By Tim Hayes
In the winter of 1982, I had a fiancé, a year of college left to finish, and zero job prospects. Then, the Governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania came to town. Allow me to explain.
Walking from my off-campus apartment to an evening “Introduction to Computers” class – which I hated and soon dropped – I passed the large cafeteria building on campus, when a kerfuffle of some sort caught my eye.
Dick Thornburgh, then governor, had come to address a local civic organization at a fund-raising dinner currently under way inside the dining hall, which was locked tight after all of the invited guests had arrived. But outside, in the biting cold, stood about 25 student protesters, shouting and banging on the glass windows, in an attempt to get an audience with Thornburgh over looming tuition increases at the state university where we all attended.
Since I happened to be friends with one of the leaders of this disruption, I decided, as a dedicated journalism major, that I had a duty to ditch that stupid computer class and start some on-the-spot reporting.
After my friend explained the beef that she and her fellow shivering sit-inners had, lessons from my journalism classes began kicking in, the first being that each story has two sides, and a reporter must try to objectively gather and represent both. But I had absolutely no realistic expectation of gaining access to the governor that night.
Until something amazing happened.
One of Thornburgh’s staffers came outside and said, “We’ll make a deal with you. The governor will meet you in the basement in five minutes to talk with no more than four of you, for no more than 15 minutes. But you need to stop disrupting this event now, and for the rest of the evening. Is it a deal?”
My rabble-rousing friend immediately agreed to those terms and, after I called in every chip she ever owed me, she agreed that I would be one of the four students to attend the meeting. Someone from the university came out and led the frostbitten delegation into a cramped basement room with just enough space for a small table, a handful of chairs, some welcome warmth, and the most powerful person in the Commonwealth.
Governor Thornburgh came in, greeted us cordially, and asked what was on our minds. My friend took the lead, as expected, outlining the financial burdens faced by students and their families, and that the tuition hikes being considered would only make that situation worse. Thornburgh listened carefully, and with respect. He never came across as condescending or that he was being bothered by any of this. He promised to take our concerns back to Harrisburg, and I for one believed him. He made no commitments to stop the increases from happening, and no one seriously expected that anyway. We just wanted to get our point made.
After 15 minutes of listening and dialogue, he thanked us for having the courage of our convictions, and said he needed to return to the event upstairs. With handshakes and a farewell wave, he disappeared.
I ran back to my apartment, jumped in my car, drove up to the town newspaper where I had been covering some stories for experience and a few bucks, wrote up the article, and sent it to the managing editor’s queue for review. The story ran on the next day’s front page, and helped get me hired by that paper upon graduation.
But the best part of this recollection comes in reflecting on what Governor Thornburgh did that night. How he didn’t ask for this group of protesting college students to be dispersed or arrested. How he made the time and effort to accommodate us. How he treated us with respect and thanked us for having the passion to do what we did.
He became a role model for me that night, and remains so today. Politics doesn’t need to be blood sport, where if you don’t agree with me you’re not only wrong, you’re to be demonized and destroyed. Politics can be, should be, and once was a process where dialogue and honor at least had a fighting chance. Maybe we’ll get back to that someday.
What do you say, Governor? Want to come out of retirement and remind us again how it’s done? I’ll meet you in the basement.
Copyright 2013 Tim Hayes Consulting