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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

President Donald Garrity Tribute (speech, op-ed, Ellensburg Daily Record)

(Note: This editorial was first given as a speech at a tribute banquet for President Donald Garrity of Central Washington Universityin l991. When Garrity died in l994 from cancer at 66 years of age the speech was printed in several newspaper around central Washington State. This was because in some circles we were seen as an odd couple – a Reagan conservative president of the board of trustees (me) and a Hubert Humphrey liberal (Garrity). I was arguably the most conservative university trustee in Washington State during the mid-80s but I had a close friendship President Garrity. I was appointed to the Board of Trustees in l980 by the new Republican governor, John Spellman. I served as a trustee for six years, two of those years as chairman of the board. Spellman served as governor from 1980 to 1984 and was the last Republican governor in Washington.)

Donald Garrity

W.H. Auden, the great British poet, once wrote that there are only three or four turning points in your life, which largely go unnoticed until you pass through those points, and you look back and understand their significance. I would paraphrase that slightly to say that there are maybe three or four individuals whom you have the privilege of knowing in a lifetime that genuinely make a difference in your life. I haven’t met my entire quota of four notable individuals yet, but I have met one‑-Don Garrity.

I have known Don Garrity as a business partner, as a community leader, as an educational colleague, as a friend, and as my tutor and personal headmaster. Over the last 12 years, Don and I have discussed education, politics, religion, business, philosophy, and sociology, to name the topics that come quickly to mind. And he and I, more often than not, would disagree about many of these subjects.

I suppose because Don is, at the same time, erudite and eloquent, a bit contentious and impatient, and sometimes, imperial, I have, more than once, left his presence with a little less skin and a few more bruises on my ego than I wanted. But, he was a most unique teacher in my life because I always learned from him something about myself and the ideas and notions that animate my life.  Invariably, I came away from those times more thoughtful and reflective and deliberative than I was before.

I have had the opportunity over the years to meet many university presidents, and some wanna-bes; most recently, I was inChicagoa month ago on university business and I met a bunch from around the country. I share with you my conviction that Don Garrity has an exceptional leadership presence, which is both cerebral and authoritative like few university presidents I’ve ever met. In an age of hyper-sensitivity to one’s feelings of self‑importance and personal worth, Don Garrity can be considered an exemplar of a more honest era when truth and excellence were more important than schmoozing and accommodation.

William F. Buckley, Jr., tells the story of two strangers talking over wine in a village in the French provinces. After a while one addresses the other, and asks, “Do you like Americans?” “No” is the curt answer. “Well, do you like Jews?” “No.” “Catholics?” “No.” Finally, with some exasperation: “Well, who do you like?” Without looking up from his newspaper the fellow replies, “I like my friends.”

Don Garrity likes his friends, and his greatest friend wasCentralWashingtonUniversity. It was not only the board, the faculty, the administrators, the students, the community, the politicians, the alums, the foundation, it was all of these groups woven into one indivisible whole, and yet the whole having many parts. He understands the complexity, the beauty, the vision, the fragility and the essence of a liberal arts university, as a community of scholars, and he made common cause with all who would participate in and advance and protect this exceptional institution.

On and off the board of trustees, I have been a vocal, and rather public, supporter and follower of Don Garrity’s. Don knew that. But I think it never occurred to him that any particular deference was due me, because he never seemed reticent to challenge me when he believed my actions might be detrimental to the harmony, purpose and well-being of his university. And, it was his university. It was right and good that he as president, thought of it as his university. He was a wonderful president because he had a sense of ownership about this wonderful place.

One incident comes to mind which reflects his bold possessiveness. During the dark days of financial woe in the early 1980s, programmatic cutbacks were being made by the board. During the exploratory stages of the process I had determined that it was important for me, as a board member, to come on campus and visit the programs under scrutiny. So I began my fact-finding forays onto the campus. Shortly afterwards, very shortly afterwards, I got a call from the corner office, Don’s office, during which he told me that he appreciated my interest in the process and my enthusiasm. But, perhaps my purpose might be better served if I checked with his office first and allowed it to arrange my schedule. He told me that we had faculty and administrators and students to consider and he was concerned that my actions might be open to misinterpretation and therefore cause unintended problems. I understood perfectly his unspoken message that as a trustee I was no longer a private citizen when I came on campus and therefore I needed to act with a greater awareness of my responsibilities. I have been back on campus many times since then as a trustee, as a presidential associate and as a teacher, but I never forgot that gentle, yet firm, Celtic exhortation from President Garrity.

Now, there was a leader who called forth the best from those around him, including me.

I am a better man because of you, Don Garrity. Thank you, for being a friend, a partner and a tutor in so many ways.

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