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Cannon's Canon: We're All in This Together

Cannon didn't want buildings or roads or statues bearing his name. What needs preserving is his spirit and his example.


Now, Richmond is focused on preserving the legacy of an astonishing individual who grew up in poverty, never earned more than $25,000 annually, and yet gave away almost $150,000 in small sums.

Take your peak earnings, multiply by six, and you'll get the notion. Except that Cannon's sacrifice stands out even more because of his hand-to-mouth way of life.

"Not many people would consider living in a house in a poor neighborhood without central heat, air conditioning or a telephone, and working overtime so that they could save money to give away," wrote Cannon biographer Sandra Waugaman. "But that is what he did for a number of years in the beginning of his philanthropic efforts."

In the weeks since Cannon's death on July 2, Richmonders have debated how to remember a modest man who achieved national stature through numerous magazine articles, civic awards and appearances on shows such as "Nightline," "Oprah" and the "Voice of America."

Richmond's Landmark Theater should carry Cannon's name, some say. The city's avenue of Civil War monuments, broadened to include humanitarian and tennis star Arthur Ashe a few years back, might expand yet again.

"The Boulevard," a major dividing street that's home to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Virginia Historical Society, could become Thomas Cannon Boulevard, one resident weighed in on the pages of the morning newspaper recently.

Here's the rub. Cannon didn't want buildings or roads or statues bearing his name. He was clear, and he was right. What needs preserving isn't just his visage or his name; it's his spirit and his example.

This was a man who felt racism's sting, who did not turn a blind eye to the imperfections in American society, who spoke out against intolerance, and yet who never lost his love affair with America.

In preparation for the nation's bicentennial in 1976, Cannon sent $50 checks to each of the fifty governors, as his finances allowed. "Her glaring inequities, racial prejudice, gross materialism, and monumental egotism notwithstanding," he wrote in an accompanying letter, "America remains the 'hope of the world.' ... I am that which I am because America is that which she is."

After the 9/11 bombings, unable to duplicate the earlier gifts, he sent each governor a $1 postal order and a similar message of unity and support.

Scores of beneficiaries — a decorated police officer, a single mother with a deteriorating house, a student transplanted from Afghanistan, a Tidewater woman organizing a food drive while raising 16 children, an Egyptian man seeking medical care for his son, two young girls who rescued a kitten, a blind man and his dog, a Dallas burn victim, a wealthy Richmond philanthropist, on and on — all received more than money.

Cannon, who as a married adult with two sons managed to graduate from Hampton Institute, accompanied each of his gifts with inserts — a poem, a "Hug" coupon, an eloquent letter filled with generous praise. "An incredibly strong and courageous woman," he described one recipient. "A magnificent, highly-courageous young man," he encouraged another.

He knew that $1,000 could not cure cancer or build a home. But he believed that his acknowledgments could strengthen individuals, inspiring them to believe in themselves and their fellow man.

What needs to live on isn't just a formal memorial to Cannon, but the message his life conveyed. That's why a fitting tribute, for the Richmond area, if not the whole of Virginia, would be to couple Cannon's name with the annual celebration honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

A state that commemorates Lee-Jackson Day could honor King-Cannon as well. King was the national giant toppling generations of discrimination through nonviolent means. Cannon was Everyman, living out King's principles, proving that dignity and worth don't come with a skin color or a dollar sign.

King Day, one of the few holidays that have escaped commercialization, remains primarily a teaching holiday. In tandem with King's, Cannon's life deserves to be taught.

If this suggestion sounds fanciful, it isn't.

In his biography, Cannon listed 18 reasons why he gave money away, mostly centering on gratitude, compassion and the hollowness of material things.

Here's my favorite: "To help restore faith among those who have lost faith in the basic goodness of human nature."

That's what Thomas Cannon did.

Look to Iraq. Look to London. Look to Rwanda and Chechnya and Darfur. Tell me what greater purpose any individual could achieve in today's world than that. S

Margaret Edds is an editorial writer at the Virginian-Pilot.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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