Carol Roper, Community and Democracy
My friend Carol Roper died last week. She was 86.
There’s a lot of death around these days. My generation is passing, and at an accelerated pace with the coronavirus taking its grim daily toll. I’ve known Carol for over 50 years; her death hit me particularly hard. Yet strangely, as I write this, I find that I do not know enough about many important dimensions of Carol’s life to properly memorialize her.
Nor would I do that in this space, even if I could. For this is not a proper venue for personal reminiscence. It is, however, a place for discussing citizenship, and community and local governance, all areas in which Carol modeled engagement, commitment and excellence.
The arrival in the ’60’s on the SUNY faculty of an alleged expert on state and local government attracted the attention of members of the New Paltz chapter of the League of Women Voters. Carol, Sally Rhoads, Joan Cornwell and others were focused on trying to join the two New Paltzes into one. With my big-city-centered graduate education, I knew something about “fragmentation” and “metropolitanization,” but precious little about the process for consolidation of a village and a town. These women educated me, and caused me to further educate myself. This goal, of course, is still a hot topic or work in progress, depending on your point of view, half a century later.
Carol taught me the value of showing up and paying attention. It was routine to see her at village and town board meetings, listening, knitting (her husband Don had some great sweaters) and opining. I told her once that her practice was reminiscent of Madam Defarge in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, not a very positive comparison. Fortunately Carol had a fine sense of humor.
I never heard Carol explicitly advance a feminist argument. But she demonstrated again and again by her informed, intelligent, inclusive, persistent volunteerism and involvement in community that women could and should be chosen to provide leadership in government. In the late ’90’s Carol was elected Town Supervisor, the second woman chosen for the job in New Paltz. She served us very well. It was our community’s misfortune that Democratic intra-party fighting contributed to denying Carol the second term she hoped for.
Carol and Don were active, devoted Democrats. I was (until 2017) a Republican. I like to think they voted for me in at least a few of my six runs for county legislator. I didn’t ask; they didn’t say. They did urge me in 1981 to attend the annual Black Diamond Dinner at the New Paltz United Methodist church. It was important to be there, Carol told me. This was a key fund raiser for the church and a traditional election night stop for candidates for public office in our town; people went on to vote after dinner. I ate at the first seating that year and I’ve been going ever since. The church was yet another institution in our community for which Carol provided volunteer labor and leadership.
We live in a time during which our president demonstrates an appalling ignorance of our democratic institutions and processes, expresses fondness for autocrats and is predisposed to the exercise of absolute power. Carol Roper’s public life reminds us that democracy is built upon and preserved by active and consistent engagement in the life of our community. We create and sustain democracy daily through real life participation, and while doing so give America a powerful inoculation against the national anti-democratic impulse.
One requirement of citizens these days is to stay home to keep each other safe. We cannot gather right now to celebrate Carol Roper’s life and the example she offered. I am not sure when that opportunity will be given us, though surely, acting together but apart, we will bring this pandemic into check.
Nor do I know for sure the location of Carol’s final resting place, though I suspect it will be in the New Paltz Rural Cemetery on Plains Road, where she also volunteered, as a member of the board.
If so, I will go by soon, to say a proper goodbye… and thank Carol for a life well lived in service to our community.