Taylor Batten

Easy labeling in just 21 words

Dean Will Terry, with a group of Terry Scholars at Davidson College.
Dean Will Terry, with a group of Terry Scholars at Davidson College. DAVIDSON COLLEGE

I was sitting in Starbucks last Sunday, sipping coffee and reading the paper before church, when I was reminded of how singular a man Will Terry was – and also of something he valued that is increasingly rare these days.

Terry, as anyone who loves Davidson College knows, was the longtime dean of students, and so much more. He was friend, counselor, confidante, adviser. A theologian with a doctorate in ministry, he was a man of deep faith and a heckuva preacher. Most of all, he loved life and people deeply. His eyes always twinkled, his laugh was always hearty, his concern for others was always genuine. He was the kind of person this world needs a lot more of.

Terry died Friday, March 27, four months shy of his 83rd birthday. That Sunday, I stumbled upon his obituary and sadly began reading. It told of his upbringing, his service as the chaplain at Davidson College and senior minister at Davidson College Presbyterian Church and his leadership roles in the Presbyterian Church. It talked about what a potent nurturer of young people he was. It told of the awards he won and the scholarships named for him.

Then, in the middle of this 1,105-word obituary, was this one sentence: “Will’s civic contributions included many years on the board of Planned Parenthood of Charlotte and life-long participation in the Democratic Party.”

Pffft. Uh-oh. I just felt Terry lose the admiration of a big chunk of readers. Those 21 words were no doubt a stain for some people who now had the labels they needed to judge him. People who knew Terry knew of his sharp mind and his infinitely caring heart. Some people who didn’t would read the obit’s sentence and put him in the “liberal” box and think less of him. A different group of people would do the same if his obit spoke of dedication to the Republican Party.

It’s how the human brain works, and now more than ever our culture reinforces it. Science shows that we use labels as a way to organize and understand a hugely complicated world. We don’t have the capacity to grasp the complexities of everything, so we look for shortcuts to help process it all. Increasingly those labels are D and R.

If you’re old enough, you might remember when we judged a person by all kinds of measures. Primarily those were character, integrity, strength, perseverance, caring for mankind, ability to get things done. Now it’s: Is he liberal or conservative?

In the same paper as Terry’s obituary was a story about Hillary Clinton wiping clean her e-mail servers from her time as secretary of state. To Republicans, this is an outrage (and rightly so). Democrats don’t approve, but mostly they wince and try to move on. What would they have said if Donald Rumsfeld had done that?

It’s a similar story with the individual mandate in health care reform. When Mitt Romney and the Heritage Foundation birthed it, Republicans embraced it. When Romneycare became Obamacare, Republicans eviscerated it. Or consider Iran. Nixon went to China and Reagan negotiated with the Soviet Union, but President Obama shouldn’t even talk with Iran?

A New York Times story from August 2012 estimated that only 3 to 5 percent of the voting population was truly undecided in that year’s presidential race.

Sue Ross, who worked with Terry at Davidson for many years, wrote his obit. She thought about how that one sentence would be received, but she makes no apologies for including it. It was a part of who Terry was.

It grieved him, Ross said, that America is so polarized. And his belief in Democratic Party ideals never kept him from being open to the other side.

“He had so many conservative friends. A lot of Davidson graduates are conservative and he never hesitated, it was not something he shied away from,” Ross told me. “He’d say, ‘We can talk. This is what I believe.’ It wasn’t, ‘You’re wrong and I’m right,’ but it was, ‘OK these are my values and this is the civic way that I display my values.’”

Knowing what you believe and advocating for it is crucial. But, in memory of Will Terry, let’s back off from the knee-jerk labeling just a bit.

Email: tbatten@charlotteobserver.com; on Twitter @tbatten1.