Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Some of Life's Events Lead in Unexpected Directions

The announcement that Natural Grocers is coming to Corvallis mentioned  the chain’s founders,  Philip and Margaret Isely.   It reminded me that I had attended a meeting Mr. Isely organized in Denver fifty years ago and had corresponded with him before and after that meeting.  

My acquaintance with Isely resulted from  events going back to my high school days in Vallejo, California.  The honor society at Vallejo was the California Scholarship Federation,  and CSF’s principal activity was a field trip to San Francisco once each semester.  After touring an educational site they would turn us loose on Market Street for a few hours.  One such trip was on November 10, 1955, and I paid 10 cents for a used book by Norman Cousins,  Modern Man Is Obsolete.

This book expanded an editorial Cousins wrote for the Saturday Review of Literature shortly after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan.  He argued that in the atomic age,  mankind would destroy itself unless we established a world government:  “No control [of the atomic bomb] without power, no power without law,  no law without government.”  I found this argument overwhelming (perhaps more so than I do now), and it helped change my college plans from studying physics to studying political science and languages with an eye to a diplomatic career.

My college years at Willamette University followed this new plan but led me to rethink the career.  I ended up in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University preparing to be a college teacher.  But my interest in world government remained strong.

In 1963 the World Committee For A World Constitutional Convention held a “preparatory congress” in Denver.   It was in early September,  when I would be returning from Portland to Baltimore for my final year of graduate school, so  I just hopped off the train for five days in Denver en route east.  I was a (self-selected) delegate,  presented a paper on strategies for a sustained campaign,  and met Philip Isely,   the impressive executive secretary for the World Committee and its main leader and driving force.

As often happens,  Isely and I lost contact decades ago.  I assumed he must have died long since,  but googling reveals that he only died in 2012, at age 96.  His obituaries suggest that his mission in life was promoting peace and world government. Apparently Natural Grocers was more the work of his wife,  Margaret.

Philip Isely reminds us that economic activities are not necessarily the most important part of a person’s life work.  And my experience illustrates how important accidents can be in shaping our lives.  What if I had never found that book?  What if someone else had bought it an hour earlier?  According to a handwritten letter pasted in the back cover, it was a wedding present from a Stanford professor named Sam Hepburn to one of his former students only ten years earlier.  So why was the book for sale?  Did his former student die?  Was she divorced?     

And what if Natural Grocers had not come to Corvallis?  I might never have thought about Philip Isely again, and could not have written this article.  Reading the “replacement” article occupying this space in the GT  might have affected someone’s life as dramatically as finding Norman Cousin’s book impacted mine.

Or perhaps this article itself may lead a reader in unexpected directions.   These kinds of thing go on all the time.   I leave the rest of the story to your imagination.

This piece has appeared in the Corvallis, Oregon Gazette-Times.

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