On knowing someone, who knows someone

My uncle Harry had a small store in Peabody, Mass., where I spent many hours as a child. In the middle 1950s there was a major Davy Crockett craze, and the small revolving toy stand in the store held Davy Crockett toys. I was a rapidly growing boy, and having an uncle who always had on hand a toy coonskin cap that would fit me was a real advantage.

Uncle Harry reported the conversation of two elderly women who entered the store:

"Who is this Davy Crockert?" asked the first. "Everywhere you go, Davy Crockert, Davy Crockert. He's getting rich, Davy Crockert. What did he do?"

Her companion replied, "It's the same old story. Money goes to money. You have money, you make money."

"But I never heard of him before. Why, did he have money before?"

"Not Davy Crockert. His wife."

"His wife? Who is his wife?"

"Of course you know his wife. Betty Crockert."

Even at age 10, I knew that Davy Crockett and Betty Crocker were not related. I've been immune to some kinds of conspiracy theories ever since. But I was aware that having a family member who knows something, or knows someone who knows someone, can be useful.

I got to see this principle in action 10 years later, when my mother was working for the Montgomery County, Md., School Board. She was what my family called "the in-house influence peddler." Her job included creating educational enrichment programs for underprivileged children.

I was in college, then, and had a summer job at the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), which is now the National Institute for Standards and Technology. Around 1964 the Bureau moved from its old buildings in Washington, D.C., to Gaithersburg, Md. Its new facilities included two large auditoriums that were used for scientific meetings.

They were also among the most impressive stage facilities in the Washington area at that time. I reported this to my mother.

My mother realized that if she could use one of those auditoriums to put on theatrical performances for schoolchildren, it would be near the poorer (northern) end of the county. And many children's theater groups would want to perform there to be filmed or photographed in the well-equipped and plush surroundings.

She politely approached the relevant person at the NBS, who eventually gave her a polite but very firm and final "No."

"These are serious scientific facilities," he explained, "and we can't have 500 third-graders tromping through every Wednesday."

"Oh, I'm sure you'll try to find a way," my mother replied sweetly.

Whom could she appeal to? Lyndon Johnson was president, and his secretary of Commerce (the department the NBS reported to) was a C.R. Smith. He was such an obscure figure among the people we knew that no one seemed to even know what the "C.R." stood for.

But as my mother asked around among her friends, someone asked if the Department of Labor had anything to do with it. No, it didn't. But Millard Cass, who had been head of the County Parents and Teachers Association, worked quite high up in the Department of Labor.

So my mother asked him.

Mr. Cass never said exactly what he did. Maybe the Department of Commerce owed him a favor, or perhaps he found someone there who really believed in supporting the schools.

A few weeks later, the man at the NBS called my mother back.

"Mrs. Ordman, who do you know, the president?" he said. "I don't know what you did, but how soon do you want to start using the auditorium?"

The first program, by the Pickwick Players, still sticks in my memory. My mother gave a lot of pep talks to the third-graders beforehand. "This is a very important grown-up occasion. You have to act as if you are all at least 25 years old." Walking through the brand new grounds of the bureau, one child pointed at the tallest building: "Is that where the princess lives?"

The children, in awe, were remarkably well-behaved - and my mother had recruited volunteers to follow them, clean up, even check the bathrooms afterward. When the NBS cleaning crew arrived, they wondered if the event had been canceled, things were so neat.

"The scientists always leave a lot of mess for us to pick up," they reported.

The children's thank-you notes were posted all over the relevant offices and the cafeteria at the bureau, and the invitations to return were much more cheerful. Several programs a semester followed, for a dozen years or more. With multiple performances, as many as 1,500 pupils would see a show in one day.

The cooperation between the NBS and the schools was well-recognized. Other school systems sent observers to see the shows, which helped get several young groups of performers off to successful careers that still continue.

And my mother received a national award from the Children's Theater Association of Maryland.

The school system always had some difficulty describing to the state Department of Education exactly what my mother's job qualifications were. "Knowing someone who knows someone" doesn't quite sound right on a job description. The title on her business card was "Coordinator of Community Resources."

If you define the community widely enough, that was fairly accurate.

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