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The Yardstick Sep-10-2001

A Time for Goodbye After 56 Years

By Msgr. George G. Higgins

I began writing "The Yardstick" column in 1945 --56 years ago. In 1970, in a retrospective column marking my 25th anniversary, I said that while a weekly deadline was a bit of a chore, I planned to continue writing "The Yardstick" for the indefinite future.

I realize now that I spoke too soon. I failed to anticipate that the time might eventually come when, for reasons of age and health, I might have to resign voluntarily. That time now has arrived. Here is why.

In my 25th anniversary column, I said that not the least of the fringe benefits of writing a column is that anyone who does so over an extended period of time is almost compelled, despite himself, to do more serious reading than he might otherwise be prompted to do. Not that reading doth a columnist make, but other things being equal it helps to prime the pump and to keep the well from going dry.

I still subscribe to that notion but, unfortunately, macular degeneration has impaired my vision severely and made it impossible for me to do any sustained, serious reading. I can barely cope with newspaper headlines and can hardly read my own notoriously illegible handwriting. This means that even dictating a column is no longer possible.

To make a long story short, I reluctantly have decided to retire. This Labor Day column is the last of nearly 3,000 columns I have written since I first inherited "The Yardstick" in 1945 from its originator, the late Father Raymond A. McGowan, my "boss" for many years in the social action department of the old National Catholic Welfare Conference (now the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops).

Passionist Father John O'Brien, a doctoral student at Weston Jesuit School of Theology who has been dipping into my accumulated papers in The Catholic University of America archives, has done me the invaluable service of cataloging almost all of these columns. Scanning his catalog has been for me a rewarding but also chastening experience. It reminded me that on many issues I was more or less on target, but that on others I was wide of the mark, if not completely wrong.

Father O'Brien's catalog shows that while I covered a lot of ground in my thousands of disparate columns, I wrote more columns about labor issues than any other subject. For this reason, I thought it would be appropriate to sign off after 56 years with this farewell Labor Day column.

The message of my scores of columns on labor issues and the message of this one can be summarized succinctly in the words of the late Msgr. John A. Ryan, first director of the old NCWC social action department and a revered mentor of several generations of American Catholics in the field of Catholic social reform. At the height of the Depression in the 19305, Msgr. Ryan wrote:

"Effective labor unions are still by far the most powerful force in society for the protection of the laborer's rights and the improvement of his or her condition. No amount of employer benevolence, no diffusion of a sympathetic attitude on the part of the public, no increase of beneficial legislation can adequately supply for the lack of organization among the workers themselves."

Some readers of "The Yardstick" probably feel that I have emphasized this point too often during the past 56 years. I respectfully disagree, but there is no point saying exactly why now that I am retiring from the fray. My views on this issue are on the record, and it's too late to withdraw them.

Thirty years ago, the late Louis Kronenberger, a well-known literary critic who wrote a column for six months for a New York daily newspaper, said in his autobiography, " A column is something everyone at some time wants to try his hand at, and should --if only to have done so and know better." I disagree.

I feel privileged to have been able to write "The Yardstick" for 56 years and, health permitting, would be glad to keep at it for many years to come. But, alas, that is not to be.

As I say farewell, let me close with a word of sincere thanks to my many editors during all these years. They have been helpful to me beyond the call of duty.

And last, but not least, let me add a word of thanks to my readers. I will miss hearing from them --including those who were honest enough to tell me I should never have begun to write the column in the first place and should have retired years ago.

Best wishes to my successor, who I hope will enjoy writing the column as much as I have enjoyed it for so many years.

Goodbye to all -- and thanks for a wonderful 56 years

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