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One spring evening in a town (which shall remain nameless for the purposes of this story) not far from here the leaders of the community – the real movers and shakers – got together in the banquet room of a local inn for one of those chamber of commerce congratulatory events where everyone in the room gets some kind of “prestigious” award.
I'm sure you've been to such events where one civic leader or business owner will stand at the microphone and go on extolling the virtues of another civic leader or business owner – virtues everyone in attendance knows full-well he or she doesn't possess – and then the extoller will hand the humble rascal a plaque suitable for hanging. Then it's someone else's turn. The extolling and awarding will continue until all the plaques stacked behind the head table have been handed out.
At this point at such banquets most people usually get up and go home.
But on this particular night in this particular town that didn't happen. Several people, including some of the real big shots, stayed at their table and basked in the afterglow of all those flattering speeches.
One of the evening's awards had gone to the president of the local parent teacher organization for the innovative writing program she had helped initiate at the middle school, and the talk among the stragglers turned to writing.
"Isn't it shameful what's happened to the quality of writing these days?" asked the president of the local chamber, to no one in particular.
"I couldn't agree more," said the principal of the local high school, adding that it was all the fault of things like television and e-mail.
No one knows who first suggested a contest – it was either the slightly intoxicated principal or the mildly inebriated president of the chamber of commerce – but at some point one of these local luminaries boldly proposed a local writing contest.
Once suggested, the idea took off like a prairie fire.
By the time all the stragglers left for home they had scribbled down some contest rules, listed names of possible sponsors, come up with ideas on prizes and agreed to meet around 9 the next morning at the chamber office.
It was at that first meeting that cracks began to show in the contest's hastily poured foundation. The president of the chamber assumed from the beginning that since the high school was filled with well-educated teachers its employees would do most of the heavy lifting involved, including publicity and judging. For his part, the principal assumed that since the chamber had so many active members it would do most of work involved, and all he had to do was send notices home to parents and put a few articles in the local paper to publicize the writing contest.
"Why can't those teachers of yours read the contest entries?" the chamber president demanded.
"Because those teachers of mine are too busy working second jobs to make ends meet – that's why!" the principal replied. "Why can't that chamber of yours hire some of my underpaid teachers to judge the writing entries?" he snorted.
From that point things went downhill fast.
The high school did sent out notices to parents and local papers about the writing contest and the entries poured in. But by this time contest organizers were at each others' throats arguing about every contest detail and whose responsibility was whose.
There were many more contest entries than anyone had anticipated and the chamber spent a small fortune to pay the judges from the local school. The chamber president demanded that the principal help defray the high cost of the judging but the principal adamantly refused.
When it came time to organize the writing contest's awards ceremony more arguments erupted and more nerves were frayed. Although hastily thrown together the ceremony somehow managed to go on and the winning writers got their prizes, although by now organizers — even those on the same side originally – weren't even speaking.
Even after the contest was over things were so bad in town that chamber members avoided chamber meetings. One member wouldn't acknowledge another member if they passed on the street, and phone calls all over town went unanswered.
The next year's chamber dinner had to be canceled for lack of interest, and there was even some talk of dissolving the now crippled organization.
It took years for things in the town to get back to normal. The chamber president eventually sold his business and retired to Arizona. The high school principal didn't retire, but around the same time got a job in a far-away district and couldn't leave town fast enough.
Folks in town who still remember it say the whole thing started because the chamber president and the high school principal once lingered too long at a banquet.
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John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly
throughout New England. John’s e-mail address is mainestoryteller@yahoo.com.
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