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PRESIDENT'S FORUM

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

I'm really glad to be here, Mark, thank you very much. I was just stunned to see these gorgeous pictures of members of my family. So thank you for putting this together and each of you for coming out tonight.

This is sort of a homecoming in a way. Mark and Mary have been really good friends of my family for many, many years. I said at the dinner earlier that my mother wouldn't have the Christmas party unless Mark could come because he could sing and play, and my mother just loved him. He came to her 80th birthday party. She just loves Mark, as we all do.

It's also great to be in Geneva, I saw the pictures of my father's visit here in 1964 when he was running for the Senate, and you could see there were a lot of people out there. At dinner time a number of people told me about how the nuns kept them in school because you had to listen to Kennedy, and I told them the story about how my father used to say that the priests voted Republican, but the nuns voted Democrat.

So this is very special to me, and to be at a college, Hobart and William Smith has a great tradition of service and a great tradition of getting students involved both through service learning, through sending students abroad and through working in the community, and I want to congratulate Geneva that at this time of financial collapse, you could raise $5 million for a community center, so congratulations for doing that.

What I would like to do tonight is really talk about my family, what I learned from my family about service, and my own efforts to take what I learned from my family and spread it around to others. Some people liked it; some people didn't; and I will describe just what that consists of. I feel myself very, very fortunate growing up in a family that was interesting, where life was interesting and where service was important. That really was, I would say, so much part of my childhood. I'll just give you some examples.

I asked Mark how long I should talk about my family and he said, "Short," so I'll be a little short, but it does help to sort of set the stage, especially since I have these great pictures.

So when I was very young, my mother would have me write. You didn't put a picture of my grandmother up here, but my grandmother Rose Kennedy, she would have us write her letters, and my grandmother would send those letters back to us red-lined. She corrected our grammar, and you know the thing that was funny it didn't create a warm feeling. This wonderful grandmother was also correcting me every time I would talk. So I didn't really know her that much except for writing these letters. Or she would come when my parents went away and take over the household and she would correct everything that we did.

At the age of 75 she started to slow down, we would see her more often and what she liked to do was to take long walks. She would walk for two miles every morning and two miles every afternoon and then she would swim and then go up and study her French and German records because she said, "You never know who is going to come visit and you will have to speak to them." So what was interesting about these walks -- it's not about service, but it is about trying to achieve -- she would pin to her sweater famous quotations because she said, "You'll never know when somebody will ask you to give a speech, and you'll have to say something appropriate."

I know, you're looking at me shocked, but you know it really is a useful thing if you start to memorize quotations because then you can figure out what to say if anything else loses you. So she would do that, and she would also describe what it was like to grow up in Boston at the turn of the century, and I'm going to tell you what she would say because I think it helped to set the stage for why my aunts and uncles cared so much about those who had been left out and left behind.

She was the daughter of the first Irish-Catholic mayor, born in the U.S., selected in Boston, and we learned today from one of my sisters that he was the first mayor of any city to put a Christmas tree out. Cool, huh? Anyway when she was the daughter of the mayor, she described how she wanted to be just as good as any of the WASPs. Do you know what WASPs are? They were looked down upon in Boston; she described how there were still signs up saying, "Help wanted, no Irish need apply," and so she wanted to show that she was just as good as any of them. She was so excited she described how, at one point, the Abbey players from Dublin were going to come over and put on a play. And she was pleased because the Abbey players were supposed to be the greatest actresses and actors and they would do a great job and they would show the rest of Boston just how dignified and smart the Irish were.

Of course the play they brought over was "The Playboy of the Western World," which shows the Irish as drunken womanizing louts, and she was so disappointed. I tell you this because I think it shows that the experiences that each of you have when you are young affect you much more than the experiences you have when you are older. So that she was still -- I mean by that time her son had become the first Irish/Catholic President of the United States, and her other two sons had become Senators -- but she was still seeing how difficult it had been, the discrimination, and I think she passed that on to her children: the sense of wrong.

