A Few Words on Genius
Bill Long 8/16/11
A Story of Kansas
When I left Kansas in August 1996 to attend law school, I thought I was leaving Kansas forever. Yet, in the following 15 years I not only have been back there a dozen times and have renewed and made new relationships with KS folks, but my mind keeps returning to that simple, but rather blessed (as it turns out) life on the Kansas plains. One of the conversations I will most cherish was with a now-deceased farmer from Sylvia KS, Don Brownlee, in a lunch at his home in 1992.
Setting the Context
While teaching history and government at Sterling College in Sterling KS (1990-96), I replaced my colleague and friend Tony Petrotta (who now is an Anglican Priest in Oregon) as the Sunday preacher at a tiny Presbyterian Church in Stafford, about 45 minutes south and west of Sterling. The connection between the school and the church was made long before by Ritchey Stewart, class of 1937, a Stafford-area farmer and general good citizen of the area. I began my Sunday preaching duties in Fall 1991. Within a year the church had closed its doors, hopefully not due to my preaching (!), but rather to the fact that the elderly people kept dying and the feeling was that the trend would continue unabated. Yet, before the church died, I had some precious conversations, one of which I will relate here.
Meeting Don (and Mary Lou and David)
Don Brownlee was the oldest of four boys who grew up on the family farm in Sylvia, about ten miles east of Stafford. The Brownlees, along with other Scottish families, had homesteaded the area in the 1880s, and Don was the eldest of the third generation on the land. Their parcel lies, appropriately enough, on Brownlee Rd. Though Sylvia currently has no town offices for its population of about 250, in the early 20th century it was the third largest town in Reno County, boasting a population in excess of 600 and producing wheat and corn crops in abundance.
The family had bequeathed much to the college (one Brownlee had just retired as dean of the college; another was a professor of home economics; another child was music director at the local high school) and to the academic world in general (brother Bill was a distinquished New Testament/Dead Sea Scrolls scholar), but Don decided to be the gentleman farmer on the family acres. I took a liking to him, his wife Mary Lou and their 40 year-old son, David, whose earnestness, generosity of spirit and quirkiness marked him as a true Scot.
I might not have gotten to know Don that well (I was only at the church on Sunday mornings) had not Ritchey Stewart told me in his retiring off-handed way one morning that everyone knew that Don Brownlee was the "local genius." You could "give him any problem," with respect to farming, finance, machines, or ideas, and he would "solve it for you" before you knew it. Struck by Ritchey's comment, I decided to try to explore this topic a bit more.
Lunch at the Brownlee Farm
A few months later, Don and Mary Lou invited me over to their home for an after-church lunch. Don said he had just written a song he wanted to play for me, and I was charmed. It turned out that the song's genesis was in one of the sermons I preached. Don was struck by the image in Exodus 3 of Moses at the burning bush--the bush was "burning but not consumed." I made a big point of that--quoting the Latin inscription above the Presbyterian General Assembly building in Edinburgh to that effect--and talked about how the focus of our life ought to be captured in that phrase--to burn but not "burn out," to burn and not be consumed.
Over a healthful lunch (I am sure it had beef in it), we fell into a conversation on all manner of things, such as the huge pipe organ he had built in their house, the realities of Kansas farming, the geography of that part of the world (Don introduced me to the term "lines of accommodation" in speaking of straight Kansas roads that gently curved to accommodate the curvature of the earth) and many other things. Finally, I broached the topic:
The Brief Conversation
"Don," I said, "there is a story going around that you are the local genius. I wanted to ask you about that."
He quickly brushed me off in his understated and genial manner. But I persisted.
"Don, I would really like to know about how your genius works. Can you tell me about it."
He looked at me for a second, closed his eyes and simply said, "It means that when you go down to the river with your bucket, the water is always flowing."
We had other conversations after that, but this was the most memorable. It was simple, visual, to the point. Genius, for Don, was simply the observation that the ideas were always there--and that we were privileged to draw a few out of the flowing river. I have thought about it much since then. Perhaps our mind is the river, teeming with the living water. All that really needs to be done is to put in the bucket, and more than enough to satisfy you (and, I hope, others) will result. This, then, is the end of our desperation, our worry, our wonder about what to do in the world. Our genius, my genius, is always there, running like the stream, waiting for me to put in the bucket and bring the water for all. Thanks to Don, who is no longer with us, I can live with this calm, confidence and conviction.