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8-6-05

Iowa State University

Summer 2005 Commencement

Hilton Coliseum

Address by Michael Gartner, president, Board of Regents, State of Iowa

Thank you.

I was not sure what to say this morning, and a friend advised: "Just go out there, throw up your arms, say, 'The world is yours!' and walk off the stage."

I am tempted.

But, alas for you, I won't.

First, I want to say to you graduates: Congratulations.

Second, I want to say to your parents: Now, quit bugging them about their grades. You knew they'd make it, eventually.

For those of you who took a bit longer than the prescribed four years to graduate, don't give it a second thought. My father graduated from the University of Missouri at age 91. And then he went on and had a productive life.

My father lived to be 102, sound mentally and physically till the day he died. One time, when he and my mother were in their 80s, he said to me, "Do you want to know the secret of a long life?"

"Of course," I said.

"No left turns," he said.

I thought at first he was criticizing my politics, but he explained that years earlier he and my mother had read somewhere that most accidents involving old people happened when they were turning left. They lose their depth perception, he explained, and turn in front of other cars.

"So," my father explained, "ten years ago your mother and I made a policy decision: We would never make any left turns again."

"You're kidding!" I said.

"No," he said. "Think about it. If you make three right turns, it's the same as a left, and you eliminate the risk."

I turned to my mother -- she was the driver in the family, and he was the navigator -- and I asked if it were true.

"Yes," she said, "it's true. And it works -- except when your father loses count."

"Sometimes," she went on, "he forgets how many rights we have taken."

"What do you do then?" I asked. "It's simple," my father said. "You just make seven rights, and you're okay again."

"But if you lose count at 3, mightn't you lose count at 7?" I asked. "What do you do then, go for 11?"

"No," he said. "You just go home and try again tomorrow. Nothing in life is so important it has to be done today."

There you have it. I am old enough to know that I have no wisdom to impart to you this morning, and even if I did you would not remember it. So if you just remember "no left turns," I will consider the morning a triumph.

Having no wisdom to give you, no great thoughts to pass on, no clever rules for living, I will instead just tell you a few stories this morning. Seven stories, to be exact.

Actually, I've already told you the first one -- about my father -- so I'll move on to the second.

Story #2

It involves Tom Brokaw. When I worked at NBC, he and I were in my office one day, having a spirited argument. I thought something should be on the air that night, and he thought not. Or vice versa. I can't remember the fact, just the argument. "Damn it, Tom," I said, "if we don't put that on tonight, we'll have egg on our face." "No, Michael," he responded. "If we DO put it on we'll have egg on our face. And the thing for you to remember is this: It's YOUR egg, but it's MY face."

That was the second story.

Story #3

Here's the third.

It's about a man named Jules Leotard. Jules Leotard was a vain French aerialist who was born in 1842 and died of smallpox in 1870, at the age of 28. He was proud of his body, and he liked to show it off, so he regularly performed in very tight tights -- though, now that I think about that phrase, there's probably no such thing as loose tights. Leotard became quite famous. He was the first person to prefect the aerial somersault - -which sort of makes you wonder what happened to those who tried it earlier and didn't perfect it -- and eventually the revealing uniform he wore became known as a leotard, or leotards. As I said, Leotard was a vain man, and while still a young man -- indeed, he was a young man when he died -- he wrote his Memoirs. In them, he said:

    "Do you want to be adored by the ladies? A trapeze is not required, but instead of draping yourself in unflattering clothes, invented by ladies, and which give us the air of ridiculous manikins, put on a more natural garb, which does not hide your best features."

That was the third story.

Story #4

Here is the fourth.

This is also from my days at NBC. There was there, then, a wonderful woman who was bright and beautiful and nice and extraordinarily telegenic. She had all the makings of a zillion-dollar star.

All but one.

She didn't listen.

She didn't listen off-camera, and she didn't listen on-camera. If she was interviewing you, and you said you were there to talk about the ten best land-grant colleges in the nation, the interview would go something like this:

    "Now I understand that you're here to talk about the 10 best land-grant colleges in the nation, and that you think Iowa State University is the best."

    "Yes," you'd say, "but before we get into that, I should tell you that I just looked out the studio window here and saw that masked terrorists have Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric and Tim Russert lined up against the wall, with guns to their heads. And police are everywhere, and I see 27 bodies on the sidewalk."

    "Yes," she'd say, "and, now, what is the second best land-grant school?"

She didn't listen.

And still today she's bright and beautiful and nice and extraordinarily telegenic.

But she's no longer on network television.

