Tuesday, December 29, 2009

All a matter of priority...

We read with considerable sadness today about the passing of “Chairman” Charlie Capps of Cleveland, Mississippi, a soft-spoken southern politician who was a true gentleman and gave the word “politician” some much-needed dignity. He died on Christmas Day (12/25/09).

The 84-year-old Capps – a slight, white-headed man from the Mississippi delta – was a force to be reckoned with for most of his nearly 33 years in the legislature – serving as either Chairman or Vice-Chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee for some 24 years. He was honest and fair, and his career was immersed in public service that dates back to his years as a soldier in World War II. His obituary chronicles the life of a truly remarkable individual.

Charlie Capps had been Chairman of Appropriations for five years when I arrived on the scene at the State Capitol in Jackson as the new Executive Director for the statewide Educational Television (ETV) network. I first met Mr. Capps through then-Representative Billy McCoy, who chaired the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education and “strongly recommended” that agency heads attend appropriatons hearings – that they shouldn’t just send their fiscal officer or second in command. As the new kid on the block, I took that seriously and rarely missed a session. Mr. McCoy would frequently refer to the necessity of knowing budgets inside-out. There was little doubt that McCoy knew the budget of every agency as well as or better than some agency heads themselves. He was remarkable at that, and he always expressed the necessity to get appropriations bills cleaned up and “ready” for Chairman Capps.

Like Billy McCoy, Chairman Charlie Capps was a short gentleman. But unlike the animated – even fiery – Billy McCoy, Chairman Capps was restrained and usually very soft-spoken. Almost always chomping on a cigar, he was a dapper dresser and was counted among the handful of truly powerful lawmakers in Mississippi.

Educational Television, which included Mississippi’s statewide radio and television networks, a radio reading service for the blind, and a statewide instructional television fixed service (ITFS), was among the smallest of state agencies. Although we had only about 130 or so employees, we were highly visible across the state, and the legislature had played a key role in making ETV one of the best-funded state network operations in the country – an admittedly unusual circumstance for anything with Mississippi in its name. Legislators like Billy McCoy, Hob Bryan, Grey Ferris, and Charlie Capps were among those who took a real interest in education.

So it was that Charlie Capps and I would run in slightly different circles. We knew each other to exchange pleasantries and have brief conversations – but that was seldom outside the appropriations process.

But there was this one time....

The St. Petersburg Russia Symphony Orchestra was making a performance tour in the United States, and one of the stops was destined to be the new Performing Arts Center on the campus of Delta State University in the small community of Cleveland, smack dab in the middle of the Mississippi delta.

Kent Wyatt, the president of Delta State called me one day and asked if I and a few key staff members could come to Cleveland to meet with a group of citizens over lunch. They were interested in having ETV broadcast a live performance of the St. Petersburg Symphony.

Folks familiar with the challenges of producing a live performance broadcast – even in ideal studio settings – probably would appreciate the tentativeness with which I accepted the invitation to discuss such a venture. Nonetheless, Delta State – which had an aeronautics curriculum at the school – sent a plane to Jackson some days later to pick up our Director of Television and me for the short flight to Cleveland.

In the back of my mind, I was rather certain that there was no way we could attempt such a broadcast. It required production personnel experienced in this sort of thing. We’d have to contract out for them. Plus, we had no real production truck, no satellite uplink capability. Tens of thousands of dollars would be required to undertake such a production.

As we walked in to the dining room at Delta State, among the first to welcome us was…..Chairman Charlie Capps. Well, of course, I knew Cleveland was his hometown, but I had underestimated the level of his community involvement, while still keeping tabs on the budgets of every state agency in Mississippi!

I recall little about the meeting, except that President Wyatt, Charlie Capps, and others in the group were very hospitable. My recollection is that we agreed to look at what such a venture might cost, but we didn’t offer any great optimism. We returned to Jackson and – over the next several days – put together a rough estimate of the out-of-pocket costs for ETV to produce such a program. It was, as I recall, something on the order of $35,000-40,000. I was willing to commit indirect costs – but the out-of-pocket expenses would likely kill the deal, unless an underwriter was found.

I said as much to President Wyatt some days later when he called to follow up on our meeting. Our Development Department explored some underwriting possibilities – but to no avail.

Then it happened.

I answered the phone one morning and it was Charlie Capps calling from the capitol. This written passage just doesn’t do justice to the genteel persuasion that rolled from the lips of Chairman Capps – and, of course, -- you need to add his unmistakable southern drawl:

“Mister Miller, I understand you’re not likely to broadcast the St. Petersburg Symphony when they come to Delta State.”

“Yes, sir, that’s right. We just don’t have the resources to commit to such a venture, as much as we might like to do it.”

“I know things are tough for you, Mr. Miller. They’re tough for all agencies this year. All of us are just going to have to prioritize and do the right things. I do hope y’all will see fit to do this broadcast. The people across the delta would appreciate it, and I would appreciate it. I do hope the matter becomes a higher priority for ETV. Thank you for your time, Mr. Miller.

“Uhhhh, thank you Mr. Capps. We’ll certainly take a closer look at it.” Click.

I immediately picked up the phone, called our Director of Television, and told him to add the live, remote production of the St. Petersburg Symphony to our schedule.

As fate would have it, veteran producer/director Dick Rizzo was assigned to the project. A series of personnel squabbles from previous years had left Dick holding the bag for things that were out of his control. I’m not sure Dick’s assignment to this project was by choice or direction – but, to my mind – he and our production crew did a first-rate job.

Some months later, as my wife and I were attending the St. Petersburg Symphony performance in Cleveland, Chairman Capps spotted me and came over to tell me how pleased he was that we had chosen to do the broadcast. Of course, I was on pins and needles throughout the evening – for naught. The Mississippi ETV production crew performed beautifully, and that symphony broadcast was one of the finest special event productions during my eight-year tenure at Mississippi ETV.

In the days and weeks thereafter, we received many accolades from the delta and across the state about the quality of our symphony broadcast from Delta State University. And nowhere were those accolades more effusive than from Chairman Capps -- at the opening of our budget hearing the following year. And the year after that.

We had made the right choice.

All we had to do was “prioritize.” Thank you, Chairman Capps, God rest your soul!

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