Whether it is viewed as fate or divine intervention or just the right thing to do, people understand what is a good fit and what is well deserved.
At last week’s annual awards banquet of United Way of Bradley County Inc. — hosted by one of the local nonprofit’s most loyal supporters, Life Care Centers of America — we witnessed this reality.
The award was United Way’s highest honor that can be bestowed upon one of its volunteers — the prestigious William F. Johnson Sr. Community Service Award.
The humble recipient was a familiar name and face, yet one whose good deeds in the Cleveland and Bradley County community often go unnoticed: Dr. Rodney Fitzgerald, a retired instructor whose roots in education are as deep as his personal conviction for helping others and giving back to a hometown that has cared for him and his family since childhood.
Much to the award recipient’s credit, he thanked others for the recognition ... because it was others who instilled in him the belief and the value and the understanding and the power of community service. We speak, of course, of his beloved parents — Arch and Lillie Fitzgerald — a special pair of Cleveland and Bradley County advocates who have long since left this life, but who left it in a far better state.
In accepting the United Way honor, their son spoke of his parents’ influence.
“As I look at this award, and I am so thankful for it tonight, I have to give credit where credit is due,” the recipient told an assembly of hundreds of United Way supporters. “I look at my past and I look at my family. My mother and dad left me a wonderful legacy of giving.”
Like so many others who are molded from a spirit of serving as their brother’s keeper, Fitzgerald — who has held most key United Way volunteer posts — told his listeners, “I realize what a wonderful organization this is and what it means to live in a community like this that is so blessed to have such a sense of volunteerism and cooperation. And I hope that continues.”
An eternal optimist who believes in the hometown that has given him life, and that has sustained his belief in humanity and humanitarian deeds, Fitzgerald continues to nurture a team approach in exploring people outreach and identifying civic ideals. It’s not about individuals, he contends. It is about individuals working together for the good of the whole, and recognizing current and future need.
He says it better than our words in print can ever hope to describe. At the United Way dinner, the visionary looked ahead.
“I am convinced this community is committed as a group of people who will always realize that working together we can only accomplish so much, and that so much will impact the community in ways we will never know. And I just know we are all going to be held accountable someday for our actions. I just want to be there in the middle of service; that is where I have always wanted to be.”
And he added, “That is what I love to do. I love giving back to the community that has cared for me. I want you to know from the bottom of my heart how much I appreciate this award tonight.”
As we said, certain community awards seem intended for certain community servants.
Over the years, Fitzgerald’s service to United Way has been unparalleled: campaign solicitor, campaign division chair, campaign co-chair, board member, executive committee member, chair of the community impact team, fund distribution chairman and member of many, many fund distribution panels. That’s just a few. And oh yes, he and his wife, Margo, have been generous United Way donors for decades.
To borrow from a familiar phrase, Fitzgerald not only talks the United Way talk. He walks the United Way walk.
Since its inception, United Way’s William F. Johnson Sr. Community Service Award has honored some of this community’s finest. Dr. Rodney Fitzgerald continues that stirring tradition.
On an ironic twist, it seems Fitzgerald is not keen on plaques. So in keeping with United Way’s journey into innovation, the organization chose instead to secure him one square foot of territory in the Scottish Highlands. Accordingly, this earns him a status as Lord Rodney Fitzgerald. Rather than a plaque, he now has a title.
While “Lord Rodney” assuredly will become an endearing nickname for those who love him most, we suspect the award recipient’s preference will remain, “Rodney ... just Rodney.”
By any other name, the rose will smell as sweet. By any other title, Rodney Fitzgerald remains the epitome of all that is good and all that is right in mankind. To say he defines the truest sense of humanity would be our words, not his.
But we do know this. The world needs more Rodney Fitzgeralds.
Imagine the future if every hometown had one of its own.