HOW SYCAMORE WORKS
by W. B. Coolidge
My first observation on the governance of Sycamore is that the club tends to be governed by a very small elite. It is difficult to characterize this special group. It is not composed of any readily definable types such as autocrats or plutocrats or gerontocrats. It is not necessarily lacustrine or even riverine in orientation, though that helps. Age, ancestry, occupation, affiliation seem to be irrelevant. One is forced to conclude that the governing elite is self-selected. There is of course the usual machinery of a nominating committee and annual elections of the leadership. But it sometimes seems that if you're on the nominating committee you may find yourself becoming an officer. This is readily explained by the reluctance of most members to upset a system that has functioned so effectively for 100 years. New blood does enter the elite practically every year, but newcomers don't really feel at home here until they have pushed through a change in the bylaws, for example, or attended a club meeting at a difficult address in the midst of a winter blizzard, or served refreshments to several hundred whitewater racers and guests on a May Sunday.
Another observation is that the regular monthly meetings of the club tend to follow Parkinson's Law and last through the time available. Efforts are made on occasion to cut business short so that a speaker can entertain us, and sometimes the effort succeeds. But by and large devotion to the details of the business of the club (on the part of those members who attend the meeting) is such that the evening is scarcely long enough for business alone.
In this connection presidents of the club face their most challenging responsibility in office. Between meetings they may spend hours on the phone and at the Island coping with critical matters. But no presidential function is more demanding than that of conducting the monthly meeting. The president cannot in fact conduct it as a maestro conducts an orchestra. The maestro can make the glockenspiel prevail over the trombone. But the president can only try to encourage the more reticent to enter the discussion while gently discouraging the more forward from dominating it. In truth, such is the informality of proceedings that in times of heated give-and-take the president may find it difficult to get in a word himself. The underlying principle is that substance prevails over form.
This principle also often applies to the operation of the bylaws and standing rules. We have 35 articles in the bylaws and 16 standing rules. These codify three generations of experience and obviously have an answer for any conceivable procedural question. But in practice it sometimes turns out that somebody has a better way or at least another way to handle things. When this comes to light it can generate a first-rate go-around at one of the monthly meetings. It can even lead to amendment of the bylaws or standing rules. The problem then is getting the amendment somehow attached to the basic copy. Granted that the Sycamore Islander faithfully records all such changes, not all members can be counted on to keep their copy of the bylaws and standing rules (if they have a copy) up to date. The current issue dates from January 1982.
At least one significant amendment has been adopted since then. This was to provide a class of senior membership, to which those with more than 20 years' regular membership might transfer. A senior member pays half dues and loses only the right to a canoe rack and locker and the right to host "large parties." The real genesis of this new category was to provide a painless means of end-running the limit of 140 on regular membership, since our waiting list was running over 40 and it was taking an applicant up to three years to get in. Besides, this would take the pressure off an old-timer reluctant to cut ties with the club but conscience-stricken at keeping out a new member. At this writing a total of 10 out of 42 eligible have become senior members.
Some argue that the Island is under-used, the waiting list is too long, we are selfish and should raise the membership limit. Others counter that the Island is a quiet, fragile, ecologically special retreat; if it is under-used, that's just as well for the Island and for all concerned. The interplay between these positions has permitted a gradual increase in authorized membership to the present 140, plus various stratagems for those who are not regular members to use the Island (temporary memberships, senior and honorary memberships, and guest cards for applicants). Thus quite a few more than 140 have access to the Island and its facilities, especially as each membership embraces all those under one family roof.
Whether it's the larger membership or the changing times, there has been a certain dilution in the club's "clubbishness." Actual use of the Island has probably not increased in proportion to membership, though probably there are more "large parties" than ever before. And most of these are parties not of members but by members for their friends and associates or for their children's friends. Certainly attendance at the regular monthly meetings hasn't grown on the average, despite repeated pleas in the Sycamore Islander to come and participate, Our quorum for transacting business is still just five members, and now and then barely that number makes it. Turnout for workfests doesn't seem to be as good on the average, either absolutely or relatively, as when the club was smaller. (But then we don't have Nate Roberts to barbecue 50 chickens for the toilers.) We do have the annual spring whitewater race, though our guests far outnumber our members, but we haven't had a special club party for years. Fifteen or twenty years ago the craft show brought out a great throng of members displaying an astounding variety of talents -- from bread-making to knife-making, from carving great spoons to creating exquisite fishing flies. Another event was the Halloween party, another a regatta complete with handicap canoe racing (one canoe, one paddle, one paddler sitting in the bow).
There are however some forces that keep all of us disparate members together. One is the magnetism of Sycamore Island itself. Another is the clarion voice of the Sycamore Islander, faithfully keeping us informed and renewing our ties each month. A third is our resident caretaker, as he is probably the only person who knows everybody and can introduce members to each other.
Perhaps Sycamore's paradox lies in the juxtaposition of change and continuity. The club waxes larger, its finances become more comfortable, the applicant list lengthens, great improvements come to the clubhouse. But at the same time management and operation of the club is left in relatively few hands. Member participation and overall coherence decline, and fewer know each other or do things together at the Island. At the same time an extraordinary variety of people continues to be drawn by the wonder of so delightfully natural a retreat so close to the heart of Washington.
So change and continuity jostle each other in the operation of the Sycamore Island Club. May it continue to cope as successfully in the next hundred years as it has in the past.