COMMENTARY: A heartland with heart: 42 Kansans ‘get-’er-done’

OKLAHOMA CITY — Call this a Thanksgiving story, a chapter in the American story.

The Associated Press, reporting from Hays, Kansas, this week detailed a recently completed project assuring that rural residents will have running water this winter, and from now on.

A project that was supposed to take two years took four months. Forty-two workers finished a 12-mile pipeline project “in a fraction of the time it was scheduled to take.”

Through a grant, the state paid $300,000, a fraction of the projected cost, to support the work in the form of materials, engineering and some other items. So, let’s “grant” this as an example of government helping, rather than impeding, progress. Indoor water is important to the area’s future.

Good news, you bet. Linger for a moment over the most expensive part. The labor was done by … 42 volunteers.

Those who worked without compensation?

They were local folks and regional neighbors who responded to stories about the hopes of members of the Leiker family. They had, in the third generation of farming, grown weary of hauling water by hand.

Credit the state grant, sure. That’s part of the story, but from south of the state line, this looks like another example of that American habit to “get-’er-done.” Government facilitated what willing souls – call them the Kansas Volunteers – pitched in to accomplish.

This sort of thing is actually still quite common here in the home of the free and the brave, the land of liberty.

Here’s an authentic tale related at the Global Forum on Direct Democracy  in San Francisco four years ago.

Pete Peterson, a Pepperdine University professor and former director of a group called “Common Sense California,” has evolved into a more or less full-time advocate of what he calls deliberative democracy, or civic engagement.

Peterson often talks about a place called Polihale, a tropical corner of earthly paradise on Kaui, at the far northwest edge of Hawaii, a place where people go to watch the sun set over the Pacific.

In late 2007, a torrential storm destroyed every bridge, every road, every means of ground access to Polihale, including the park around which much of the area’s economic life centered.

Peterson tells about a “plucky group of Hawaiians” who “faced with the loss of their businesses due to the state government’s inability to open park roads to a popular beach and camping area, took care of it themselves for a fraction of the cost and in a fraction of the time.

After the devastation, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources acted about as quickly as government can, issuing an estimate that repairs would cost taxpayers $4 million. Predictions were the park could not reopen until 2010.

As Peterson relates, “The department convened an ‘information meeting’.” The purpose was not to discuss “how residents could work with the department to open the roads.” No, the bureaucrats were there “to provide information on how to lobby the state for more funding.”

That didn’t sit well with the surfers or the natives who earned their living working at and around Polihale, and it sure didn’t impress the local businessmen.

“Ivan Slack, owner of Na Pali Kayaks, which operates from the beach in Polihale, summed up the community’s frustration: ‘We can wait around for the state or federal government to make this move, or we can go out and do our part.’ Beginning in late March, business leaders and local residents organized — ‘associated’ — to take the situation into their own hands. From food donated by local restaurants to heavy machinery offered by local construction companies, a project that was originally forecast to cost millions and take months, if not years, was nearly completed in a matter of weeks, all with donated funds, manpower, and equipment. As Troy Martin from Martin Steel, which provided machinery and 5-tons of steel at no charge, put it, ‘We shouldn’t have to do this, but when it gets to a state level, it just gets so bureaucratic; something that took us eight days would have taken them years. So we got together — the community — and we got it done.’ ”

The work involved bridge-building, rest room reconstruction, and “use of heavy equipment to clear miles of flood-damaged roadways.”

Willing volunteers, gifts from businesses, and a determination, as more refined souls might put it, to “get it done.”

Roads to the park reopened in time for summer 2008. So it went, and so it goes.

There was a time in America when, if people in a frontier town decided it was time to have a school, they would get together, come up with a plan, build the school, then raise the money to hire a teacher.

What happened in Kansas is not a whole lot different than Peterson’s story — call it “The Parable of Polihale.” In another era, it was the kind of tale related in Alexis de Tocqueville’s masterful, “Democracy in America.”

It is as American as apple pie — like indoor plumbing, power to the people and a willingness to do what is necessary to fix what is broken, or improve what is already in place.


Note: Portions of this essay appeared in 2012 on, and in 2010 in Note: Perspective Magazine, monthly publication of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.