July 1, 2013
By Michael A. MacDowell
During his tour of America in the 1830s, French political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville acknowledged his admiration for two endearing and unique characteristics Americans seemed to share together – a collective spirit of volunteerism and our sense of tenacity. These attributes are alive and well in northeast Pennsylvania.
In our recent history, we have seen these characteristics come to the forefront time and again for the betterment of others and the region. The ability of our community to tenaciously recover from the devastating Agnes flood of 1972 is remarkable. People from all walks of life pitched in to help one another. Neighbors in the Back Mountain and others who lived on high ground invited friends and distant family members to live with them. Institutions opened their doors to support those displaced. During the summer of 1972, there were 52 babies born in Misericordia’s Alumnae Hall – which became Nesbitt Hospital for people affected by flooding on the West Side of the Susquehanna River. It and other make shift emergency facilities were manned by many volunteers.
In more recent times, there have been many worthy efforts in support of those in need. The evacuation of Wilkes-Barre and Kingston due to a rising Susquehanna in 2011 called upon professionals and volunteers alike to give endless hours of support to those who were displaced. Volunteers played a key role in the ongoing effort to rebuild in Shickshinny, West Pittston and other flood-damaged areas. Less dramatic, but equally as satisfying, is to see citizens pitch in to help families in need during times of medical crisis and accidents that can befall any community.
While the willingness to support one another is present, it is hardly outweighed by the tenaciousness of area residents and business people who, undaunted by catastrophe, “soldier on.” A recent example serves to illustrate this fact. On Saturday, June 17, the Jack Williams Tire Center in Mount Pocono burned to the ground. Volunteer fire companies from several communities converged on the fire and worked throughout most of the night to bring it under control. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the building was a complete loss.
The devastating fire, though, is only part of this inspiring story. Bill Williams, his two sons and daughter own 27 Jack Williams Tire Center stores throughout Pennsylvania. The Williams family and civic-minded people in the community understood how the fire would affect the employees at the Mount Pocono store and the close-knit community it serves.
Coolbaugh Twp. Supervisor Jim Frutchey and Tobyhanna Twp. Emergency Operations Coordinator Phyllis Haase know what kind of impact a fire of this magnitude can have on others so they sprang into action. They had township personnel on site quickly to offer their assistance to the Williams family and to the employees whose livelihoods would be interrupted by the blaze. Mr. Frutchey and Ms. Haase worked to cut through red tape to assure a quick move into a temporary facility and a rapid reconstruction of the replacement building. By mid-day Monday, the company had pledges from both townships to help expedite the rebuilding of the store and facilitate a temporary facility.
Mr. Williams is an inveterate entrepreneur who refused to let himself or his family be discouraged. He acted quickly to find a temporary site in a former 84 Lumber building that’s within a mile of the burned-out hulk. A lease for the temporary facility was proposed within three days, and with the help of local insurance executive Chip Siegel, financing and construction plans were laid for temporary facilities until the original Jack Williams Tire Center could be rebuilt. With two other stores in various stages of construction, the Williams family quickly decided to move material and contractors from one of these locations to Mount Pocono in order to expedite reconstruction.
During the fire, Mr. Williams heard a small plane overhead. Less than an hour later, David Moyer, who owns an excavating company and has worked with Mr. Williams in the past, was there with his excavator pulling down the walls so the fire could be extinguished as directed by fire personnel. Mr. Moyer was vacationing in Ocean City, Md., when he heard about the fire. He jumped into his Cessna and flew to the Mount Pocono airport. He was there in two hours.
It is the cooperative efforts among municipalities in the Poconos that have already proven to be helpful in the demolition and temporary move of a landmark business. It will also play a key role in its reconstruction. Although sometimes slower in coming, the new spirit of cooperation among municipalities in the Wyoming Valley is already having a positive impact. The Back Mountain Community Partnership and other municipalities are joining hands now to work more closely together. Not only does this cooperation lower costs by sharing facilities and equipment, it enhances the possibility of obtaining grants from state and federal sources. Just as important, cooperation also supports economic growth by expanding the creation of new business, or in the case of Jack Williams in Mount Pocono, the complete reconstruction of old ones.
Tocqueville was right, as the Jack Williams example suggests, Americans do work together to help one another and we can be very tenacious. While the 19th century Frenchman certainly didn’t know what a tire store was, I’m sure he would have approved of the collective actions that an entrepreneurial family and two townships took together to get a viable business up and running again. Americans are indeed willing to work together to get things done.
Michael A. MacDowell is the retired president of Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa. He lives in Harveys Lake, Pa.