When I was a young high school graduate, the thought of going to an expensive eastern Ivy League school never even crossed my mind. If it had crossed my mind, I’m sure I’d have chased the thought away from our modest and mortgaged ranch.
With my two siblings, we were the first generation in our family to even have a chance at college. Dad left school and began work after the 10th grade, Mom graduated high school but knew that was as far as she could go in her immigrant Norwegian family.
Opportunities improved, as we hope they do. I eventually went, and graduated, from our state’s land grant university with two degrees. I finished both degrees in four years, more out of necessity than ambition, because I knew I couldn’t afford to go any longer.
So I’m as surprised as anyone to be writing this column from Cambridge, Mass., as a student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Granted, I’m only enrolled here for six days participating in a course on leadership, but, for the time being, I’m still a Harvard man, or, as some might say with a bit of an air and an accent, a “Haw-vawd mawn.”
It’s an opportunity afforded to me by the Bush Foundation and the fellowships they award in developing “courageous leaders.” I count myself lucky. Like Will Rogers said, “A man only learns in two ways, one by reading, the other by association with smarter people.”
I associated with a lot of smart people this week. Some were teachers, some were my classmates from around the world. One was the spirit of a would-be cattle rancher who went to class here 135 years ago, Theodore Roosevelt.
Theodore was a Harvard man, and his alma mater’s library has some rare pieces from the man who would be my country’s 26th president. Through my brother, I know one of the Harvard librarians. He pulled a few Theodore Roosevelt pieces from the collection for me to read.
One was a handwritten letter to his son Kermit, written from Roosevelt’s cattle ranching days in North Dakota, complete with sketches of horses, cows and cowboys. Others were his handwritten meeting minutes of the Little Missouri stockman’s association and a personal diary with notations in it about delivering a couple of thieves to face justice in Dickinson, N.D.
I got to hold them in my hands and feel a connection with one of my personal and political heroes, that “damn cowboy,” as they called him, who would become president and protector of the nation and some of it’s most beautiful places.
Leaving the library, I was back in a room with 66 people from around the world, seeking insights on the notion of leading through chaos and conflict with courage. We learned together, and we learned from each other. Australia, Indonesia, Tanzania, Bolivia, Spain, Denmark, Jamaica, Mexico, and a dozen other countries, entered the classroom with me.
I made friends with a couple of men from Bahrain, learning much about their small country and its big turbulence in the Persian Gulf. The unrest and bloodshed and sectarian struggles were hardly known to me living where I do half a world away in peace.
Eating dinner next to one of the Bahrainis, I could see his mind was somewhere else. He was missing the wedding of his sister back home, but receiving pictures on his phone. His two young daughters were in the ceremony. I showed him a picture of my little girl and he smiled broadly and said, “Ohhh, she is beautiful!” Yes, she really is, I agreed, beautiful like your girls.
I don’t know what the future will hold for his family, or ours, but maybe, someday, his daughters and my daughter could come together at Harvard and compare photos of their children. They could walk to the library and think of cowboys and history, then walk forward together towards a future with less conflict, but abundant in courage. ❖