntled constituent with a paint brush who added a large “B” on mine.

Politics helped me a lot though.  Even my parents agree on that.  Someone recently asked my dad, “Has John Ben’s being in politics been of any real value?”  “Yes,” Dad replied, “It’s cured his mother of bragging about him”.

But I didn’t come here to talk about myself – entirely.  I want to saw a few words about a subject close to everyone’s heart – a subject that competes with Mother, Home, Country, and the Jaycees for our first allegiance — Texas.  I know you’d like to hear a few reverent remarks on that subject because whenever I go outside my native state and announce that I’m going to talk about Texas, everyone says, “Oh please!”  Some get so emotional they have to get up and leave.

Actually we Texans don’t enjoy bragging about Texas as much as you think we do.  It’s just that everyone expects it of us and we are too polite not to fulfill our obligations.

As a matter of fact, if all the Texans who brag were laid end to end, it would meet with the unanimous approval of the rest of the country.

I think it’s time the truth was told about Texas.  Some folks say Texans don’t have a very high regard for the truth, but actually we value it very highly and that’s why we are so economical with it.

Some of you have heard me speak on this topic before and you’ll have to admit that I give you nothing but straight bragging without editorializing.  There are a few degenerates, I admit, who don’t stick to the truth and they give us a bad name.  But there aren’t very many of them.  Statistically, if all the no-good, lying Texans were piled aboard one train and departed from the state – by golly, I’d have that whole big state to myself!

You have to realize that there’s something about Texas that makes Texas people the way they are.  Some say we have a nasal quality of speech.  If we talk through our noses, it’s because we don’t like to stop breathing that Texas air while we talk.

Another serious misconception needs to be cleared up about Texas.  It is not true that all Texans are oil rich.  In fact, if all the people getting rich on oil in Texas were suddenly taken up into Heaven at the last trump – which within itself is an unlikely supposition – the state would still have left two janitors, three sharecroppers and a darn good former Jaycee President.

To top this – every sixteenth child born in the United States is a Texan and Texans are born four times as fast as they die which is pretty discouraging to the rest of the country.

Another discouraging thing to “outsiders” is that Texans live longer too.  Texas is so much like Heaven that they don’t see the point in moving on.  Besides, there’s always the element of doubt as to which way they’d go.

I know that you are dying to know some facts and figures about Texas.  Texans drilled 25,000 oil wells last year; they are running 292,000 farms and 11,500 factories, carrying 14 billion dollars in life insurance, keeping 2 ½ billion on deposit in their 985 banks and getting a substantial part of the 500 million embezzled in the U.S. annually – of course, some would have you believe we have been getting all of it.

But we have a lot of fun in Texas.  We catch 140 million pounds of fish every year, start 1800 forest fires, have about 1 million teeth pulled, pay 2 and ½ billion dollars in federal taxes and seriously injure a farm resident every half minute.

We are running about 70,000 corporations and 121,000 business establishments, including 154 independent shoe-shine parlors, 58 Turkish baths, 20 detective agencies, 31 diaper services and an unknown number of uranium sitting ditches.  On top of that we send more than 3,000 dog heads to the State Health Department every year to be examined for rabies, indict some 15,000 fellow citizens, commit about 350,000 major and minor crimes, pluck more than 8 and ½ million bales of cotton.  It’s easier to pick a tourist than to pick cotton.  More fun, too.  I’ve tried both and I know.

The federal government now owns 1.5% of all the land area of Texas and 754,000 acres of it is devoted to wildlife refuges, while offices for federal employees have been crowded onto a mere 227 acres.  This proves that the bureaucrats are giving the country to the birds.

They call Texans the land of the big rich and I guess they’re right.  If all the minerals, crops and livestock in a given year were divided up among us, we’d each get 7/8th’s of a cow, 1/4th of a hog, 4 pounds of pecans, 104 barrels of oil and 1/80th of a jackass.

The stork is making more stops in Texas than he used to – may be too wet to fly over.  He’s making about 120 stops out of every possible 1,000 eligible homes and, of course, a few that ain’t eligible.

To boil this factual report on Texas down to a simple formula – in Texas, men are men and women are women and I defy you to improve on a situation like that!  Or as the old maid said, “Who’s trying to improve on it, I just want to get in on it.”

In the first half of our century an organization was born which was destined to become one of the most vital and significant in the stream of American life.

At 37 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 phenomenon of human intelligence, vitality and genius – a moving force out of which come Napoleons, Alexanders, Lincolns, Einstein’s, Edison’s and Rockefeller’s.  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 insomuch as they are full of curiosity and energy.  They do not know that thing is impossible so they go ahead 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 fail 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 onto whatever heights God will lead them.  It’s a very unselfish mother and its raises good boys.

In the last few years I have had considerable experience as an employer of young men and I 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, phone their home and have their wives tell me I’m out of luck because they’re out do-gooding with the Jaycees.  Yes, I have looked at the Jaycees in a different light since I stopped running with them and was forced to run after them.

But it didn’t change my mind about them.  I have found 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 the 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 or 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 employees for civic leadership.

This leadership doesn’t stop at 36.  You can spot former Jaycees a mile off as they put into practice the things learned in this great organization.  They lead in business, the professions and civic affairs.  They know how to get the job done – they don’t mind working and they continue the feeling of compassion for their fellow man.

Think back, each of you, of the fellows you know that have through this great training vehicle – aren’t they the leaders in your communities today?

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 in 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 thinks 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 at 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 judgement of older men.

I’ve heard them compared to the Irish – who don’t know what they want and are willing to fight for it.  And to the English – who admit being self-made and worship their creator.

But since I was kicked out of the nest at 36, I have discovered that the majority of the public likes and respects the Jaycee because of the thing 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 the summer calling people 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 men who does what he knows is right, whether the crowd is with him or not, and in spite of the pressures of the 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, never without friends.  There is no cabinet that will contain his trophies and no scrapbook can tell his deeds.

There are too many so-called leaders, you know, 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 head the call of the school board or the P.T.A.  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 to tell how they stand because they think it will hurt business or 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 record 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 were 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 Jaycees 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 plenty of young men like the Jaycees, the industries will hum and the markets will hustle, the sick will be cared for and the downtrodden will be lifted up; the children will laugh, the old people will smile and 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 safe deposit box and file away a title to an American sunset.  No one can lay gold on the counter and buy the look of trust and innocence in a child’s yes.  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, but strong; 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.
Yes, to be born free is an accident;
To live free is a responsibility;
But to die free is an obligation.


[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.]