A Legacy of ‘Light’

by Shaun Manning on July 18, 2013

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The following is a guest blog by Sara Fitzgerald, author of Elly Peterson: “Mother” of the Moderates, a biography of the first woman to chair the Michigan Republican Party and who later became an independent as she fought for the Equal Rights Amendment.

President Obama took time July 15 to recognize former President George H.W. Bush for his commitment to promoting voluntarism. At a White House ceremony, an Iowa couple, Floyd Hammer and Kathy Hamilton, was recognized with the 5,000th Points of Light award, a recognition that Bush established in 1989 to help publicize the work taken on by individuals to improve society. During Bush’s inaugural address that year, he compared the nation’s volunteer organizations to “a thousand points of light.”

Not to minimize Bush’s own contributions to promoting volunteer service, but they did not develop in a vacuum. As described in my biography, Elly Peterson: “Mother” of the Moderates, Peterson was a big proponent of voluntarism during her years as chair of the Michigan Republican Party (1965-1969) and as assistant chairman of the Republican National Committee (1969-70).

With support from then-Michigan Governor George Romney, Peterson launched the Metropolitan Action Center in Detroit in 1967. It was designed to enlist the support of Republican volunteers in addressing the specific problems of inner-city residents. Peterson reasoned that it would help keep party volunteers engaged during non-election years, and help improve the party’s image in Detroit neighborhoods in the years immediately following the riots there. By the end of 1967, Republicans also launched 154 local volunteer projects in 45 counties around the state.

When she moved back to Washington in 1969, Peterson took the concept with her, and action centers opened in several other states. Among those who were involved with the RNC’s Action Now Committee was Bush, who was then a member of Congress from Texas. He chaired the committee’s Task Force on Earth Resources and Population Control. (It was during an era when the Republican Party’s issues and interests were defined very differently from the way they are today!)

In his 1989 inaugural address, Bush called for “a new engagement in the lives of others, a new activism, hands-on and involved, that gets the job done.” But, in what may have been a salute to others, like Peterson, with whom he had worked earlier in his career, he added: “The old ideas are new again because they’re not old, they are timeless: duty, sacrifice, commitment and a patriotism that finds its expression in taking part and pitching in.”

As Obama put it, in a new memorandum calling for an expansion of volunteer opportunities in the federal government: “Service has always been integral to the American identity. Our country was built on the belief that all of us, working together, can make this country a better place for all. That spirit remains as strong and integral to our identity today as at our country’s founding.”


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