I learned an important lesson about community last week while visiting about the farthest place I could go from Northwest Indiana while still being within U.S. borders.
My teacher in this case was a U.S. Air Force colonel, whose words carried a powerful lesson during a visit of my family to the colonel's native "Big Island" of Hawaii.
This Hawaiian colonel had a lot to say about what it took to ascend to his rank while also making a difference in the world around him. His words forced me to look at my own community -- my role in it and how I go about my business.
True difference makers, he said, are not "leaning back and criticizing how things are." Instead, "they work to make things the way they should be."
NASA took note of the colonel's attitude in life. In 1978, he became the first Hawaiian astronaut in the prestigious space program.
The colonel's words reminded me of some of the biggest names from Northwest Indiana, what they have accomplished and how they got there. His NASA connection reminded me of our own local space heroes, people like Crown Point astronaut Jerry Ross, who holds a tie for the most space flights.
The colonel's words really inspired my sons -- one who is a space nut and both of whom attend Jerry Ross Elementary School in Winfield.
People like the colonel -- or our own Jerry Ross -- don't spend their time taking pot shots at others or complaining. They get down to business, tackle ambitious goals and are constantly looking for ways to better society.
Don't get me wrong. I write an opinion column and believe a healthy dose of criticism and sarcasm -- typically directed at government -- can point out flaws, sometimes lead to change and entertain folks along the way.
But the colonel's words were a solid warning not to dig such a trench of negativity that there is no way out. To make a difference, he made it clear "every generation has the obligation to free men's minds for a look at new worlds ... to look out from a higher plateau than the last generation."
And they can only do so by provoking thought and change with actions and direction.
I've taken the colonel's words to heart and believe they will influence my work. It's too bad for all of us the colonel is no longer here.
U.S. Air Force Col. Ellison S. Onizuka, a NASA astronaut, died about six years after he wrote the directives I have quoted in this column.
Those words are now immortalized in a small museum at the Kona International Airport on the Big Island. The museum honors Onizuka's accomplishments before his tragic death in the Jan. 28, 1986, Challenger space shuttle explosion.
I was 10 years old at the time and watched the television footage as the shuttle's seven crew members died trying to "slip the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God" -- as then President Ronald Reagan said of the disaster.
Last week, I stood in that small Kona museum with my own 10-year-old sons, reading Col. Onizuka's powerful words and hoping they continue to shape this and future generations.