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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Contributing columnist Brik McDill.

Think tank. The idea may bring to mind a stuffy clutch of bewhiskered, bespectacled, oft besotted, chambered academic old guys pondering over esoteric pieces of arcana of no practical use and of value only to those whose interests lie in the nethermost reaches of academia.

Let's see, was it Sir Francis Bacon or Christopher Marlowe who had the most lasting -- and what kind of -- influence on Shakespeare, or may have even ghost written some of his plays under his "nom de plume" (and make sure you mentally sound out the last phrase like you've just bitten into the most puckery pickle ever). Or was Shakespeare's Henry V actually good old William's ego-ideal personified and vicariously lived out on stage at the Globe, London.

Or not. It all depends on what the think tank is trying to accomplish. It could be as described above; or it could be something more nitty-gritty reality-grounded and beneficial to us commoners hitting closer to home on issues directly related to our cities and county.

Kern County's most longstanding think tank lives within Cal State Bakersfield and has begun annually to bestow the Wendy Wayne Award to one or more county residents who have contributed to the county's uplifting through their ethical excellence. The Kegley Institute of Ethics heads out annually prospecting -- or takes in nominations -- for Kern's gold. And rather like the Nobel, awards are given for various kinds of achievement.

The Kegley Institute of Ethics, by way of its varied programs, stands for something: Ethical excellence. Not something found or seen in great abundance these days. Its mission: To inspire our community to recognize the value of thinking about and engaging in ethical behavior. Its vision: To be widely recognized as the leader in ethics exploration and education. It's programs: Seminars, workshops, special guest lectures, consulting, advisory and research groups, and associates, and experts on ethical decision-making. You have no idea how against today's cultural grain all that is.

[A lawyer is consulted by a prospective client who accidentally in cash pays him twice the agreed fee. The ethical dilemma? Does the lawyer split the overpayment with his partners? No offense meant to lawyers. Maybe I should have made the joke about psychologists.]

Point is, if we look around, we find deeply ingrained patterns of disheartening self-interest. In a day and age in which a rising tide no longer "lifts every boat," the gap between the self-absorbed super-rich and everyone else is widening, not linearly, but exponentially. And the percent below the poverty line? That tide, to our shame, is steadily and irreversibly rising as well.

The Wendy Waynes and Gene Tacketts of our county remind us that there was a Peace Corps era that came and went. Mine lasted no more than a graduation summer when my Peace Corps acceptance and assignment letter directing me to report to a foreign language institute in France then to teach biology in Lesotho, South Africa, crossed in the mail with my draft notice and found its way into my hands as I was sitting in sweaty combat fatigues on my basic training rack at Fort Ord.

But the Peace Corps spirit, ethic and ideal lived on in the many lives that came of age during the social upheavals of the Age of Acid and Aquarius. Instead of "tuning in, turning on, and dropping out" -- Timothy Leary's and Richard (Ram Das) Alpert's (in)famous mantra -- many did the opposite and tuned in to the importance of the greater good, stayed straight, turned on to what's really important, and reached out to a hurting and still undeveloped world.

And did some real good.

And still do...

The Wendy Wayne Award via The Kegley Institute is an embodiment and extension of those ideals and ethics: To recognize and award an adult and a young person annually for achievement that raises the ethical bar. One award goes for exemplary action; another for an exemplary life. Nominations are made by contacting the Kegley Institute at CSUB or its director, Dr. Chris Meyers. The 2014 awards will be announced at an upcoming banquet at Seven Oaks Country Club.

Despite the dominant social trends toward self-absorption and fiendish self--advancement, there are those whose ambitions lie in the direction of doing some good: coaches, teachers, pastors, imams, pandits, rabbis, physicians, nurses, social workers, the list goes on. And there are those unsung whose good is done wholly under the radar: saintly moms, dads, aunts, uncles, grandparents and blessed others who willingly, without hesitation, step up to the plate to sacrifice their own interests for the good of their families.

As we recently obsessed over the Olympic flame of athletic and performance excellence, let's remember the flame of ethical excellence and keep it alive as well. We can direct our ambitions to lifting up others and to setting the kind of ethical examples our neighbors and progeny can reflect upon and agree with the "literature of the ages" establishing that ours was not of descent to the gilded and benighted age of Gatsby, but an era of exemplary lives lived ethically and well.

Brik McDill, Ph.D. , is a community columnist whose work appears here every third Thursday. These are the opinions of McDill, not necessarily The Californian. Send email to him at