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Leaders wanted, apply within

I HAD THE PLEASURE of checking out the remodeled Massie Heritage Center last week the same day it reopened to the public.

The million–dollar renovation is money well–spent, and with this unveiling the formerly humble building on Calhoun Square immediately jumps into the discussion of first–tier attractions in Savannah.

For those unfamiliar with the “Massie School,” as old–timers call it, it’s the oldest public school in Georgia. Wealthy planter Peter Massie founded it in 1856 to provide Savannah with a quality school for children of lesser means than his own.

After the Civil War the Massie School would for a time be a dedicated school for African American children. Massie educated generations of local kids through the mid–1970s (my late next–door neighbor Eloise Rogers taught there for decades), after which time it became a museum and frequent field–trip destination.

In short, the Massie School represents everything good about Savannah, in the way we’d like the world to see it. But the remodeling takes things to a new level, and stands on its own as a sort of mini–Savannah history museum in and of itself.

The centerpiece of the renovation is a large layout of Savannah’s city plan. The push of a button begins a sound–and–laser show taking you through the development of James Oglethorpe’s one–of–a–kind design (actually not entirely unique, but we’ll get to that later).

Other exhibits include a very well–done room interpreting Savannah’s architectural heritage and the valiant efforts by people like Emma Adler to preserve it (more on that later too).

But as my daughter and I enjoyed the new exhibits, I couldn’t help but note the strangely fitting irony of the Massie unveiling taking place the same week as the tragically young death of Otis Brock III, longtime chief operations officer of the Savannah–Chatham Public Schools.

I can’t indulge in the more personal style of tribute to Brock you’ve no doubt already seen much of, since I only met him once.

But one thing I’ve gathered about Otis Brock from talking to those who knew him well and worked with him:

He was not only a rising star in Savannah, but perhaps the rising star — one of a very, very small group of people in town who move easily through, over and around the usual racial issues which are such a constant hindrance here.

His name was mentioned not only as a successor to current Superintendent Thomas Lockamy, but as mayor of Savannah. Either would have been great, but neither was meant to be.

Brock leaves behind not only a family including young children, but a stunned populace in dire need of his kind of leadership. His sudden passing — at an age younger than my own — reinforced not only the fragile nature of life, but the fragility of leadership itself. Both are rare gifts.

For example: Everything that people come to Savannah from all over the world to see and experience stems from two key leadership decisions made long ago:

1) Oglethorpe’s original plan, studied the world over as a near–perfect urban design that’s as brilliant now as it was in 1733;

2) The stalwart preservation of his original plan by forward–thinking community leaders like Emma Adler in the 1950s and ‘60s.

That’s it. Everything about Savannah that we might consider noteworthy — SCAD, Gulfstream, even Paula Deen and Pinkie Masters’ — in some way owes its success to just those two sterling examples of foresight.

Don’t believe me? Consider the sad case of Brunswick, Georgia.

Brunswick has never been what you’d call exciting. But with the devastation of the economic downturn, it’s now half boarded up — just a smelly beat-down place you drive through on the way to St. Simons Island.

But here’s the thing: Oglethorpe also founded Brunswick, and also laid it out according to his original Savannah plan.

What happened? At some point, Brunswick’s “leaders” decided they didn’t need those pesky squares slowing down traffic. So they let the streets run right through the middle of them. Only one Brunswick square remains intact, and it’s a pale comparison to even the least impressive Savannah square.

We see that Brunswick is not only paying for that example of poor leadership decades after the fact, it will continue paying dearly for that poor leadership far into the indefinite future.

That could have been us. Don’t fool yourself: It could still be us.

Leadership is that fragile, and all it takes is one misstep now to destroy an entire future.

Savannah’s at a crossroads. We face crucial decisions about future growth and quality of life.

The question for us today is: Where is the next James Oglethorpe, the next Peter Massie, the next Emma Adler?

The next Otis Brock III?

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