That was the fourth story.

Story #5

Here's the fifth.

It's about a man named Jack Welch, a legendary businessman who retired a while back as chief executive of General Electric Company. GE owns NBC -- in fact, those duh-DUH-duh NBC chimes hit the notes G E C, which stand for General Electric Co., and if you remember two things from this talk, that might be the second.

Anyway, I went to New York in 1988 to be president of NBC News. (Willard Scott story.) So Jack Welch was my ultimate boss. Jack Welch is a small man, bald and not particularly handsome. He also stutters quite badly. Yet somehow he is so magnetic, that after you talk to him you come away thinking to yourself, "I wish I was short and bald and not very good looking and stuttered badly! (As you can see, I got three of my four wishes. Before I met him, I was 6-2, had a full head of wavy blond hair, and a movie-star face.)

At any rate, he is dynamic. We were talking once, about a business venture I wanted to start at NBC. It was going to cost millions, and I had to go to him to get approval. I explained the plan, told him how we had investigated it and what we expected, and he quickly gave me the money. Then he said, "I hope it works. But it's okay if it fails. It's better to take a risk and fail then not to take a risk at all."

That was the fifth story.

Story #6

Here's the sixth.

This story -- and the last, the seventh -- both are about cases from the Iowa Supreme Court, which has a long and glorious history. (C. Edwin Moore story.)

Anyway, this story is about a man named Ralph. Ralph was a slave who was owned by a Missouri man named Montgomery. Montgomery and Ralph made a deal that let Ralph buy his freedom on the installment plan. He was to move to Iowa and work in the lead mines around Dubuque. But he didn't make enough money even to pay for his boarding and clothing -- let alone to save $550 to buy his freedom.

Two men from Virginia heard of the deal, and they wrote Montgomery, saying they'd deliver Ralph back to him, and to slavery, for $100. Montgomery accepted the deal. The bounty hunters then went to the local magistrate and got an order for the sheriff to seize Ralph. The sheriff, having no choice, took Ralph in and handed him over to the bounty hunters. They put Ralph in a wagon, handcuffed him, and took him to a little river town, hoping to catch the next steamer to Missouri.

A nearby farmer heard of the tale and instantly called upon Thomas S. Wilson, an Iowa Supreme Court justice who was living in Dubuque. Here's Judge Wilson's account:

    "Alexander Butterworth, a noble-hearted Irishman . . ."

And I should stop right here. I think "noble-hearted Irishman" is redundant. At any rate:

    "Alexander Butterworth, a noble-hearted Irishman, who was ploughing in an adjoining field, soon heard of the arrest and came immediately to my residence and demanded a writ of habeas corpus. An attorney drew up the application, and it was granted. The sheriff overtook the parties at Bellevue, and Ralph was returned to Dubuque. The case was heard, but at my suggestion it was transferred to the Supreme Court of the Territory, because of its importance, and there it was unanimously decided that Montgomery's contract with the slave, whereby he was permitted to become a citizen of a free territory, liberated him, and that slavery did not and could not exist in Iowa."

The Supreme Court said: "When, in seeking to accomplish his object, [Montgomery] illegally restrained a human being of his liberty, it is proper that the laws, which should extend equal protection to men of all colors and conditions, should exert their remedial interposition.

In other words, slavery was illegal in Iowa. I should tell you that this happened even before Iowa became a state. And this decision was the very first decision handed down by the Supreme Court of Iowa -- it's in the records as 1 Iowa 1. The decision was handed down on July 4, 1838, and it's one of many reasons I'm proud to be an Iowan.

That was the sixth story.

Story #7

Here's the seventh.

It's, again, about some Iowans.

These Iowans were from Cedar Rapids, and they were in show business. They were the Cherry Sisters -- Effie, Addie, Jessie, Lizzie, and Ellie. They couldn't dance, and they couldn't sing. In fact, they couldn't do much of anything, at least not well. Their act exerted a ghastly fascination over its audiences.

And that was exactly what the great Oscar Hammerstein was looking for. The year was 1896, and he was going broke. He was in debt, and the acts he brought to Broadway weren't doing well. He was desperate. "I've tried the best," he said. "Now I'll try the worst." So he sent for the Cherry Sisters.

