I Wanna Be Good–And Say Nice Things About Prominent People

Believe it or not, publicly criticizing people I know and often see around town is not what I prefer to do. It tends to exacerbate my pre-existing speech impediment. But such are the wages of overt jerkihood, even when it’s sort of reluctant. So weep for my feigned ambivalence. And consider me in the context of Judge Smails’ famous words:

“I’ve sentenced boys younger than you to the gas chamber. Didn’t want to do it. I felt I owed it to them.”

For my money, Caddyshack is the best movie ever made about class in America. Seriously. And this scene is actually pretty profound, driven by the buffoonish genius of Ted Knight. You should check it out:


Anyway, I acknowledge I tend not to focus on the positive, whatever that means. I want to change that for a moment and throw out some kudos to some prominent Lakelandish people who have impressed me recently.

Elaine Thompson

Let’s with start Elaine Thompson, the fairly new CEO of Lakeland Regional Medical Center, arguably Lakeland’s second most vital institution–after Publix. She dropped by my Kiwanis Club a few weeks back to sort of introduce herself and talk about doings at the hospital, exhibiting the kind of professorial polish that comes with command of policy–as opposed to political talking points.

She did not talk much about the health reform law until the end, when I asked her why the hospital and American health care were still functioning a year after the apocalypse of Obamacare. (Yes, that’s almost exactly how I asked it. I’m that guy.) She laughed and said she supported the reform, called it a necessary first step, and said she was personally embarrassed that the health care industry has as large a share of American economic activity as it does without have better, more comprehensive care. And she called for additional reforms aimed at the same technocratic adjustments to payment structure and incentives that characterize Obamacare.

Thompson said all of this directly, but without confrontation. Very matter of fact. She even passed on the chance to slag off on dirty trial lawyers when a member of our club asked if doing away with lawsuits solve the problems with cost of care. Thompson said, no, point blank. She would welcome legislation to more forcibly protect doctors and personnel, but she did not play along our predominantly business conservative crowd and offer it as some kind of magical fix. One did not get the sense, in the entirety of her presentation and talk, of a person pandering or angling. Intellectual honesty, more than anything, is what came through. She wants to improve and broaden care and control costs. Period. And I noticed many of the business conservatives in the crowd nodding along with what she said. That’s impressive.

Sherrie Nickell

Not long after Thompson chatted us up at Kiwanis, Polk Superintendent of Schools Sherrie Nickell dropped by for a similar program. Nickell has a long history with the Polk School District, and there was controversy over her hire. So I want to be clear that I’m just giving you my impressions of her performance at Kiwanis. I feel certain anyone who runs an organization that large (if you consider it a single institution, it would certainly rival be either Publix or LRMC for Polk importance) will have internal and external detractors. I’m not really in a position to judge, so please spare me your inside stories of her administrative record.

But I do feel comfortable saying there is no comparison between Nickell and Gail McKenzie when it comes to public communication skills. While I thought McKenzie did a reasonably good job running the school district behemoth over the past few years, her public presentations inevitably drowned themselves in budget babble and education jargon. She had great difficulty translating funding and policy issues into the urgent moral narratives they are. That’s a deficiency in a public leader.

Nickell also brings a nice teacher affect to her talks, communicating with the simple clarity required for fourth graders–or men and women who just ate lunch. Her power points have many fewer–and simpler–slides than did McKenzie’s. And she speaks the language of Polk County, I would say. Something in her cadence and accent communicates a certain familiarity and investment in the people who attend, work for, or care about the schools she runs. And she was gently ruthless in her management of time. All of those are useful qualities for the head public of a major public organization.

And Nickell didn’t flinch when I asked her about our two-track education system in this county, with charters and magnets on one side and everybody else on the other. She agreed it was a two-track system and said she didn’t much like it. But she also declined to run with my bait any further and gave a pretty forceful answer about how all of that doesn’t matter–that we have to educate all our kids. It was boilerplate, but it was an effective message from the top. Yeah, it’s stacked against us; but no excuses. I think that’s right. Just because the education measurement game is rigged by cheaters doesn’t mean you don’t keep fighting to teach all your kids.

