John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

My Luckiest Day

John Gardner
President

I have a number of thought lines that lead into where I am going with the blog which may well turn into a Joycean stream of consciousness piece.

I have had a lot of lucky days in my life. I like to think of myself as a person who has led a life of taking initiative, making my own opportunities, and so on. But, no question, I have had a lot of lucky breaks. And yesterday, well, it may have been the biggest one of all.

Yesterday, February 22, 2011, my wife Betsy Barefoot and I left Christ Church New Zealand, where we had spent the last two days of our New Zealand 10 day vacation, in this wonderful, very British form of New Zealand small city. Our flight departed Christ Church at 9.20AM. And we had spent the night before on the very top floor—floor # 13 now that I think about it—which you almost never see in an American hotel, in a hotel in the center of this lovely city. Three hours and thirty one minutes after we pushed back from the gate, the city experienced a devastating earthquake. As I write a day later the death toll is still unknown. The hotel we stayed at is structurally unsafe to enter. The one across the street from it is rubble. The archetypal symbol of Christ Church, the Anglican Cathedral, which we admiringly visited the day before, is in ruins. The day before had been absolutely beautiful, sunny, clear, not a cloud in the sky, in the low 80’s, with everyone it seemed out and about enjoying the wonderful day. What a difference a day makes.

This morning when I boarded a flight in Sydney Australia to return to the US, I realized I had become separated from a prize gentleman’s hat. I am a collector of such hats. I didn’t start wearing hats until I was forty, but now they are one of my signature sartorial characteristics. I was sick about my loss, for just a few seconds. This was a hat I purchased in Ireland about five years ago and it had served me well and made me look more stylish, masculine, and debonair than I possibly could without it. But I remember one of the many phrases from my first mentor at the University of South Carolina, the late Thomas F. Jones, the man who gave me one of my biggest of all time professional breaks, inviting me to get involved in the University 101 experiment and ultimately picking me as its first permanent director, as his third choice—what was Tom’s saying: “No sense crying about anything that can be replaced by money”. And I thought about all those dear souls whom Betsy and I had seen just the day before in Christ Church, a city which we knew we wanted to return to, who had just lost so much that could not be replaced by money.

I have preached to my students for years the importance of doing your best to control the things in life that you can control: what time you get up; whether you have breakfast; what you eat; how much you exercise; with whom you associate; wearing a seat belt; not drinking and driving; not abusing the temple of your body with tobacco and other drugs, etc. And I really do try to practice what I preach: exercising tremendous self discipline and control. But I have also always been an existentialist in terms of how I think about life’s most important outcomes. I discovered existentialism like most of the rest of my important ideas, in college. The existentialist view is that the universe is indifferent, random, often cruel, that one’s fate is often the result of chance occurrences, like yesterday’s earthquake. I must really be lucky. I am really lucky.

Last night my wife and I at a dinner to celebrate our lives, and mourn the loss of the lives in a newly discovered special city for us, each made a list for the other of our luckiest breaks. Mine included, but were not limited to:

• Winning the adoption lottery by being selected by two adults who gave me a childhood of privilege and total lack of material need
• Choosing Marietta College which facilitated such incredible intellectual liberation for me; I chose it on a whim
• Having a sophomore student come up to me one day after class and explain to me that I was failing this course we were in together because I was not taking any lecture notes. He showed me how. And my grades went from failing everything to becoming a very successful student.
• Having a draft board in a wealthy community where there weren’t enough people to draft and hence being drafted myself
• That led me to volunteer for the Air Force
• Having some senior NCO in the Lackland Air Force Base Personnel Office take some interest in me and offer me a slot in a psychiatric hospital unit, not as a patient but as a social worker
• That got me sent to South Carolina
• Having a squadron commander that took the time and interest to read my record carefully and discover that I was well educated and hence led him to ordering me to become an adjunct college teacher—no one had every before suggested to me I had an obligation to perform “service”
• Having a wonderful teaching experience in my first class which led me to want to make a life of this profession where you can earn a legal living of socially redeeming value by doing the four things I live doing the most: talking, reading, writing, and helping people.
• And then being offered a full-time teaching job at the University of South Carolina, after my honorable discharge from the military
• And then having my University President invite me to join him in this grand educational experiment called University 101
• And then being asked to become Director, because the first two choices turned the job down
• And then years later meeting Betsy Barefoot at the University of South Carolina
• And having a dear colleague, Russ Edgerton, then of The Pew Charitable Trusts, offer Betsy and me our first grant to do totally new work to improve the first year in higher education.

Oh yes, I’ve had a lot of lucky breaks. But yesterday’s was the biggest one of all. Because Betsy and I are still alive to live life to the fullest and to continue our unfinished professional agenda.

You could convert this to a useful introspective exercise, for yourself, for your students: what have been your lucky breaks? Versus what have you been the prime mover to make happen, which also turned out very well. What has been the balance of all this for you.

2 Comments

  1. SteveMarch 3, 2011 at 5:02 pmReply

    One of my lucky breaks was being assigned a history class taught by a young man whose encouragement in 1971 at USC is still making a positive difference in my life. Thank you John.

  2. John N. GardnerMarch 4, 2011 at 10:23 amReply

    Thanks Steve. I am reminded that an accurate recall is the first thing to go! Seriously, all faculty should be so fortunate as to have present and former students like you!

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