COVID-19 testing in North Dakota
Credit: David H. Lipp/Flickr

Across the country, the names of wealthy donors are prominently displayed on plaques and walls in museums, universities, and hospitals. Often, entire buildings are named after big contributors.  In some cities, small donors to public projects like Pioneer Courthouse Square in Seattle have their names embedded in bricks. My family has our name in the sidewalk supporting a tree in front of our community bookstore.

We also honor our dead with war memorials like the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. In Santa Monica, families can purchase a bench in a park overlooking the ocean and name it after a departed loved one. At Occidental College, where I work, the names of those who died in two World Wars are carved on a bronze plaque outside the entrance to my office.

Politicians, of course, like to thank themselves with large signs in front of public projects. President Trump famously added his name to stimulus checks during the pandemic.  Schools, towns, airports, and war ships are named after former Presidents, politicians, and generals. My grammar school was called Farragut after Civil War hero and first US Navy Admiral David Farragut. I’ve sailed on an aircraft carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and on the USS Mendel Rivers, a submarine named after a southern Congressman who headed the House Armed Services Committee; like so many, I’ve flown in and out of Reagan, Kennedy, and Dulles airports.

We celebrate sports figures with profiles on Wheaties boxes and bobblehead nights at stadiums, as well as with player trading cards. There is even a Bobblehead Hall of Fame in Milwaukee.

But rarely do we thank and signify workers for their toil and service.

People like to be thanked for their efforts. When I served as a U.S. ambassador, I would always call the chef and kitchen staff into the room at the end of a diplomatic dinner and thank them in front of the guests. Every weekend, we sit with our thirteen-year-old grandson and have him do handwritten thank you notes for the gifts and checks he’s received for his bar-mitzvah.  President George H.W.  Bush had a lifelong habit of sending handwritten thank you messages.

At the end of movies, a long list of credits with the names of those who worked on the film, not just the stars, scrolls down the screen. For a time,  cars produced at Ford plants included a window sticker with the logos of the UAW and Ford reading: ”Built with Pride—Proudly by UAW Men and Women”.

It should be an American custom to say thank you to workers by including the names of the men and women who build projects and who provide essential services on the buildings, highways, and other public facilities that they construct and at their places of work like hospitals and fire stations. In future public spending as part of President-elect Biden’s Build Back Better program and in any Federal infrastructure bills—public expressions of thanks to workers should be required.

The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us of the importance of public action for the common good and of the role of essential workers in providing basic services. We should not neglect saying thank you to these men and women.

There are creative ways for a nation to say thank you. During the Ebola crisis, my academic colleague art professor Mary Beth Heffernan designed a system for creating personalized photo name tags for medical personnel to wear while treating patients so the sick could see who were helping them.  A similar system could be adopted by hospitals around the country.

Where public funds are used for the built environment, the names of workers who build a facility can be physically listed—but where that is impractical, a digital display in the lobby of a building could “roll the credits”. Digital credit walls could be required in government offices serving the public like the DMV, unemployment offices and courthouses. Schools and universities could issue employee trading cards designed like baseball cards with a photo and facts on the person –not just of the faculty but also displaying the janitors, cooks, cleaners and grounds keepers. This could also work for fire stations and national parks (families could save the cards of the rangers they met on vacations). Creating such worker trading cards is easy with today’s digital technology. They would become family mementos

How we say thank you is less important than doing it and making it routine and expected behavior in the public realm and in the private sphere—and while we wait for these gratitude programs to be established and for passage of equitable economic programs, those with the means should remember to tip well during the holidays.

Derek Shearer

Derek Shearer, former US ambassador to Finland, is the Chevalier professor of Diplomacy at Occidental College and directs the McKinnon Center for Global Affairs.