Ironically, FitzGerald's career impeaches Niebuhr's claim. Fitz's years of work on behalf of Kentucky's environment have been worth it, for all of us.
But you wouldn't know that from looking at the Kentucky Resources Council's collection plate, which barely draws enough donations to keep the effort going.
If you are looking for a place to make a civic tithe, this is it. KRC accepts no government or corporate money, but all individual, group and charitable foundation gifts are tax-deductible. Address: Kentucky Resources Council; P.O. Box 1070; Frankfort, KY 40602.
The sheer breadth of KRC's work is mind-boggling, especially since FitzGerald does most of it himself, with no phalanx of assistants trailing him and no office full of paper-pushers meeting his every administrative need.
He's got good help, but not a lot of it. Donations to KRC are not wasted on overhead. Nor are they wasted in the more important sense. He gets results, again and again, battle after battle.
FitzGerald was at his best last week in his speech to a meeting of Kentucky Professional Engineers in Mining. It was a litany of expertise. It exuded the usual detailed knowledge of the subject at hand -- in this instance, mining and its attendant environmental challenges.
He knows his stuff better than most of the suits who represent the coal boys.
And he refuses to trim his sails. After all these years, and while maintaining the respect of his antagonists, FitzGerald still takes it to them.
He told the mining engineers, "The short-term question is whether, in an effort to lower costs in order to maintain market share, the industry will continue to cut corners on mine safety, reclamation and protection of the public. . . ."
"You are professionals," he reminded the coal operators' engineering help, "like accountants of the many corporations now under the magnifying glass of the press. . . ."
For the first time in some years, he told them, production-minded companies are asking them how to comply with changing rules. He added, wearily, "Their lawyers usually have one answer -- to hunker down and oppose any changes that alter business as usual."
He doesn't grandstand. Behind closed doors, at close quarters with those same lawyers, he more than holds his own. So says a participant in behind-the-scenes negotiations that led to the 1994 passage of a highly controversial measure, Senate Bill 266, that dealt with rules for disposing of the ash and sludge produced by burning coal.
Sponsored by then-Sen. Kim Nelson, one of the coal operators' faithful hod-carriers, SB 266 was written to relax state regulation. House leaders forced a private negotiating session in which FitzGerald confronted a lineup of industry go-fers. So great was his expertise, so deft his arguments, that he sent the legislative tide running in the opposite direction.
By the time the bill emerged, it actually strengthened the state's hand! It passed, easily.
Self-effacing, and abjuring any public gloat over such victories, he preserves a working relationship with lawmakers, and often with his corporate targets.
He says he carries around in his head the prayer of Marian Wright Edelman, that great leader in the fight to protect and help America's children:
"Lord help me not to be a taker but a tender. Help me not to be a whiner but a worker. Help me not to be a getter but a giver. Help me not to be a hindrance but a help. Help me not to be a critic but a catalyst for good."
He is as good as his prayer.
In the spring of 1995, the great Kentucky philanthropist Mary Bingham wrote a letter to Phillip Shepherd, then head of the Cabinet for Human Resources and Environmental Protection, promising that in the coming year she would lead an effort to build a million-dollar endowment to sustain Fitz's work over time.
At the time, she was chairing a $4.4 million library drive, raising money for the Center for the Arts and preparing to raise money for Ben Chandler's political campaign. But, she said, "Next year I could devote myself solely to Tom's cause if I can lay hands on enough money to see him through this year." That was five days before she died.
She was a giver, and, at 90, still a fierce advocate. So should we all be.
In terms of spiritual survival, as Niebuhr said, hope is essential. But to change the world, it usually takes hope and money.
David Hawpe's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays in The Forum. To contact him, write firstname.lastname@example.org.