All in all, I’m glad that Frank O’Reilly torpedoed the elite’s effort to hire that fancy consultant with 20 jobs in 40 years. I think we’re better off with Nickell.

Matt Joyce

Matt Joyce

Many of you who follow the Rays may know that the former Florida Southern star has spent most of the year leading the American League with a batting average north of .350. Fewer of you, all right, none of you, are likely to know that Joyce signed my 8-year-old son Ian’s first Rays autograph.

It was before a Rays-Red Sox game last year, when Ian camped out by the dugout 90 minutes before the game with a ball that bullpen coach Bobby Ramos gave him. Joyce came over, signed Ian’s ball, gave him a little head noogie, and chatted him up for a second or two. Very cool.

And a very different experience from Carl Crawford, who came out a bit after. After working the crowd for a while, signing programs and other stuff, Crawford finally came down the line to Ian. Ian handed Crawford his ball, Crawford picked it up and held it for a second, seemingly looking it over, and then handed it back to Ian silently without signing it.

Now, an autograph scrum is a dehumanizing place for a player; everybody’s grabbing at you, throwing things in your face, trying to get you to put the value of your name on something worthless. I get that. Maybe Crawford just got distracted and didn’t realize he hadn’t signed. Maybe he had a personal rule about not signing balls that somebody might go off and sell. Maybe he saw me standing behind Ian and thought I was shady memorabilia dealer. He wasn’t mean about it. It was just odd. And poor Ian was crestfallen.

Fast forward six months. Crawford is gone, having understandably taken a giant free agent payday from the Red Sox. He is now hitting .215, about 135 points south of Matt Joyce. Joyce is a right fielder, while Crawford plays left. But in many ways, Joyce’s potent left-handed bat has replaced Crawford’s potent left-handed bat in the Rays lineup. And for now, the Rays are better for it. Perhaps there’s a bit of Kharma involved.

Dan Stetson

Finally, I would be remiss in saying nice things about prominent Lakelanders if I neglected our dear departing Dan Stetson, the longtime director of the Polk Museum of Art. I met Dan not long after coming to Lakeland in 1999. I think only Grady Judd has stayed so consistently in the public eye as Dan in the 12 years since then.

As anyone who knows him can testify: He was everywhere–like a superhero of marketing.

Now he’s taking that zest to Chattanooga, Tenn. He left on Friday, tweeting his way out of town.

From his charmingly–and sometimes maddeningly–long and sincere speeches, to the intensity and fun of his conversation, I think Dan sets the standard for living the role of public face of an important community institution. There’s no magic to it. You have to sincerely love the community and the institution. And you have to work at it.

4 thoughts on “I Wanna Be Good–And Say Nice Things About Prominent People

  1. Thanks for giving props to Dan Stetson.  Love him or hate him, he had a passion for his job and art as an institution.  He believed in his organization and it showed. The Polk Museum of Art is a better place today because of his diligence, hard work, vision and fundraising efforts.  Dan believes in art and he found a way to push the societal benefits in almost every conversation I had with him.  There were times that I would think to myself that this guy is one dimensional – there is more to life than art.  Not it Dan’s world, life revolves around art.  I wish him the best of luck in his new endeavor.  I just hope Dan will find a decent cup of java in Chattanooga and he forms a new coffee klatch to discuss the topics of the day over the flavor of the day. I know Chattanooga’s art museum will be a better place especially after Dan gets a chance to sink his crafty fingers into their community.   I raise my cup of Kona Peaberry to you Dan.  Good luck.

      • No, he didn’t. While with the Tigers organization they kept him close to Detroit with their Northern affiliates. He actually played 92 games for the big team.

        After Tampa got him, they had him play 10 games with the Charlotte Stone Crabs, their Florida League team, but Joyce never played against the Flying Tigers.

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