No. 551



Here is a question I would like for you to ponder with me for a few minutes today. Are there children growing up in your community without the guidance it takes to be good neighbors, let alone good citizens? If your answer is yes, then I have a true story to tell you that could make a real difference in your community.
In the small town of Mystic, Iowa, there is a group of rag-tag kids known as Hangman's Army, who have helped to clean up the community and nurture good behavior on the part of the other children. Hangman's Army was started by a self-described beatnik from Los Angeles, Jim "Hangman" Ballagh, who is a retired graphic artist. He is now 73 years of age, and sporting a waxed handlebar mustache and a goatee.
I first heard about "Hangman's Army'" from Brenda Strickling, who lives in nearby Centerville, Iowa, and who has worked tirelessly to get a "Bookcase for Every Child" literacy program started in her community. Over the next several weeks, as I learned more about the good work of "Hangman's Army," I felt this would be of interest and a benefit for other communities in our nation. At this point, I asked Brenda if she would get his permission to tell their story. Jim was gracious to grant it, and I'm so grateful that he did.
The nickname "Hangman" was given to him by a former mentor and it stuck. He moved to Mystic back in 1982, when his mother-in-law became ill. He might have settled into old age as a local character, if Mystic had not been confronted with juvenile crime in the summer of 2001. Too tiny to easily afford law enforcement protection, the town was at the mercy of teens that broke car windshields, slashed tires, stole bikes and tore up the park. At least one family moved out. The violence started Jim to thinking; what occurred in his town, as far as life for the other kids who lived there, was not any fun, either.
In 2002, Jim Ballagh met with the county sheriff and floated the idea of creating an "army" of local children who would be rewarded for helping out around town. The first task was to pull together a disparate group of boys and girls, some still in kindergarten, others already vying for neighborhood terror status. At this point Jim used a great leadership technique when he turned to a 12-year-old, high-energy redhead, and asked if he would serve as co-founder of the army. The first thing the army did was to pick up trash on the nearly empty streets of the downtown, in the little city park, and on gravel roads surrounding the members' homes.
The first year there were many detractors who said, "This is never going to work. These kids are all juvenile delinquents." But Jim and his "Hangman's Army" did not quit and slowly people's attitude changed as they saw these kids making Mystic look cleaner. Besides picking up trash, members have painted curbs, handicapped parking spots, painted the shelter house in the park and even the telephone poles, as least as far up as they could reach. There are also standards of behavior these kids must meet: Obey the law. Don't beat up other children. Share. Throw away trash. If you see trash, pick it up. Watch your mouth. It's nice to say thanks.
Should you go to Mystic, Iowa, today you will see many positive changes. Jim says these kids are actually starting to feel proud they are from Mystic. On a recent Sunday around dawn, he went out for his usual walk around town. He did not see one pop or beer can. (Special note of credit: Much of this information came from a wonderful article that ran in the Des Monies Sunday Register.) This article also contains "How to build an 'army' in your community." If you would like to have a copy, drop me a note.
Thanks Jim! We need more real men like you.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Jim Davidson is a motivational speaker and syndicated columnist. You may contact him at 2 Bentley Drive, Conway, Ark. 72034. To support literacy, buy his book, "Learning, Earning & Giving Back.")