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Return of the Square

by Tommy Lawing, Jr.

Return of the Square

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September 3, 2013

Editor’s note: This story was inspired by Charles H. Brower. Brower began his career as a copywriter and eventually became the CEO and Chairman of the Board of Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn (BBDO) a 122-year old, worldwide advertising agency. In 1962, Mr. Brower delivered a speech on personal independence to the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce which was reprinted in Reader’s Digest. His well-chosen words had a lifelong effect on the author and he has incorporated many of  Brower’s terms and ideas in this piece


 Return Of The Square

 My, how times have changed.

 A century ago, the word square was one of the finest words in the English language. You got a square deal if you were honest.  And you gave a friend a square meal if he was hungry. And, if you were out of debt, you were square with the world and could look your fellow man square in the eye. I wanted to be a square. In fact, I pledged “to be square” as a Cub Scout but the term was dropped a few years later.

Strange things started to happen to this sturdy, wholesome friend about that same time.  Someone used it to describe an inmate who would not conform to the convict code.   Then, it went coast to coast with negative vibes. Beatniks, hippies and yippies used it to describe stodgy, conservative folks.  A square was that bloke who never learned to get away with it or that dummy who volunteered when he did not have to.   A square was the guy who always tried to do his very best and messed up the curve for the rest of us; the fellow who laughed with his belly instead of his upper lip and who actually got choked up when they played “America The Beautiful.”  I knew a lot of squares when I grew up.   They were in the front of my classrooms, led my troop and were behind home plate and the snack stand at my Little League field.

His tribe is not thriving too well today. Squares do not fit in well with angle players, goof-offs and corner cutters.  He’s burdened down with old fashioned ideas about honesty, courage, thrift and loyalty. It bothers him when new hires immediately want to know about the extras the company offers instead of the extras they are bringing to their new jobs. More and more neighbors seem to be crowding into the grandstands while fewer and fewer are willing to sweat it out on the field.

I had a lot of square heroes when I grew up.  John Glenn, Roy Rogers, Bob Hope, Jonas Salk, Walt Disney, Jacques Cousteau, Mickey Mantle, Martin L King Jr, and John F. Kennedy were just a few.  When I grew up, teachers, doctors, nurses, scoutmasters, coaches, policemen, fire fighters, presidents, mothers and dads were respected because they lived honorable but often quiet, boring lives as they simply tried to improve their corner of the world one day at a time. In yesterday’s lexicon, they were squares. In today’s vernacular, they had “servant hearts.”

Everyone in my circle of friends routinely performed some kind of volunteer service. It was just part of the culture of the 1950’s and 1960’s and one of the highest honors was to be called a “square” as a result. Can you believe it? When I was a kid, adults actually lined up to teach Sunday school and volunteered to make costumes for the school play without being asked and mowed the neighbor’s yard while his family was on vacation. 

I miss that world.

The America of my childhood was full of squares and our nation exported its square values to the rest of the world. We gave the world the ideas of individual dignity, responsibility and freedom. We built and sold the idea of government of the people, for the people and by the people. We exported the ideas of freedom of religion, an unfettered press and that those who are taxed should be represented.

Today, it’s hard to name a single American value exported in the last 50 years.  Sure, we ship world-standard technologies, entertainment, armies and crops around the globe every hour but the last time we exported pride and excellence was when JFK challenged us to “go to the moon this decade” and thousands of squares became so lost in their work, they had to be told to go home every night for the rest of the 1960’s.

In all fairness, today’s Gen X and Millennials do volunteer to lead their home owner associations, build Habitat houses and tutor a child or adult to read and understand English better. There just are not enough of them.

We do still have heroes in America but unlike Clark Kent and his red cape, they are quiet and shy and their names are not well-known. Today’s heroes rushed into the World Trade Center and toward the explosions in Boston. Others work quietly with at-risk youth or spearhead a campaign to remove landmines in Cambodia or solicit toys and bicycles for abused children or teach transitional skills to the homeless.  Others raise millions of dollars for medical research, hunger, fine arts and school projects.   All of them have “servant hearts” too.

My hope is that some of the spirit of fair play and helping others, even when it is for little if any recognition, will rub off on more young people.  More folks need to stand up straight and dare to be a square.

50 years ago, Charles Brower suggested we all join the S.O.S. … the Society of Squares. It was a fictional group but, as he explained, “We would be for participation and against sitting life out … for laughter and against snickering … for the honest way and against the short-cut … for the well done job and against the goof-off … and for building up and against tearing down.”  

The world is still looking for leaders with moral compasses who simply enjoy helping others. I wanted to be a square when I was young and I still do today.



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