I'll tell you another thing: remember I said about how she studied her French and German records? The reason why she wanted to study the French and German is because when she was in high school she wanted to go to Wellesley College, and you had to know two languages, and her father didn't want her to go to Wellesley because it was not a Catholic college and sent her to a convent in Europe instead. The point is that here she was 70 years later still wanting to prove that she could have gone to college. I think that is important to know because it taught her children A) the importance of education, and B) the importance of individual achievement -- that you can be somebody and do something. It's not just what happens to you; you want to take control of your life. So that is an important message I got from my grandmother.

From my parents, a lot of the same lessons but there was really a sense to get involved in the community, know what's going on, be engaged. For instance, when I was three and four years old, when other mothers were taking their children to the playground -- to swing on the swings, to play in the sand-box, to create castles -- my mother took me to the Senate Racket Committee hearings. Some of my first words were, "I refuse to answer that question." So I learned about the Fifth Amendment when I was three. That was a weird thing to do growing up. Then to round the dinner table at night my parents thought it was important that we should know current events, so every night at the dinner it was really important to figure out where you would sit because if you sit just to the right of my mother you could read the front page and tell her what went on. But you know with 11 children you had to go around the table, and you really had to know what was happening, and when you got to be 12 you were expected to know three current events. On Sundays not only did you have to recite current events, but you had to either recite a poem or do a report on a famous person in history. My mother thought this was such a good idea that when she drove the car pool she made everybody in the car pool recite current events. So you can see that there were high expectations of what you should do.

Those high expectations were really part of the sense that you're here to do something, you're here to make a difference, and you are not here just to pass through. Remember I joked about going to the Senate Racket Committee hearings? But when I was in second and third grade when I was going to Our Lady of Victory School with 45 kids in our class, we had one nun and the promise of heaven and the threat of hell; and it worked. For two years I was not allowed to leave the school because the thugs that my father was investigating threatened to throw acid in our eyes, and so myself and my brothers and sisters would have to go up to the principal's office and wait until my mother arrived to leave because it was unsafe for us to actually go outside. We weren't allowed to leave our yard when we got home for a period of time, again because of the threats from those who were angry because he was investigating them.

So we learned early on, you have got to get involved, and it can be dangerous, but if you don't create enemies it means you haven't done anything good, and that it's not bad not to be liked because it might be because you are trying to do something, and you're trying to change something. I think that's an important lesson because often times we are taught, and women in particular are taught – "be liked, be loved, be sweet." Not a value in our house. It was difficult for people to live with us as a result, but it was still very important. We also learned that we had a responsibility, not only did we go to church, say prayers in morning and evening and the rosary at night -- actually my father used to read the Bible to us, and when I told him my grandmother that he read the Bible she said, "Really? Catholics don't read the Bible." Apparently they didn't; my mother said she was prohibited from reading the Bible. As you see what the Christian Right does with the Bible, they were on to something.

Anyway, we learned that sense of responsibility, and I have to just tell you one story that is really stuck in my mind. In 1967, my father, who was then a Senator, was having hunger hearing in Mississippi, and he came back one June day from having the hunger hearing to our dining room, and as you can imagine we lived in a very nice house. It's a beautiful house, Mark obviously has been there many, many times, we had a beautiful dining room with a crystal chandelier and the table was set with linen and there was lovely Lemose china; we had a cook; we were very fortunate as you can imagine. My father walked in, and he was shaking, and he said "I've just been to Mississippi, and I've just walked into a shack that is the size of our dining room, and a whole family lives there. The children had distended stomachs, and there were sores all over their stomachs because they don't have healthcare, they don't have anything, and you have so much, Kathleen. You have a responsibility to this country. Do something, take your life seriously."

That was a message that was very much part of what we learned growing up. We would often hear St. Luke: "From those who have been given much, much will be expected." So there really was a very great sense of responsibility, which I think has its advantages. It's tough; I think it is tough on one hand, but if you have high expectations from people, which is really what I learned from my own family, then you try to succeed, and you can see that in all of you young people who are here at college, your parents have high expectations for you and want you to succeed, and want you to give back, and that's really what I learned from my own family. I wanted to take that; I wanted other people to hear about that.

