Editor’s note: Linn’s asked recently retired Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee member Cary R. Brick to share some thoughts about his 12 years on the committee. This is the first of three columns.
I was deeply honored to have been appointed to the United States Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee in 2002, and I took that assignment seriously during my dozen years on that committee.
The committee is not powerful in the Washington-speak sense of that word, but it has as a mission the responsibility to present to the world, through postage stamps, America and its people.
That’s a powerful task.
Known as CSAC (pronounced “sea sack”) to followers of stamp-related issues, the committee is advisory. It presents its recommendations to the postmaster general for his consideration.
The postmaster general makes the final decision on stamp subjects.
Why is CSAC’s work important?
Postage stamps showcase to the world an exciting catalog of America, including the best of our contemporary society as well as our history, our heroes and leaders in the arts and sciences, our national beauty, pop culture, character and diversity.
The CSAC page on the U.S. Postal Service website points out that “Many of the subjects chosen to appear on U.S. stamps and postal stationery are suggested by the American public … Every stamp suggestion meeting criteria is considered, regardless of who makes it or how it is presented.
“ … (CSAC) is tasked with evaluating the merits of all stamp proposals … the committee provides the Postal Service with a ‘breadth of judgment and depth of experience in various areas that influence the subject matter …’
“The committee’s primary goal is to select a good balance of subjects appealing to a broad audience … These subjects will be contemporary, timely, relevant, interesting and educational … selections are made with all postal customers in mind, including stamp collectors.”
The group meets quarterly in Washington outside the view of the public.
The rationale for the long-established policy of below-the-radar visibility of the committee and its work is relatively simple: The Postal Service wants CSAC members to be free from lobbying efforts by stamp subject proponents or special interests. No in-person appeals by stamp proponents are permitted.
The existence of the advisory group allows the postmaster general to channel the requests — and often, the demands — to the committee, which reviews them and presents him with a list of subjects and designs for his consideration and approval once a year.
Upon my appointment to the committee, I quickly learned how seriously that responsibility is taken.
While many Americans pay little attention to the stamp subjects, requesting only “pretty” or “patriotic” stamps from post office clerks, others focus on them as windows into everyday America, educational tools illustrating our history, our past and present culture, and our people; views untainted by politics, propaganda, media interpretation or censure.
During the committee’s quarterly sessions, proposals that have met the criteria for consideration are discussed at length.
Those criteria are published on a committee link on the USPS website at http://about.usps.com/who-we-are/leadership/stamp-advisory-committee.htm.
Members bring their own proposals to the table as well.
The committee has two working groups. The first, which I was privileged to chair during my final year on the committee, focuses on subject selection. The second group concentrates on stamp designs and artwork for subjects approved previously.
From start to finish, a particular stamp subject and its design might be in the discussion and design processes for several years.
Always working years ahead, the committee prepares its recommendations for the future usually three or four years ahead of time.
In preparing any particular year’s stamp program, members strive to achieve a balance of subjects.
Philatelist members bring special insights to the table, and their input is highly regarded.
Who’s on the committee?
Joan Mondale, the late wife of former Vice President Walter Mondale, was one of my colleagues for several years. She asked me to partner with her on the 44¢ Seabiscuit stamped envelope issued in 2009 (Scott U668).
In addition, I was privileged to serve with actor Karl Malden; Notre Dame basketball coach and ESPN sports personality Digger Phelps; Olympic gold medal winner and ABC sports commentator Donna de Varona; Harvard professor and public television documentary host Henry Louis Gates; I. Michael Heyman, a scholar who began his career as a Supreme Court law clerk before teaching law and becoming chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, and eventually retiring as head of the Smithsonian Institution; and a cadre of lesser nationally known but equally distinguished men and women from a variety of fields.
As a native Northern New Yorker (near the Canadian border, 350 miles from the closest subway station) I focused on championing Americana, patriotic, historical and educational subjects that I felt depicted middle and rural America. Others brought perspectives from the big cities and from their professional careers.
I respected the passions of my colleagues who championed “artsy” and “pop culture” subjects, and those who brought forth proposals focusing on groups and cultures ignored for decades on previous stamp issues.
I admired some designs more than others, while choosing not to buy a few and purchasing many of the others.
I learned quickly that every single stamp subject has its champions and its detractors.
Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe, in making a retirement presentation to the author of this column, said, in part: “Cary Brick brought his enthusiasm for all things American to the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee. He considered it a serious responsibility to help develop stamps that would be warmly received by the American public … he was tireless in his efforts to honor those who serve our country and his thoughtful, broad-minded definition of public service encompassed diplomats, astronauts and coal miners alike … he leaves behind a body of work that speaks volumes about his integrity, his intellect and his commitment to his nation.”