They opened at the New Olympia Theater in New York on November 16, 1896. "Never before did New Yorkers see anything like the Cherry Sisters from Cedar Rapids, Iowa," the New York Times reported the next morning. "It is sincerely to be hoped that nothing like them will ever be seen again." The New York Herald was even harsher: "Did you ever hear the musical 'kerchunk' of the half-flooded milk pail as the brindle-cow kicked it over with her offhind foot?" wrote the reviewer. "Well, that was Lizzie's voice. Did you ever hear the frightened squeak of the rooster when your sister-in-law's firstborn jumped on him hard with his little copper-toed boots? If you didn't, you won't appreciate Jesse's song of 'Fair Columbia.'"

But the audiences loved them. Night after night, young men crowded the theater. Often, they brought vegetables: sidewalk vendors were said to do a brisk business every evening selling onions and rutabagas and melons. "There was scarcely a young blade in the late nineties," the Des Moines Register recalled in 1929, "but boasted he had heaved a cabbage or two at the Cherry Sisters." Hammerstein himself may have encouraged such activity by rigging a fishnet across the footlights to protect the ladies.

Eventually, they went on the road, and they made some stops back here in their home state. In 1901, the Des Moines Leader wrote:

"Billy Hamilton of the Odebolt Chronicle, gives the Cherry Sisters the following graphic write-up on the late appearance in his town: 'Effie is an old jade of 50 summers, Jessie a frisky filly of 40, and Addie, the flower of the family, a capering monstrosity of 35. Their long, skinny arms, equipped with talons at the extremities, swung mechanically, and anon waved frantically at the suffering audience. The mouths of their rancid features opened like caverns, and sounds like the wailing of damned souls issued therefrom. They pranced around the stage, strange creatures with painted faces and hideous mien. Effie is spavined, Addie is stringhalt, and Jessie, the only one who showed her stockings, has legs with calves as classic in their outlines as the curves of a broom handle."

Well, the ladies sued, and a lower court -- after watching the ladies perform and after noting that the act was so bad the piano player left at intermission -- threw out the case.

They appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, which struck another blow for freedom. The Court ruled that ridicule is often a writer's best weapon. The case is considered a landmark of First Amendment law, for it upholds the notion that fair comment -- even intemperate comment or comment representing minority opinion -- is a valid defense of libel charges. It said, in effect, that anyone is entitled to his or her opinion without the threat of being sued. It was 75 years before the Supreme Court of the United States came to the same conclusion.

Lessons to be learned

So those are my seven stories.

Why did I tell them to you on this, your graduation day?

Because you're all smart people, and you're going out into the world, and you'll be looked to for leadership in your towns, your states, and your nations. And I just talked to you about leadership.

  • Leadership is knowing that there is more than one way of achieving what you want. Sometimes, like my father, you'll have to make three right turns instead of a left, but that will get you where you want to go.
  • Leadership is knowing that you can't do things alone, that you must work together. Otherwise, as Tom Brokaw reminded me, you'll have egg on your face. Sometimes, it will be your egg; sometimes, your face.
  • Leadership is capitalizing on your strong points, as Jules Leotard did and wanted other men to do.
  • Leadership is listening, staying tuned in so you can recognize new facts and situations that can change your mind and your course of action, something that a beautiful and smart woman couldn't do on television.
  • Leadership is developing a plan and then taking risks, as Jack Welch demanded of his lieutenants and straw bosses.
  • Leadership is being brave and bold, as the Iowa Supreme Court was in its very first decision guaranteeing freedom to Ralph, the former slave.
  • Leadership is standing ready to have a few rutabagas thrown at you.

But if you realize there is more than one way of doing things, if you understand the value of working together, if you capitalize on your strong points, if you listen, if you take risks, if you're brave and bold, and if you're willing to have a few cabbages tossed your way -- then you'll have a great life and be a good leader.

Let me add one footnote:

After her wailing days were over, Effie Cherry ended up back in Cedar Rapids, running a bakery. In 1926, she ran for mayor on the Moral Uplift ticket.

"It's the high prices; high skirts; high life; one-piece bathing suits; high gas, light and water rates; and white-collared gasoline hounds I'm after," she said. She added, "Public officials spend too much time playing golf. Women's skirts are ridiculous; they are too short -- ankle-length skirts will be the style if I have my way." She also advocated a 9 p.m. curfew.

In the four-way primary, Mayor J.F. Rall got 3,413 votes. W.G. Loftus received 2,899. Frederick Burill got 566. And 347 people voted for Effie.

So I guess there's a second moral to this story. It's this:

Sometimes, the high point of a career is when people are throwing rutabagas at you.

Again, congratulations.

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Quote

"So I guess there's a second moral to this story. It's this: Sometimes, the high point of a career is when people are throwing rutabagas at you."

-- Michael Gartner