When we think of those who drive our arts scene, it’s most often familiar painters or sculptors, maybe impresarios or actors, even recognizable benefactors or their businesses and foundations. However, there’s just as much bubbling beneath the surface.

It is in people like Milton McCovey. He appeared at events for the Mystic Order of the Jazz Obsessed (MOJO) nearly 15 years ago drawn by his fondness for the music. When arms and legs were needed, he never hesitated to help. Stacking chairs, moving equipment, even bringing food, he was eager to assist.

Then McCovey agreed to join MOJO’s board of directors. He deferred prominence or acclaim, but welcomed any background activity.

Around the same time, McCovey was recruited onto the board of the Gulf Coast Ethnic and Heritage Jazz Festival (GCEHJF). They needed dependable, diligent people to help with their annual week of educational, literary and musical events.

McCovey’s impact was immediate. When jazz clinic began, lunches were needed for the students. Milton purchased and delivered them. Whatever was needed, he was always ready to fill the role, whether chaperone on trips or fetching ice and refreshments for kids and teachers,

Need someone to transport clinicians or performers? Milton stepped forward.

Need to supply clean towels for sweaty and tired musicians at the concert? Milton volunteered to buy and wash the towels, then take care of them afterward.

Need ice, snacks and drinks for the concert green room? Milton took care of it.

Need the venue cleaned, including floors and bathrooms? Milton jumped in.

Need someone to carry a sign at the front of a second-line parade in triple-digit August temperatures? He grabbed it and started marching.  

When the GCEHJF centerpiece concert finished this past Aug. 6, this man — just a couple of years short of Social Security — jumped into action. Despite busting his hump since early that morning, he quickly gathered whatever was available and loaded out.

A deluge hit downtown less than a half-hour after the show finished, and there was Milton, soaked but working. He might not be the board member writing grants and completing applications, but it is hard to see the festival happening without him.

All this from an average, workaday Mobilian, completely apart from the stereotypes often associated with our arts world. No bohemian youth, no bored housewife, just a former steel fabricator who put kids through college and bought a house working with his hands.

Milton’s not wealthy, no society doyenne awash in the admiration of an empowered set. He’ll never see his name on a building. What he does is give the most valuable thing any of us have, which is time. He’s just a guy who wants to see his community improve and in his pursuit he’s made himself invaluable.

There are others like him around us. They might be a docent, or maybe an usher at the symphony or opera performance. Maybe they stitch together costumes or create backdrops. They can’t be found on a professional personnel or staff listing but they’re absolutely invaluable.

In a historically capital-poor town where resources are slim, volunteers are more than integral. They’re nearly irreplaceable.

Generals may get the accolades but it’s the foot soldiers, the boots on the ground, who make victory possible. The same is true with other undertakings.

Cultural endeavors and events are like any task: if you ask three people to move a pile of sand it’s a backbreaking chore. If you have 100 people lending a hand, it’s just a shovel-load for each and no big deal at all.

Supporting the arts furthers the conveyance of our culture and what makes us who we are. It also takes more than well wishes, and we need to remember these people who pitch in to help a greater number of folks.

The next time we’re showering praise on high-profile organizers or those on public relations junkets, we need to at least save some for all the nearly anonymous souls willing to tackle the mundane. Truly gracious leaders are quick to shift gratitude to those they “couldn’t do this without” mostly because it’s truer than many of us ever realize.

It’s their leads we should follow, their examples we should exalt. If we had a hundred Milton McCoveys, our cultural possibilities would be boundless.