Jerry's Reward for Years of Helping Out

JOYCE GABRIEL

September 17, 1992|By JOYCE GABRIEL

STAMFORD, CONNECTICUT — Stamford, Connecticut. -- Iwonder whether compassion is yet another victim of political correctness, of our need to make sure no good deed goes unpunished.

For years, Jerry Lewis and his Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon have been a staple of my life. Every Labor Day weekend, I tune in and even contribute to an association that spends its time searching for cures for 40 different kinds of neuromuscular disease and helping those afflicted.

The telethon is truly a house that Mr. Lewis built over 27 years. His work with the association, his genius in getting America's corporations involved in a direct way with contributions and his hands-on presence, not just in boardrooms but in hospital rooms, has made the association grow and thrive and has made the lives of millions of people better.

Last week, ABC's ''PrimeTime'' took the latest shot at Jerry Lewis and the telethon, talking to an association for the disabled with 200 members about how they thought the telethon was inappropriate by evoking pity for people with muscular dystrophy.

What a shame. Compassion is not pity, and compassion is what we all should feel at the sight of a child in a wheelchair, a child with a progressively degenerative disease that will either kill him or cut his life short. But compassion isn't all we feel when we watch the telethon. We feel admiration for the courage of the people struggling with these illnesses, and we admire the courage of their families. We feel love and hope and kindness and generosity, as well.

What could be wrong with that?

As a child, I began watching the telethon. As a young adult reporter with a national newspaper syndicate, I did a story on the MDA's national headquarters in New York. This was more than 20 years ago. I'm sure the offices are more modern now. What I saw then, and what struck me, was how modest -- even cramped -- those offices were. Everyone -- from Lewis himself to the directors to secretaries and assistants -- was kind and helpful and dedicated. At that time, they were just putting together their Love Network, a network of independent TV stations across the country that would air the telethon annually -- in itself an amazing feat.

In the years that followed, as a local editor at suburban and city papers, I've made sure that there was some kind of advance coverage of the event. If it is journalists' job to flag the bad, isn't it also our job to present the good?

Is Jerry Lewis perfect? No, probably not. He is probably flawed, as all humans are. He just happens to have the dedication, devotion and generosity of spirit to help one group of other people all the time. Yet correspondent Chris Wallace, who did the ''PrimeTime'' piece, asked Mr. Lewis whether he thought he should step down as head of the telethon and the association, something Mr. Wallace said ''others'' had suggested. The implication was that time had passed Mr. Lewis by, that his effectiveness is over. Yet for those who watched, the suggestion seems absurd. The man hosted an event that raised more than $45 million in contributions on Labor Day. Are we to assume that it is his success that has made him a marked man for some?

When we attack people like Mr. Lewis -- someone who is a hero in the way he helps others -- I think we diminish ourselves.

We can't live together in society without compassion and caring for one another. The hurricane in Florida is an excellent example. We have all been asked to look at pictures of real suffering right here at home, and most Americans have responded as they usually do -- with concern and action and an abiding generosity of spirit. Do we feel pity and compassion for those who have lost their homes and the accumulated possessions of a lifetime? Do we feel sympathy for those living in tent cities, those who have lost their jobs and their way of life, at least for now? I hope we do. We wouldn't be human, otherwise.

If we continue to attack those who try to do good, what will we be left with, I wonder?

If truly no good deed goes unpunished, will the message be that it's better not even to try, not ever to get involved, because that involvement will be used against us?

I would hate to live in a world where the first impulse was to check for the political correctness of a deed before doing it. So much real goodness comes from the heart and the spirit. If we were afraid to give those free rein, where would we be?

Perhaps time has passed me by, too. I'd rather see those dystrophic children and adults cured and out of wheelchairs. And I fail to see how that wish shows disrespect for the disabled.

If there is a time when we come close to finding God in man and woman, it is when we help one another. I hope that that is still politically correct.

OC Joyce Gabriel wrote this commentary for the Stamford Advocate.

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