Impulse 66: Board Notes

Mark Laskow

Hero Fund still taking cues from Carnegie’s clues, a century later

I have a mental tic that kicks in when I’m working on Carnegie Hero Fund matters. When faced with a novel question, the question pops into my mind, “WWCD?” You guessed it, that’s “What would Carnegie do?” Fortunately, Andrew Carnegie left us plenty of clues about his thinking on many aspects of Hero Fund operations. He was a man of action, but a man of words as well.

The most definitive of his words relevant to us are the “Deed of Trust” by which he created the Hero Fund. You might say it is our constitution.

The Deed of Trust created the Hero Fund, defined its mission, and set boundaries by which it must operate. It’s not long, about 868 words, about the length of this column. Although it is now 117 years old, we still refer to it regularly to be sure we are meeting the mission in the way Carnegie specified.

We also have access to some other materials which shed light on what Carnegie was thinking when he wrote the Deed of Trust, including his edits to draft documents.

I myself once suggested simplifying the name of the organization to “Carnegie Hero Fund,” dropping the word “Commission,” but a Hero Fund staffer found a draft of the Deed of Trust in which, just as I suggested, the name had been trimmed back to the three words. Alas, on that draft Carnegie, in his own unmistakable hand, had restored the word “Commission.” Why? I don’t know, but the Hero Fund is his creation and if A.C. says it is a “Commission,” then a “Commission” it shall be!

Once the Hero Fund was created, Carnegie lived another 15 years until his death in 1919. He kept a lively interest in the Hero Fund, allowing us to look to his correspondence from the period for guidance on issues we face. For example, as we consider possible responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is helpful to read his advice to the Fund managers that they not neglect doctors, nurses, and other caregivers.

And we always keep before us his injunction that “The Hero Fund is to become the recognized agency, watching, applauding, and supporting where support is needed, heroic action wherever displayed and by whomever displayed — White or Black, Male or Female — or at least this is the hope.”

All of this might lead you to ask another question, “WWCT?” That is, what would Andrew Carnegie think of our world today, a century past his death? What would he think of the technology, social changes, and “divisive politics” we enjoy or endure today?

We don’t have the kind of written record on this, but, again, there are clues. For example, he got his break in business as a personal telegrapher to railroad managers. He was an “advanced communications technologist” in his day!

I think he would have loved satellite communications, mobile phones, and the internet. He particularly would have appreciated how railroads have brought all of those technologies together to vastly simplify problems he faced, such as unscrambling backups caused by breakdowns, weather, and the like.

As for social change, Carnegie was generally ahead of his time. Based on his personal history and struggle, he would certainly be pleased by the availability and quality of the education available to all today. And based on his leadership in his day, such as his major support for Booker T. Washington and his Tuskegee Institute, I’m confident Carnegie would be delighted with our progress on many major social issues.

As we ponder our “divisive politics,” remember Carnegie experienced the Hayes-Tilden election of 1876 (Google it!), which I submit makes our current situation look placid. Well, placid-ish. As for social media madness, Carnegie could watch Grover Cleveland’s opponents accuse him of fathering an illegitimate child by chanting “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” at campaign rallies. Twitter can be tough, but is it tougher than that? Carnegie might not have admired what we are experiencing, but I doubt he would have seen it as anything new.

All in all, my take is that Andrew Carnegie would be disappointed that on some issues we have not improved much beyond his day, but would even more delighted in the progress that we have made on many other issues … and by our continued determination to improve.

But most of all he would be delighted that amid all the changes and turmoil of our modern society, exceptional citizens continue to step forward and risk their lives to save others, displaying the enduring spark in the human spirit that Andrew Carnegie sought to recognize with his Hero medal. That is constant, and the mission he laid on his Hero Fund is as relevant as it was the day he signed that Deed of Trust.