21 September 2023

"This is Dea Cox"

Photo by Judy Maurer.

Roughly once a year for over twenty years, I'd answer the phone and hear this familiar invitation:

"Johan, this is Dea Cox. I'd like you to talk to our Forum class."

When we arrived at Reedwood Friends Church back in 2000, the Forum class had already been going many years. Fred Gregory recalls that he asked Dea Cox to establish and lead this adult education class back when Dea and Lois first arrived at Reedwood, over 45 years ago, and that Dea had participated in planning for the class as recently as August.

When I heard last Saturday that Dea had died the day before, just about the first thing that hit me was, "Oh! I won't hear that familiar voice again." 

But it's not true! It turns out that I can easily close my eyes and hear Dea....

Johan, I've been praying for you and Judy.

Lord, strengthen the bonds of love between us.

I am very concerned that our only answer to the world's problems seems to be violence. I'm sure Christ has a different answer we can't seem to find.

The most significant thing I can do for someone else is to introduce them to Christ.

Photo by Judy Maurer (2005).
There are certain themes we loved to hear Dea talk about. Childhood memories of Arizona. (Judy grew up there, too.) His life with Lois. His Christian faith and Quaker discipleship. Working on educational issues in the Lyndon Johnson administration. Running a family-owned jam-making business. (For years he supplied us with jars of their jam as gifts we would take to Russia.)

One Arizona memory particularly fascinated me. He recalled being paid to catch rattlesnakes so that they could be milked for their venom, which would then be used to prepare snakebite serum. I think he was paid (subject to correction) 5c a snake.

That jam factory brings up another important theme for Dea: food, and specifically, how to prepare amazing meals for large numbers of people. During our years at Reedwood Friends, no church event would be complete without Dea's planning and cooking. We got some insights into his organizational methods as a chef when we were part of his planning team for a Russia-themed fundraising event to help us get to Russia. A whole new cuisine? For Dea, not a problem.

I left most visits to Dea's and Lois's home with at least one book recommendation. Looking over at our coffee table, on a pile of books waiting to be read, I can see the last one he told me about: Timothy L. Smith's Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War.

We didn't agree on everything, of course, especially when it came to politics. Dea found it difficult to understand how nice people like us could be Democrats.

However, sooner or later, almost every serious conversation we had turned to one of the central themes of his life: education. He fondly recalled the bygone times of bipartisan unity in Oregon's political life when nearly everyone in politics agreed on the importance of funding education.

What follows is my blog post from eleven years ago about a book that described Dea's approach to being a school superintendent:

Dea Cox and the "people strategy" (October 18, 2012)

Back in September, I wrote about a book that affected me powerfully, Sarah Ruden's Paul Among the People. Whether or not the author intended it, this book seems to me to be one of the most evangelistic I've seen in a long time.

Today I wanted to mention another book that also has a sort of evangelistic quality—again, probably not by authors' intention: The Relentless Pursuit of Excellence: Lessons from a Transformational Leader. The two books are very different: Sarah Ruden wrote about early Christian history, while Relentless Pursuit authors Richard Sagor and Deborah Rickey wrote about an Oregon educator who is still alive and active. They wrote a secular book for a secular audience, but they are clear that this educator, Dea Cox, and the philosophy behind his successful leadership in the school district they describe, are grounded in Quaker faith.

Right from the start, the authors make it clear that Dea Cox didn't pursue a model that is sometimes fashionable today in the high-stakes world of school superintendents—namely the charismatic authoritarian. Nor did he begin his 14-year tenure in the West Linn-Wilsonville school district with a sure-fire set of formulas or educational doctrines that could be replicated by someone else with the right instruction book or guru close at hand. Instead, he pursued and implemented a "people strategy" that became part of the culture of that school district to this day.

Dea summed up his strategy this way: "The secret of being a successful school administrator is to spend your energy and resources attracting and retaining good staff." It's a deceptively simple statement with deep implications, and the book spends most of its pages describing the implementation of this "secret" in recruiting and interviewing new educators, decisions about tenure, budgeting, superintendent-staff relations, relations with students and parents, drawing school boundaries, adopting new technologies, and other areas of educational administration—all of which are loaded with opportunities for conflict and fragmentation. In all of these areas, the three core values of the people strategy are immediately relevant:

  1. No person has a monopoly on wisdom.
  2. We all have things to learn.
  3. Wiser decisions are made when we consider multiple perspectives.

Each chapter of the book is a case study, or set of cases, showing in practical terms how these values are applied. I particularly loved the description of how Dea and his colleagues handled the process of deciding what computer system to use for the district.

Other values important to Quakers are also recurring themes in this book, particularly truth and trustworthiness. The authors show how being truthful, instead of giving in to the constant organizational temptation to "feign certainty," had at least two very practical benefits: credibility with parents, and resistance to complacency within the organization.

Dea and Lois Cox have been a blessing to our meeting, Reedwood Friends Church, and to us personally. Over the years, we've heard Dea describe the values (and some of the wonderfully illustrative incidents) recorded in The Relentless Pursuit of Excellence. Thanks to Richard Sagor and Deborah Rickey, these rich insights have been thoughtfully organized and made accessible in this short, fascinating book.

Tomorrow (Friday), Reedwood Friends Church will host a service for Dea at 11 a.m. (Oregonian obituary.)

Goodbye for now, Dea. I will always cherish your voice.

Greg Morgan: "When someone who is suffering longs for your presence, they aren’t looking for a person with the right words."

Colin Saxton: On death, part two ("Life is what makes death so very precious") and part three ("After you, my dear...").

Frank Newport, Gallup: "Figuring out why the basic R and R [Religious and Republican] relationship exists provides a fascinating and important challenge for social scientists." How I wish I could discuss this with Dea!

The "empty chair" presidency. Hannah Brock Womack, British Quaker, was not allowed to take up her four-year post as Fourth President of Churches Together in England. Here's why she couldn't, and how she nevertheless served the ecumenical movement during those years.

Chris Durante: Considering multiculturalism as a solution to phyletism in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Two Nonviolent Peaceforce workers report from Odessa (video) in today's Friends Committee on National Legislation online presentation, "Repairing the Wounds of War: Nonviolent Peaceforce in Ukraine." 

I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on Jesus....


Anonymous said...

But as to church decisions he was a controller— how do you account for this? Lucy

Johan Maurer said...

Dea made no secret of his philosophy for committee and board meetings: do your best to know the outcome before the meeting starts.

That might sound like a contradiction to the Quaker ideal of letting the Holy Spirit guide the process. But I don't think Dea saw it as a contradiction. The way he knew how the meeting would probably turn out was simple but not easy: he had already met individually with (ideally) each of the decisionmakers—not to twist their arms but to listen to their ideas and concerns; yes, to persuade, but also, if necessary, to modify his own plans based on their input and arguments. I'm sure he'd say that the Holy Spirit was in those individual meetings as well as the eventual committee meeting.

I can't argue that he never pushed for a particular outcome, nor that the sheer force of his personality wasn't itself a major factor. I also would agree that this kind of one-on-one advance prep can be abused. But if his method is "controlling," I can say that, in my experience, he was very transparent about it. And the same method was open for others to use as well, if they were willing to put in the same amount of energy.