Alvin Brooks has worked for decades to make the most of his minute.
Brooks, who accepted the Truman Public Service Award in Friday, called for Americans to be united and for individuals to make the most of each each day. He cited a short poem by Benjamin E. Mays that expresses the preciousness of time and of each moment. It concludes “Just a tiny little minute. But eternity is in it,” and Brooks said the poem has guided him and he tries to “share it with myself each day.”
Speaking early in the evening on the front steps of the Truman Library, Brooks said it’s his hope that somehow in his life he has done something his grandchildren would see as having made a difference.
But added, with emphasis, “I cannot be selfish. God is the God of all creation.”
The city of Independence gives the award each year to someone who embodies President Truman’s spirit of service to others. Over four decades, winners have included congressmen and senators, two presidents, historians and authors, and Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.
Brooks has had several roles through the years: Kansas CIty police officer, Kansas City Council member, staff member at City Hall, among others. He’s most well known for founding, in 1977, the Ad Hoc Group against Crime, one of the city’s leading anti-violence groups. Independence Mayor Eileen Weir called him “an advocate for equality, a warrior for justice.”
Brooks said perhaps at his age – 84 this week “and I know I don’t look a day over 90,” he joked – he can more keenly appreciate the opening words of Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …”
He added, “The question becomes, what will we make of it?”
How, he asked, does America move forward even with its differences and whatever the politics of the moment might be? His answer, he said, rests first in faith in God and the idea that all are created in God’s image.
“I believe that,” he said. “I’ve tried to live that. I’ve tried to pass that on to my children.” He said if you believe that, it shapes how you treat others.
He cited more verse – “The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus, the poem at the Statue of Liberty well known for its “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
That poem concludes: “Send them, the homeless, the tempest-tost to me/I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
“That’s what American is all about,” Brooks said.
The city also gave the Truman Special Recognition Award to the Community Services League, which is celebrating its centennial and which has a special connection to Bess Truman. She was among 22 Independence women in a Bible study who took to heart the words of the Book of James in the New Testament – “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” – and founded the group.
Weir said they “looked out into their community and saw the need to do more.”
Bess Truman stayed active with the Community Services League until the Trumans went to the White House in 1945.
The group has 11 locations in Eastern Jackson County, four of them in Independence. It has long focused on emergency assistance, but these days it’s also focused on systemic needs such as housing and workforce training. Mayor Weir mentioned a new program in which 15 Independence residents are becoming certified nursing aides and have jobs waiting for them at the end of their 10 weeks of training.
“This is just an example of the grand impact the Community Services League continues to have in our city,” she said.
Doug Cowan, the group’s president and CEO, said the group saw 15,000 clients last year.
“Clearly our work is important in the community, and while I wish we could work ourselves out of the job, that’s not likely to happen,” he said.
Harry Truman’s birthday is Sunday. The Truman Library will have a wreath-laying at 9 a.m. -- free and open to the public -- and later in the day will have on hand such people as Niel Johnson, who often portrays Truman. The Truman Good Neighbor Award is presented Monday to U.S. Sen. John McCain, and the inaugural “Truman & Israel” lecture is given that evening by Ambassador Dennis Ross.