Some of you may know I ran for Congress in 1986 in Maryland, and one of the things you do when you run for public office is you try to find audiences. I would have killed for this audience. But it was hard for me to find an audience, so I spent a lot of time in high schools, not that they could vote for me, but they could at least work for me, and they were stuck there, and they had to listen to me. A lot of them actually ended up volunteering. In fact one of the young women after the campaign, she said, "Kathleen, that was the best experience of my life. Can I continue to work for you?"

I said, "Obviously you didn't see the election results."

But I thought, you know what she is interested, and that's terrific. I had also remembered visiting high schools in which I would say to kids in the high schools, "We've got challenges in our country, we've got no problems. In our city, in Baltimore we have 50 percent of kids who don't graduate from high school. We have drug problems in our schools and our communities. We have a high crime rate. What do you think you can do about it?"

In that high school a young woman in 9th grade said, "Mrs. Townsend maybe I shouldn't say this, maybe it's not appropriate, but really why should I care? Why should I get involved? Those problems are 10 miles down the road, and they have nothing to do with me and they have nothing to do with my life, so why should I care?"

When she said that I have to say a lot of the other students in the classroom said, "You should care!" They were very aware of the importance of getting involved in service. But she was really laying out what I thought was a very popular, at least amongst some people, sense that "I've got mine and why should I care about others?" And that sense that I got from my family about service, and her sense "I've got mine" are really two different parts of the American psyche. We have two strains in American life, and both are important and both are wonderful; we have individualistic strain which we hear about, which brought the hard-working from all over the world to America to build things, and to live out their dreams, and they did it. They built the railroads, they built the homes, they invented things, like Edison inventing the light bulb. They did great things; they built California, and they built the wealthiest most successful country on earth. A scale that has never been seen before, and they did it through their hard labor, and they did it by the belief that they individually could go out there and do something important, and make a difference, and make a better life for themselves and for others. There is really something wonderful about that ethic of rugged individualism.

But there is also, as each of you know, a darker side to that glory as we have seen in the last year with the economic crisis, in which this fierce individualism has laid waste to many Americans in the housing crisis, and the fact that we have over 10 percent unemployment rate, we've seen it and what it's done to the destruction of the environment, the factory that creates jobs can also poison the water with waste, and the First Amendment which protects those who criticize the government can also shield those offenders.

So the challenge that we always face, and that America particularly faces, is when you have a country that is based on individualism and doing it by yourself and you create wealth, how do you, in that environment, also deal with idealism and service and community? How do you fight the wealth and the cynicism and the self-interestedness that comes from just caring about money? What do you do if you live in a community or country that is dominated by money, and concerned with money?

That is why my answer to that question -- each of you may have a different answer -- but my answer was to make it possible for all students in the state of Maryland to do community service. Because I wanted to revive in the young people, who have the least ties to the past and the greatest stake in the future, a sense that there is something more than money in our lives. I wanted that young woman at that school to know there was something about why she should care for those who live in the city of Baltimore, even though she had had a comfortable life herself. So I launched this effort -- which took seven years, I was telling Mark -- "The Maryland Student Service Alliance" to get all kids in the state of Maryland involved in community service, because I believe that once you get involved in service you have a sense that you can do things, you can make a difference.

I went to one high school for instance, in a blue collar area of the state, and I said to them, "If you could do anything to change your life or your community, if you could make a difference, what would you do?" This is a question that I used to ask and people used to say, "I would do this... I would help the environment, I would figure out about peace, I would look at nuclear arms." Everybody had an answer, but at this working class school, everybody was silent, and I said, "Come on, what would you do?" And finally a young girl from the back of the room said, "You know what Mrs. Townsend the reason we don't answer is because we have been taught to be seen and not heard." Now that is a cliché, but for her life and her community she felt she shouldn't even dream, because the dreams would never come true. So I wanted, for all these reasons, to give kids the belief that they could have dreams, that they could make things happen, that they did have a responsibility and that it was actually fun to try and make a difference.

