WASHINGTON – For Estella Moss,her trip here last week wasn't just to honor her as a national award winner,it was a chance to catch up with an old acquaintance.
One of 77 recipients of the Jefferson Awards,which recognize outstanding public service,Moss was invited to Washington to hobnob with senators and receive her award from the American Institute for Public Service.
Moss's meeting with Sen. Evan Bayh,D-Ind.,went beyond the typical congratulatory glad-handing and photo posing. Moss,a Democratic political activist from Evansville,Ind.,was very close to the senator's father,Birch Bayh,during his Senate tenure in the 1970s.
At a reception on Capitol Hill,Moss and Bayh reminisced about old times and asked about each other's children. Moss also asked Bayh whether he would be Sen. John Kerry's running mate after his name has been among likely contenders in recent weeks. But there would be no candid confessions to his loyal constituent.
“He said that was for John Kerry to decide,” Moss said.
Now 75,Moss was honored for a life of political involvement. When she was 16,Moss began working with the local Democratic Party to register voters and persuade black candidates to run for local offices – even though she would not step into a polling booth herself for another five years because the voting age was still 21.
The early start in politics helped Moss become an influential force in Evansville politics. She said she helped fight segregation in the schools,provide housing for low-income families and get government and civil service jobs for black men and women in Evansville.
Moss is not modest about her achievements.
“I worked very hard,and I became very powerful,” she said at Tuesday's reception.
Eventually,Moss threw her own hat into the ring,becoming the first black woman to serve as Vanderburgh County recorder. She was elected in 1976 by a margin of only 29 votes. Running on a third-party ticket,Democrats for Alternative,Moss had to fend off a Democratic and Republican challenger.
“I was told I could not win when I ran for office,and it was an exciting time,” said Moss,who notes the victory as one of her proudest achievements.
Last week's trip was Moss's second to Washington. In 1963,she came with a group of Democrats from Indiana to meet with President Kennedy. She was representing Evansville in Washington as well last week to see if she might have been one of five Jefferson Award winners to receive the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award,which recognizes the most outstanding of the Jefferson winners.
The five Onassis award winners were Judith Bluestone of Seattle; Bobby Trimble of Midland,Texas; Kim Meeder of Portland,Ore.; the Rev. Alice Parker of Trenton,N.J.; and Dr. Erwin M. Vasquez of Miami.
Three of Moss's six children accompanied her to Washington – Phyllis Johnson,57,of Evansville; Sheila Spencer,54,of Evansville; and Debbie Monroe,44,of Columbus,Ohio.
The women said they were proud of their mother's accomplishments and reflected on growing up in such a political household. The phone was always ringing with people in the community asking Moss for help or advice,they said,and the house was always consumed by political campaigns.
Spencer said she met Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy because of her mother and volunteered in the 1968 campaign.
“I was a Humphrey girl,” she said.
“Politics has been very exciting for me,” Monroe said. “We were all little campaigners for whoever.”
Moss's other three children are Chuck Moss,42; Ardell Smith,55; and Angie Small,40,all of Evansville.
The Jefferson Awards were first handed out in 1972. They were created by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; former Sen. Robert Taft Jr.,R-Ohio,and Sam Beard,who presides over the awards as president of the institute. The awards are presented annually to exceptional public servants from around the country.
In addition to the local Jefferson winners,who are nominated by local media outlets,four national Jefferson awards are given each year. This year's national awards went to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor,documentary filmmaker Ken Burns,civil rights leader the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Yale graduates Kirsten Lodal and Brian Kreiter,who created a student volunteer organization to help people in need.
O'Connor received the U.S. Senator John Heinz Award for Greatest Public Service by an Elected or Appointed Official. She has served on the Supreme Court since 1981 after serving as a judge in Arizona. The Jefferson Award recognized her as a decisive voice on many issues considered by the Supreme Court and her commitment to public service.
Burns received the S. Roger Horchow Award for Greatest Public Service by a Private Citizen. The award recognizes his impact on society's understanding of history and sociology through his epic documentaries on the Civil War,jazz and baseball.
Shuttlesworth received the Jefferson Award for Greatest Public Service Benefiting the Disadvantaged. The award recognizes his participation in the civil rights movement through his preaching and participation in protests and marches during the 1960s. He now preaches at the Greater New Light Baptist Church in Cincinnati.
Lodal and Kreiter founded National Student Partnerships in 1998 as undergraduates at Yale. The program,which began as an effort to bridge the economic gap between Yale students and residents of surrounding New Haven,Conn.,continues to link poor Americans with critical resources to become employed. The two,who now live in Washington,received the Samuel S. Beard Award for Greatest Public Service by an Individual 35 or Under.