The Business of Mankind
Few holiday stories are as well-known or as well-loved as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s a timeless story that has entertained generations of readers. There are truths that play out in the life of the story’s main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserable man who is blinded by his insatiable appetite for money. At the beginning, Ebenezer is visited by the ghost of his recently deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, whose spirit returns for the sole purpose of warning the bad-tempered old miser of the awful reality that Marley has discovered after his death. “I wear the chain I forged in life,” Marley said. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard... I am here tonight to warn you that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate.”
There comes a time in the life of every leader when they must decide their purpose. Will they set their focus on power? On money? Or maybe on building a reputation? It’s a widely held belief that the purpose of business is to maximize profit for shareholders. It’s this line of thinking that paved the way for that cold dark night of ghosts and life altering lessons for Ebenezer. He would require a change of heart. In the words of Marley, “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
Ruth Ellen Whitt has been proving for years it doesn’t always take a rendezvous with spirits in the night to recognize that mankind should always be our first priority. She has made it her business to focus on the people of Texarkana and their success as leaders and business owners. “If you think about it, the capacity of each human being is our civilization’s greatest asset. Imagine if every individual was given the opportunity to tap the joy of knowing and realizing their own greatest potential. What would our world be like? What could we do? What should we do? What will we do? The alternative would be really sad,” Whitt said.
Ruth Ellen was born in College Station, Texas. She found herself surrounded by Aggies and immersed in Aggieland. “I grew up in a wonderful A&M-focused family, the youngest of four children, with treasured roots and humble relations. We lived traditions of family gatherings, singing, and games, with scholarly parents who shared scientific explanations of the world on nature walks and insights on the Latin roots of words we used in dinner conversations.” Growing up, the study of performing arts was a passion for Ruth Ellen. From dance and piano, to theatre, choir and voice, “with a bit of flute thrown in,” she considers herself lucky to have been trained by incredibly talented instructors.
Ruth Ellen completed ten years of graduate and post-graduate studies, becoming a Nationally Certified Speech Pathologist, as well as teaching in classrooms of every age student from Pre-K to undergraduates. Soon after, she and her husband, Dr. David Whitt, along with their two daughters Emmy and Carlynn, moved to Texarkana so Dr. Whitt could begin his medical practice as a Head and Neck Surgeon. “The Perot Theatre had just been renovated, TRAHC’s (Texarkana Regional Arts & Humanities Council) Perot Theatre Series was so enticing, and TRAHC was just launching Women for the Arts (WFA). My wise mother called and told me: ‘If you care about that theatre and what’s going on there, call them up and tell them you want to help, or else you will find yourself being pulled into all sorts of other volunteer positions that are not really your passion.’ Best advice ever. Thanks, mother!” It was a perfect opportunity to tap into all the performing arts of her past and to pass on to others her love for all their benefits. “The arts grow smarts. Seriously! It’s a fact well-evidenced in decades of research, AND they bring joy.”
Ruth Ellen followed her mother’s advice and was asked to be on the founding board of WFA as the volunteer head of Perot Theatre Tours. That position led her to becoming part of TRAHC’s education staff as part-time Education Coordinator, working under the Arts Education Director. “I spent the majority of the next 20 years of my career working through multiple positions at TRAHC, focused on becoming an articulate and effective advocate of the arts and arts education, for developing our children, our schools, our workforce, and our community.” Ruth Ellen has such an enduring belief that the arts can make all the difference in the lives of individuals and the community as a whole. “What I’d REALLY like to accomplish is to convince Texarkana leaders that we could maximize our workforce and develop our very own ingenuity and talent pipeline by making arts education a priority… We could build the creative workforce and grow the knowledge economy that would make Texarkana, USA into the best small community in the United States and EVERYONE would want their children to go to school here!”
Ruth Ellen retired as TRAHC’s Executive Director in 2008. When most of us dream of retirement, we think of it as a time to slow down and relax a little more. Instead, for the next year, she took on several volunteer positions. Life for Ruth Ellen is simply more fulfilling when she can invest in the lives of others. For her, it’s a calling that can’t be ignored. She began leading the strategic planning of the newly formed Texarkana Symphony Orchestra board and also accepted a position on the Leadership Texarkana Board of Directors. Having been part of Leadership Texarkana’s graduating class of 1988-1989, she remained involved and led many opening retreats and curriculum sessions throughout the following years. She also attended national conferences for the affiliation of community leadership programs around the country. “At the end of the first year as a Leadership Texarkana board member, I was asked if I would consider a position as Executive Director of Leadership Texarkana. I have served as Executive Director of Leadership Texarkana since 2010. It’s a good fit,” she said. “By its very nature, Leadership Texarkana annually attracts groups of incredibly invested and positive individuals who are ready to contribute to and serve our community, which makes it one of the best jobs in Texarkana.”
Making people your business must be accompanied with an understanding that the exact mix of personality, gifts and talents is rarely or never repeated from individual to individual. Ruth Ellen has a gift for seeing people as they are and for helping them to see and know themselves more clearly. “Leadership looks different in every individual. It’s not so much developing leaders as it is developing people, turning them on to their own potential, and capacity for being the change they want to see. I believe our Creator made each of us to be creators… contributors… but it takes some work sometimes to uncover one’s own strengths, passions and possibilities. We all want community excellence. It benefits ALL of us! Leadership is that path; working together is the key.”
Ruth Ellen’s parents were her greatest support and her greatest influence. They told her, “you can do ANYTHING you want to do, but you cannot do everything.” She took this statement to heart and determined to make sure that everything she commits to is beneficial for the sake of others. Just as Jacob Marley encouraged Ebenezer Scrooge to do, she makes mankind her business and the success of those around her the focus of her endeavors. Texarkana is a special place. The people of Texarkana are special too. It’s the love of this area, “that it’s home and that I’m connected to it, that my husband and I can go out to eat and can be surrounded by people we know and care about,” that motivates Ruth Ellen to get involved in making it an even better place to live. “The people. The civility. That people care and are good.” It’s people like Ruth Ellen herself who have set that high standard. Let’s follow the advice of Jacob Marley and in the footsteps of Ruth Ellen Whitt and make “mankind our business.” In the eloquent words of Tiny Tim, “A Merry Christmas to all; God bless us, everyone!