Claire Perez, 23, graduated from La Sorbonne in Paris with an undergraduate degree in history and comparative literature and a master’s degree in journalism. She’s visiting her grandaunt and granduncle in Augusta, Cheryl and Dr. Edouard Servy.
Cheryl asked me to take Claire somewhere she could observe journalism at work in the U.S., so I took her to an Augusta Commission meeting last week. Afterward, I asked Claire to write her impressions of the meeting, which turned out to be so entertaining I’m sharing them with you:
A FRENCH’S FIRST COMMISSION MEETING, BY CLAIRE PEREZ: Quietness in the chamber. Before the meeting begins, the Rev. Ronald Wright leads the invocation. Everybody leans the head and crosses hands, in a contemplative attitude. The pastor thanks God and prays for this meeting to be helpful to Augusta. The assembly listens to him with respect. Seems normal, does it? But it is quite unusual to a stranger.
You would never attend such a scene in France, where God is more likely to be avoided than to be prayed. France has a long and bustling relationship with Him. Since 1905 and the law which voted the separation between the State and Churches, everything is done on behalf of secularism. Religion is a private matter and must not interfere in public issues.
Thus, what is more striking for a French visitor to look at Americans put the Almighty above politics? In France, we’re used to keeping the door closed between the two. And it’s not only because of this law. Expressing one’s religion can be very unpopular. God is an overrated, superstitious idea that France seems to want to get rid of.
Most of the French elites are not proud of their country, and they want to make it pay for its mistakes. Take a look at the beginning of a French soccer game; you can count on one hand the players who sing the national anthem. Whereas in the Augusta Commission chamber, everyone brings the right hand to the chest, in front of the star-spangled banner, and looks at it with devotion. All together, they recite the pledge of allegiance to the flag of the USA. For sure, they must feel proud of it.
The mayor divides up the different interventions, as an arbitrator. Every commissioner wants to share his or her point of view. And even more. “If I may give a history lesson …’” starts one of them. “No, please, can we move on?” the mayor sighs.
It takes time when it comes to alcohol. The clerk reads two motions to approve a request for an on-premise consumption liquor, beer and wine license and for a retail package beer and wine license. A tall black man suddenly stands up. “Sir!” he shouts at the mayor. “This is wrong, this is immoral, and you’re a Christian!”
“Please, sir, you are not allowed to talk, you have to be recognized,” interrupts the mayor. A security guard comes closer. The man sits and says, “It’s OK, I ain’t gonna do anything.”
That truly was unexpected. Another evidence of Americans’ religious moral. They take God as a witness. They don’t shrink back from doing it. This is so not similar to a French political meeting.
But the invocation’s earnest atmosphere soon became very less solemn. Commissioners drink Diet Coke; they chew gum pointedly. Two of them allow themselves a laugh, for they might feel a little bored. The clerk reads the items with a slow, monotonic voice. If one can get lost in the talk, the same words form the thread. The board … substitute motion … motion fails … Finally, a commissioner speaks in response to item 19, but we’re still at 18th.
“Well,” he says, “oh, never mind.” It seems that the visitor is not the only one to be confused! The mayor is pleased: “Thank you, we had a constructive dialogue.”
In the hall, back to business. Personal business. “I’m looking for a dog. I have this friend of mine who lost hers,” explains a commissioner to a journalist. “She’s an old lady, she has nobody else to live with.” The journalist promises to write something about this request. Motion approved.
(The commissioner Claire refers to is Donnie Smith. The journalist is moi.)
WOULD MORE OVERSIGHT PREVENT MORE OVERSIGHTS?: One item called for the law department to update the bylaws for the Housing and Neighborhood Development Department’s Citizens Advisory Committee, which disbanded amid controversy five years ago after Chester Wheeler was named department director.
Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said the department is doing fine without an advisory committee. But Commissioners Marion Williams, Bill Lockett and Alvin Mason spoke in favor of having a committee to oversee the millions of dollars that flow through the department each year.
“I don’t think we can have one person or several people looking over that type of money that nobody else sees until it’s been spent,” Williams said. “It’s like closing the gate after the cows got out.”
Last year, the city had to take $347,000 from the general fund to reimburse the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development because a project had not been completed on time and money was spent on ineligible projects.
ANOTHER ACHIEVEMENT FOR THE CHILDREN OF CHERRY AVENUE: Peggy Koon has been named vice president of audience, a senior-level position at The Augusta Chronicle. She’s currently the director of strategy, partnership development and management at the company.
Koon is an Augusta native from one of the many distinguished families of Augusta’s Cherry Avenue, a street of about two dozen houses in east Augusta’s Hornsby subdivision.
The street is a prime subject for a study into the roots of success. Almost all of the children who grew up there in the 1950s and ’60s graduated from high school, most went to college, and many received advanced degrees in engineering, mathematics, physics or education.
I wrote a story for the Chronicle about the children of Cherry Avenue 11 years ago and interviewed many of them, including Koon, the youngest of Irene and Enoch Ward’s children.
Here are excerpts from the article:
Irene Clark Ward, 89, and Enoch Ward, now deceased, raised 10 children on Cherry Avenue, five of whom received advanced degrees in mathematics, physics, engineering or English.
The Rev. Enoch Ward Jr., the valedictorian of Lucy C. Laney High School at 16, was the first black chemical engineer to graduate from Georgia Tech. He is now the pastor of First Metropolitan Baptist Church in Augusta.
Dr. Bennie Franklin Leon Ward earned a dual math and physics degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in four years and a doctorate in theoretical physics from Princeton University.
The Ward siblings agreed they owe the most to their mother.
“She was there all the time and knew what we were doing, and we knew she knew what we were doing,” Mrs. Koon said.