An honest man of integrity

Published 9:48 am Friday, March 10, 2017

By James Burns

What do an Indianapolis banker and a traveling cigar salesman from Wichita have in common?  Note: this is not a joke.  Answer: Honesty and integrity.  Old-fashioned honesty and integrity.

Immersing myself in today’s news stream often leaves me with a sticky, slimy feeling.  Whether it’s the media making fake news or the newsmakers presenting alternative facts and evasive answers doesn’t matter.  I just want to go take a bath after watching the nightly news.

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So I sought refuge with my Indy banker and Wichita salesman whose era embraced honesty, integrity, and character as, not just enviable and desirable traits, but as fundamentally important ones.

David Newton Frazier was born on a farm in Centralia, Illinois, in 1858.  Ill-suited to be a farmer, Newt went west to Wichita at age 20, signing on as a traveling salesman for a cigar manufacturer.  When Oklahoma Territory opened up (with a land rush) in 1889, Newt sought greener pastures and a new trade there.  He became a lawyer.

A good one.  An honest one.  In due time, he became county attorney and U.S. Commissioner for the district.

But it was these words in Newt’s obituary that caught my eye: “Noble qualities of mind and heart.”  “Performed the duties of his office with credit to himself and for the best interests of the county.”  And a resolution passed by the local bar association simply said, ”We placed the utmost confidence in his INTEGRITY.”

Integrity is a lot deeper than honesty.  Honesty, truth-telling, is a good start but specific and limited—“George, did you cut down the cherry tree?”  It takes a lifetime of consistent ethical behavior and honesty to be considered a person of integrity.

Hervey Bates, born 1795, died 1876.  Hervey went from being an orphan in Ohio to being the first sheriff and a co-founder of Indianapolis.  He started as a store clerk at age 15, but soon was running both the store and its post office and then bought out his employer.  In the vanguard of developing Indiana’s capital city, Hervey Bates became the first president of the city’s branch of the state bank, surviving the 1837 financial panic.  He became the prime mover and investor in the city’s first railroad, first insurance company, and built the state’s finest hotel, Bates House, where Abraham Lincoln stayed on his way to Washington to be inaugurated president.

And what did they say about Hervey Bates when he died?  That he had “a rugged honesty that made his name a synonym of integrity.”  A rugged honesty is an enduring one—one which survives temptation to shave the truth like a wood whittler, shaping or spinning words to deceive or mislead.

While I do think that rock-ribbed honesty and deep integrity have become less valued in today’s cyber world where technology aids deception, even falsifying documents and web pages, I don’t mean to suggest that the honest man—or woman—has disappeared.  We’ll soon have a woman of integrity on our $20 bill.  And here in Gainesville, Florida, my home for the past 50 years, we recently lost a man of integrity, Perry McGriff.

I hope every town has a Perry McGriff.  Outstanding athlete, insurance agency owner, city councilor, mayor, and leading donor at our blood bank—a new “Pints for Perry” drive will try to match his lifetime donations.  And, yes, when he passed away, people said Perry was a man of integrity.  I truly miss Newt, Hervey, and Perry.  Maybe you can help turn some young people in your community into respected leaders such as these.  America needs them.

James Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida.