Archive for March 2nd, 2015


from the back of the bus


On June 5, 1968, I awoke in a pool of blood when Robert Kennedy’s assassination the night before was breaking news. I had just had my wisdom teeth removed, and I bled into my pillow all night. At 1:44 am the next day, Robert Kennedy died from his wounds at age 42. He had hung onto life for 26 hours.

Yet his lingering death has faded from memory. What I remember most is the coincidence of the assassination and the bloody pillow. That, and the sight of Kennedy’s flag-draped casket being transported to Arlington Cemetery the evening of June 8. I had returned to Washington DC, where I was living at the time, and was one of the thousands of people who lined the streets to witness his nighttime cortege.

I had just turned 20 at the time, and ever since that event, I lost faith in government to initiate positive change. I concluded at that time that the best leaders in America are more likely to take a bullet in the head than to receive government support for their attempts to innovate. For almost two decades, I was a drop-out from any involvement in the public sphere until 1986, when I decided to create a nature park on the site of former railroad yards adjacent to my neighborhood in Minneapolis. My approach was to do it as an entirely private affair, to do it without government.

The effort began modestly enough with the accumulation of trash into several piles which grew to such a size that no one assumed they were the result of a single person working alone. I had fostered this impression by disappearing from view whenever the rare hiker happened along. I believed it would be more effective if the trash piles just appeared and people’s imaginations took over.

I was correct. As my mother used to say, people are more prone to supporting an idea if they think it is their brainchild, not ours.

On April 20, 1989, sixty-five neighbors held a public meeting which led to the founding of “Save Cedar Lake Park” (my name), and I sat at the back of the room with a friend and collaborator who was one of the few people who’d known about the extent of my involvement with the project. We sat there like a couple secret conspirators, watching what our unknown efforts had started.

By the time I left Minneapolis and moved to West Texas in 2002, we had established the park of our dreams, created the first of several “commuting” pedestrian and bike trails that had mushroomed into a region-wide network of trails, raised millions of dollars, and involved thousands of people in the realization of the vision. All the while I helped establish the direction from the back of the bus.

I still remember the look on the park superintendent’s face after he’d just told me there could be no public money for the project. “That’s okay,” I said immediately, “we’ll do it ourselves.” We raised the money and public support first, and then government followed our lead.

The few times over those years that I flirted with taking a more traditional leadership role, the experiments always ended badly and I concluded that I was more effective in getting my way if I sublimated my ego and let others appear to call the shots. This way, too, I was not a target for my views.

In 2005 I began to see a need, through my involvement in The King Brothers Trust, for someone to advocate for kids from screwed-up family backgrounds who had killed a parent. I resolved to do whatever a single individual could do to make things better by giving these kids a second chance at life.

From the time of the ancient Romans when children were considered the property of their parents (no matter how abusive or ill-suited they were to the task), parricide was considered the most reprehensible of crimes. The Roman punishment for juvenile parricides was to sew the youth into a bag with a snake, a dog, and a rooster, to beat it, and to throw the bag into a river where it was washed out to sea. Though the parents are usually responsible for a child defying nature and killing one or both of them, we have not moved much beyond the brutality of the ancient Romans.

I know that this is an unpopular cause. I know that most of these kids are severely damaged, sometimes irreversibly so. Our prisons only make it worse. Decades of prison is the modern-day equivalent of throwing a bag into a river. We have to figure out a better way.

It took me seven years to find Estrella Vista, and it will have taken me seven more years to pay for it and add sixty acres to the original twenty. We are only about $13,000 from that goal. Once completed, this property will provide a permanent refuge for young people that society has consigned to a canvas bag.

Even when I have been able to do nothing else, I have been able to write… and since January 2010 (and a year before that by email), I have been publishing the Wandervogel Diary almost every day. We are nearing a million visitors and have supporters from all over the world. Using this blog as a platform, we have also raised the money necessary to mount several legal appeals, send books, tuition and commissary deposits to kids who are imprisoned, and provide transportation and living support for the two kids who have been released from prison.

Some might say our efforts are insufficient in comparison to the true dimensions of the problem. But what we can accomplish is what we can do, and we have never flagged from our commitment. Government will never lead the way. It needs us to do that.

Thank you for your faithful commitment. We have already made a difference and will continue to do so.


“There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?
— Robert Kennedy



Groove of the Day

Listen to Pete Seeger performing “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus”


Weather Report

45° and Cloudy