John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What Have You Accomplished?

John N. Gardner

I had a father-in-law for many years who was one of the most satisfied and content people I have ever met. There were many reasons for this, and one of the most explanatory I believe was that every day he labored he knew very clearly, with absolute certainty, what he had accomplished.

My mind works in funny ways my readers will say, just as theirs do too. But I am thinking in the period of this writing about what I have accomplished. This is prompted by the fact that in a few days I will deliver a commencement address to the graduating students at the university where I worked full-time for over thirty years, and where I still have an appointment, as an elder statesman, “Senior Fellow” (the University of South Carolina). The University is also conferring on me an honorary degree. It will be one of those rare occasions when I will see my whole former life flash before me. This is a really big deal given the rarity of institutions taking such actions towards their employees. The recognition has everything to do with the importance the University assigns to the work I did there as one of a cast of literally, thousands. I know what I accomplished, and every aspect of this was done through others. We all shared a common vision about the importance of new students and in relentlessly striving to make our university the most first-year student friendly higher education institution in the world.

Unfortunately, for many people it is not so clear what they accomplish and where they fit into a larger vision of redeeming social value. That brings me back to my father-in-law.

His name was Edgar “Sonny” Powers. And he was for me an all American story of The Greatest Generation. Drafted in the US Army during World War II and plucked out of his small, rural, South Carolina town of about 3000, off he went first to train with “Yankees” and eat their food (lamb, which he found a very strange meat whom the teasing “Yankees” told him was really “goat” meat), then to be shipped overseas with The Greatest Generation. He ended up driving a fuel tanker truck across France and Germany in Patton’s fabled Third Army and living to tell about it. When he got back home he married and bought a home on his richly earned GI bill, with a payment of $47.00 a month, where he lived until the day he died in his small South Carolina town. In addition to being in the National Guard, which he loved (that was in the era when the standing army got shipped overseas on deployments, not the Guard), other than his wife and two girls, his other all consuming love was the art and craft of carpentry. He used to say “if it’s made out of wood, show me a picture and I’ll jump right on it.” The reference was to home building. For the next 40 years he worked every day, by the hour, never bidding on jobs, building absolutely beautiful homes with his own hands. Farmers and their families would wait years for their turn to have him build a home for them, paying with what was known in the rural South Carolina countryside as “cash money.” Every day he knew what he had done. He knew he had made somebody, most commonly the woman of the house, extremely happy that day.  I would go over to visit him every few months and we would go out on a tour of his handiwork. He was rightfully as proud of his work as I am mine. He never could understand my work because he couldn’t “see” it. And one of my two sons follows in his footsteps, and has the same level of satisfaction.

I assume that the majority of my readers are higher educators; why else would they be reading me? I wonder what the majority of them do each day to reflect on what they did that day that mattered, made a difference…? How do we “see” what we have done? By looking very carefully. By just asking ourselves and others. By soliciting feedback. By working with and through others they will let you know how you are doing and what you have done.

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