You know somebody asked John Kennedy once why did he want to be president, and rather than saying because he wanted to improve the education system and the jobs and work against the Soviet Union, he said "Because that's where the action is." Which was an honest answer, as you know. When you're there you want to make a difference, you want to be engaged, and that's what I wanted to do with these young people.

So let me just tell you briefly, it was a challenge. I would go to schools in the effort to get the students involved, and mostly I have gone to schools and the teachers would say, "Oh, these students are terrible, no one will listen to you," and I said, "I don't think that is true." I remember I was speaking to a group of high school students, and they got this whole assembly together, and I gave my talk about how they could make a difference and how terrific they are and how they have to get involved. One young woman said, "How do we start it here?" I said, "Well, get your principal." She said, "I've never seen my principal," and I said, "Well put up wanted posters, all around your school. I guarantee you will find your principal." And sure enough she did, she found the principal, and actually she is still working 20 years later on community service. She runs the young Baltimore Community Foundation. So it worked, but it was interesting.

What I learned in doing this is. Number one: Young people are terrific, no kidding, they are terrific, but change is difficult. When I tried to change the law in the state of Maryland it was opposed by 22 out of the 24 boards of education, the teachers union, and the P.T.A. So there was really a fight. I had in my office the list of why this was a bad idea from the top of my ceiling to the bottom. The head of the teachers union said it was a violation of the 13th amendment, which is slavery. She actually said this in front of a committee, and an African American, the chairman of the committee, said, "I don't think so." The Wall Street Journal said that this was a violation of child labor laws. I joke because this is the first time the Wall Street Journal has ever cared about child labor laws. A lot of people said I was trying to put values into the schools, and I said, yes, I was trying to put values into the schools. The reason we have public education, before the 1840s some states had public education, but really the public education started when these hoards of Irish-Catholic immigrants came into the United States, and the people in the United States thought "Oh, my god they're all going to be parents we need to make democrats out of them, (small d) and we needed to really up our efforts in public schools because otherwise they will go to parochial schools, and they will believe in the Pope." You think I'm kidding, that's really why public schools grew so much, and if you look at the enabling statues of why public education started, most of them have come after 1840s; it's all to teach "responsibility" and "democracy" and "citizenship"; there is nothing about reading, writing arithmetic; it was all started as a values based program. So I of course told everybody that, and they really wanted to hear my opinion.

But the point is: it was a fight, and the point of this is to say that when you want to do something it does take a fight. If you have a vision it takes a long time. It took me eight years to get this passed, and Maryland is still the only state in the country that requires community service as a condition of high school graduation because it is a change of how we think about education.

I think it's worthwhile. I am really glad to hear, I talked to a number of your professors here about how you do service learning -- that is terrific. But I have to tell you if you can change the elementary and middle school, it makes even more of a difference. Our values are formed when we are young. Remember how much I talked about why I didn't go to the sand-box, about how much I think our youth is when we really form our values? So the more we can get young people when they are young to think of themselves as doing something good, the better off it will be.

Actually when I was lieutenant governor, I did start a character education program, and I went to a school in which it was a very tough school -- there were drugs all around, the windows were broken -- and I went into the school, and I said to the principal that I would like to speak to your students, and the principal said, "Go right ahead, just talk to them." And I said to the kids, the fifth graders, "Is it tough to be in a character education school? Is it tough to be in the fifth grade when you have to help others to do the right thing?" And this little fifth grader said "Oh no, we're leaders, we have a responsibility to our parents and to the principal, and we have the courage and leadership to do what is right." I told that to a group of teachers and they said "Yeah, wait until they reach sixth grade."

But the point is, that was her language, and my belief is we are all going to reach sixth grade, and so things will get tougher. But our youthful ideals stay with us, and so to the extent that you here at this great college, you can work in the city of Geneva, and around, with little kids, and teach them that they are leaders, that they have a sense of responsibility, that they can make a difference. Nothing could be better. Good luck and God bless you.

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