Ralph Doty: Could it be a case of 'divine guidance?'

They were contemplating the skyrocketing cost of heating their church this winter and barnstorming for ideas on how to lower the sanctuary's temperature, while at the same time keeping the congregation comfortable. Suddenly, Rev. Alan Cutter, pas...

They were contemplating the skyrocketing cost of heating their church this winter and barnstorming for ideas on how to lower the sanctuary's temperature, while at the same time keeping the congregation comfortable. Suddenly, Rev. Alan Cutter, pastor of Lakeside Presbyterian Church in Lakeside, and his wife, Ann, came up with an inspired idea.

What if the church thermostat setting was dropped five degrees -- it would save about 15 percent in energy costs -- and worshipers coped with the colder sanctuary by using blankets, popularly called "lap robes?" Would members embrace the idea as a good way to save the church's money, or would they reject the notion as silly?

There was only one way to find out, they reasoned. Ann, described by her husband as an "avid seamstress," purchased three bolts of fleece, cut the material into 30 blankets/lap robes measuring 3 by 5 feet and stitched the edges.

The following Sunday, lap blankets were placed in the church pews, with the temperature in the sanctuary set at 67 degrees -- down from the usual 72 degrees.

Pastor Cutter says at first church members were "amused" at the idea. Then, as he describes it, "amusement begot use" during December's cold snap, when worshipers placed blankets over their laps and shoulders, and wrapped babies and infants with the protective covers.


The Rev. Cutter, who has ministered at Lakeside Presbyterian Church for 16 years, says the blankets were not used by members during Christmas services because of the area's surprisingly warm weather. But, Alan and Ann know that as surely as there's a heaven, the lap robes will be used again when below zero weather returns.

How much money will the church save by employing this unique idea? Cutter says the skyrocketing cost of natural gas so far this winter has meant monthly bills 80 percent higher than last year at this time. Even with the blankets and a lower thermostat setting, he believes the building's energy costs will jump from $13,800 this year to more than $20,000 in 2006.

And there's a certain irony to all this: "The use of blankets in church," said Rev. Cutter, "was appropriate this Christmas season, because it reminded us of the swaddling clothes wrapped around the baby Jesus."

No-win situation

The first snowflake had just fallen in suburban St. Louis. Predictably, the community college's telephone switchboard lit up with calls from students asking if college classes that evening would be canceled because of a predicted heavy snowfall. (For the record, one inch of snow is enough to paralyze that city.) Forecasters were saying the snow would begin at 3 p.m., and fall for six hours at the rate of an inch an hour.

As the college's president, the decision about whether hundreds of night classes should be canceled would eventually end up on my desk. You know, "The buck stops here."

I rarely called off classes, because I figured that since college students are adults, they could navigate streets on snowy days. But this anticipated snowfall was supposed to be different. The weather folks told us the fast-moving storm would begin during the evening rush hour -- a bad time for slipping and sliding.

1 p.m. -- I called the media and asked them to advise evening students the campus would close at 2 p.m.


3 p.m. -- The campus was practically empty.

4 p.m. -- The sky turned blue and the sun shone brightly. No snow -- and a red-faced administrator.

While students liked the idea of a snow holiday, I got some criticism from the community, along with a healthy dose of derision. But I did my best by making what I thought was the best call.

Which brings me to Duluth School Superintendent Keith Dixon's decision to close schools on Dec. 14, based on a weather prediction of treacherous road conditions that afternoon. For that decision, Dixon got undeserved criticism.

If he didn't realize it before that day, our new superintendent now knows that regardless of his decisions on snow closings in Duluth, he will never win.

If he shuts down schools early in the morning, some parents will complain they have to take a vacation day from their jobs to be home. If he closes schools in the middle of a school day, the rap will be that kids with working parents won't have anyone to come home to. If he keeps schools open all day during adverse weather, some parents will complain their children are in harm's way.

I don't know of any administrator who would call off school because (a) it's fun making parents scramble; (b) he's sick of working and he needs a break; or (c) it's good to demonstrate just how powerful he is.

On the contrary, superintendents close schools because children need to be kept out of hazardous situations. It's that simple -- or complicated -- depending on where you sit.


Readers respond

It's nice to hear from readers. Recent columns dealt with our daughter-in-law's serious injuries caused by a drunk driver who got only two days in jail, and my criticism of Mayor Bergson following his drunk driving accident.

I also gave Superintendent Dixon a positive performance review of his first six months here.

Patti Kolojeski of Duluth writes: "Your article on the superintendent was outstanding. ... Also, your utter contempt regarding our mayor hit it right on the nail. ..."

Dave Holappa, Duluth: "Keith (Dixon) needs to hear these kinds of comments, as does our mayor."

Duluthian Charlene Shimmin: "I totally agree with you about short sentences for DWI . . . (and) I liked your article about Dr. Dixon."

Ralph Doty welcomes your comments and suggestions. or c/o Duluth Budgeteer News, 222 W. Superior St. 55802.

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