Commentary: Lessons from Montgomery and Lolly Ratajczak

Every year it’s my responsibility to say a few words at our community’s annual Celebration of Giving luncheon about why the Door County Community Foundation has selected the honoree. My assigned task is to articulate the themes from a person’s life of service in hopes that there are lessons we can draw.

The 2018 Philanthropist of the Year is Lolly Ratajczak. With her husband Dave, Lolly found Door County in the 1960s and fell in love with its natural beauty. She assumed volunteer leadership positions with Birch Creek Music Performance Center, the YMCA, and the Door County String Academy. She gave of her time to countless other groups and was a founding member of the Women’s Fund of Door County.

In preparation for this year’s celebration, I found myself re-reading the works of Paul Loeb. In his famous book, Soul of a Citizen, and his subsequent anthology, The Impossible Will Take a Little While, Loeb reflects at length on the civil rights icon Rosa Parks.

Now I’m sure that most everyone knows the basics of the story of Rosa Parks. She was the 42-year-old African American woman who on Dec. 1, 1955, refused to obey an Alabama bus driver’s order that she give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger who had just gotten on the crowded vehicle.  

Her refusal would inspire the Montgomery Bus Boycott. That boycott, in turn, would elevate one of its leaders, Martin Luther King, Jr., to the national stage. Eventually the Montgomery Bus Boycott would galvanize our nation and become one of the most important moments of the civil rights movement.

Of course, for those of you who know Lolly, you know that her exceptional grace and modesty is making her cringe right now by my trying to compare her to Rosa Parks. I’m not going to embarrass Lolly by trying to equate her with Rosa Parks, but I’d ask for your indulgence because there is a parallel I’d like to explore.

The common portrayal of Mrs. Parks is as an uninvolved person, sitting on the sidelines of segregation, who simply got tired of giving in and impulsively decided that she would no longer subjugate herself to the racist and obscene Jim Crow laws.  

What many of us have forgotten is that Mrs. Parks was not the first person arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. In fact, before Mrs. Parks was arrested in 1955, Claudette Colvin, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith and Aurelia Browder were also arrested, on the same bus system, in the same city, for the same crime.

Loeb reminds us that the leaders of the NAACP created a list of specific candidates with the inner strength, and personal stories, that the NAACP believed were well suited to undertaking this very specific act of resistance. Mrs. Parks was simply the next name up on the list.

Now this truth in no way diminishes the bravery, power and historical importance of Mrs. Parks’ refusal to give up her seat. But this tremendously consequential act, and the historic changes that would follow, did not begin with Mrs. Park on that fateful day on the bus.  Rather, it began with all the humble, frequently invisible, and often frustrating work, that Mrs. Parks and countless others undertook in the years before that pivotal day in history.

Mrs. Parks had been an active member of the Civil Rights Movement for many years before then. She had been the secretary of the Montgomery Chapter of the NAACP. She had even recently attended a training program on the techniques of peaceful resistance.

The stories we are fed, be it in People Magazine or on video clips on Facebook, are of individual people who come out of nowhere to take sudden and dramatic stands against the world. That leads us to the false conclusion that change occurs instantly, when one brave individual decides to take a lonely and bold stand.

Loeb writes that the myth of Mrs. Parks as a lone activist reinforces a notion that anyone who takes a committed public stand, or at least an effective one, has to be a larger-than-life figure – someone with more time, energy, courage, vision or knowledge than any normal person could ever possess. When we enshrine our heroes on pedestals, it becomes hard for us mere mortals to measure up in our eyes. We find it hard to imagine that ordinary human beings, with ordinary flaws, can do extraordinary things when we come together in service of a common purpose.

The lesson of Rosa Parks is not of the singular hero standing alone against the world. Mrs. Parks’ journey informs us that progress is the result of people inspired by a shared vision coming together to take deliberate, incremental action. And sometimes those actions can change the world.

Therein is the parallel with our friend Lolly Ratajczak. Lolly was not the first person to serve as president of the Board of Directors of the Birch Creek Music Performance Center. Nor was she the last. Yet when her turn came, the organization took a single step in the right direction.  Then she helped it take another step. And then another. Eventually those steps took Birch Creek on a journey to a place almost unrecognizable from where it began.

And Lolly would be the first to tell you that she didn’t do it alone. But it was her determination to succeed combined with the dignity with which she carries herself, and the graciousness through which she treats others, that inspired people to join her on that journey. Time and again, this has been the pattern of Lolly’s life of service here in Door County.

Lolly is an exceptional person who has unquestionably helped our community do exceptional things. But the lesson of Lolly is that within each of us is the capacity to be an exceptional person as well. If we also approach our work with determination, dignity and grace, we too might inspire others to join with us. Then perhaps, like Lolly, we can accomplish exceptional things for our beloved Door County.


Bret Bicoy is president & CEO of the Door County Community Foundation. Contact him at [email protected].  

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