2008 Jack McGowan Speech

Jack McGowan on Education, Community and Making a Difference

Pacific University Commencement Keynote Address, Pacific Athletic Center

May 17, 2008

Editor’s Note | Jack McGowan, former Portland radio and TV personality, recently retired after 18 years as co-director of Stop Oregon Litter and Vandalism. He shared thoughts on how SOLV builds community, the post 9/11 Oregon "Flight for Freedom" and the value of personal exploration.

Thank you President Creighton, Faculty Members, Students, Families and Guests.

It is an absolute honor for me to be invited to speak to you today. I say this in all sincerity for I not only have always held Pacific University in the highest regard, but there is another reason that is day is so very personal. Candidly, I have not yet graduated from college. Nor, has anyone yet done so in my immediate family. That is why I'm so honored and humbled to be here with you. You have accomplished something that I have only looked at from afar, have never experienced and hold as a cherished achievement. Now, to be accorded this wonderful honor, is something that I thought would never occur in my lifetime. Today will always be held in my heart as one of those special moments that define one's life. My heartiest congratulations go to you all for your achievement and for this celebratory day.

So now the question, why no degree? Permit me to give a rather lame excuse, but a reason, nonetheless. I, like a lot of you, am not a native born Oregonian. I was born and grew up quickly, in a tough, working class section of NYC that was comprised of first and second generation immigrant families. I, like many of my peers, was expected to earn a living the day after I graduated from high school. So that following Monday in 1966, I reported immediately to my first full time position as a "squad boy" on the floor of the NYSE. Now a squad boy was akin to pond scum. It was his (believe it or not, at that time, women were not "invited" to work on the Exchange Floor), responsibility to assist the Floor Brokers in the trading of stock during the normal business day.

Now the dream of every Squad Boy was to hear those magic words issued from the lips of one of those Brokers, "Would you like to go to lunch?" for it meant that your future had a chance. One day, those words were spoken to me and with that, a position was offered with a Wall Street firm to start on the hard road to hopefully, one day, become a Floor Broker.

For the next four years I worked my way up the food chain and was on track to having my dream become reality. Then something happened. It wasn't in a cataclysmic instant. It happened over a period of time. This future gift, which was given to me, of someday having my own seat on the Stock Exchange, didn't seem so all encompassing. So I left the Exchange, Wall Street and New York and came to a place where I had never been, where I knew no one, to begin the process of starting my life over again. That was Oregon. That was 1970.

The reason I tell this story to you is two-fold. One, to be honest with you about my lack of a degree and to show by my decision, that change is OK. That hearing that quiet inner voice is something that we all should continue to be on the lookout for. Sometimes, because of the daily craziness, the cacophony of life, that voice is all but drowned out . . . but it's still there, in the far recesses of your being. Put your ear to the wall of your heart and listen.

Through a very circuitous route, my career and life have taken me in many different directions here in Oregon, it has been a life of constant change and Oregon has been good and gentle with me as I experimented with different paths. It's just that kind of place.

For the past 18 years, I've had the honor of serving this remarkable state as the Executive Director of SOLV. In one week, I'll give up this position and move on to the next chapter of my life.

When I assumed the leadership of SOLV, after leaving my on-air career with KGW-TV, the entire organization fit into a battered cardboard box, with no staff, no phone and $12,000 in the bank, not in the box! What was I thinking? I'd like to take a few moments to explain SOLV and my decision later.

But now, I'd like to share with you, a few other thoughts that have been brewing in me: It's hard to believe that this September will mark the 7th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America.

As you now know, I'm a former New Yorker. I lived less than a mile from the World Trade Center. So when that fateful morning occurred; I, as all of you, was riveted to the television and witnessed the unthinkable. My immediate shock turned to deep depression and over the next weeks I became withdrawn, sullen, and distracted. So, when a dear friend, Sho Dozono came to me with an idea to join him and his wife Loen, in coordinating and then leading, an airlift of Oregonians who, through their actions, could send a worldwide message of solidarity to our fellow Americans especially those in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania, I jumped at the chance to not just observe but to do something. Less than three weeks after the attacks, when every airline was flying with almost all empty seats, we sold out every flight leaving Portland to New York for three full days. This mission of mercy was called "The Flight For Freedom." Imagine, city, farm, timber and ranching families, many of whom had never traveled outside of Oregon, summoning up the courage to set an example for the rest of us. These folks became the best that we could be. The "Oregon Flight For Freedom" airlifted over 1,000 Oregonians to New York City to show that we, all of us, could look terrorism in the face and not blink.

What is terrorism? I am the farthest person from being an expert on this subject. But I can tell you that one of the biggest goals, besides the horrific destruction and human suffering, is the aftermath, the tearing of the delicate fabric of society. You can see this dark side of humanity being played out each day in Iraq, Afghanistan and all too many other locales throughout our world. And society, community, no matter where it is established, springs from association. Once people become insular, distrusting of their fellow citizens, then the terrorists gain their biggest foothold.

One of the reasons that I love SOLV so much and decided to join the organization, is the basic concept our mission brings to Oregon about building community through association. Each year, SOLV brings together over 85,000 volunteers, who in turn work in over 250 cities, towns and neighborhoods throughout Oregon. Perhaps some of you have joined other SOLV volunteers in cleaning our coastline, restoring wetlands, removing invasive species, cleaning illegal dumpsites, aiding small, economically stressed communities, and hundreds of other projects which help make our Oregon just a little bit better.

Over these past 18 years with SOLV, in my meeting and working with thousands of these true Oregonians, I've come to realize first hand, that there are really seven steps to building community. It doesn't just happen….

First, Association: Think about those 85,000 volunteers. They are associating with one another.

Second, Dialogue: When we're cleaning those beaches, or restoring degraded wetlands, pulling out that tire from the illegal dump site or painting out racist or gang graffiti, we're conversing, talking with one another.

Then, Familiarity: We come to realize the thought that, "I never met your kind before." "I never spoke to someone like you be before."

Followed by: Trust. "We do have some things in common. You're really not like I thought your kind were."

Then comes, Consensus: "My God! There are some things that we can agree on."

Then, Vision: "Look what we can do, accomplish together."

And finally, Action: Action, we are united; action, we can do something; action, let's do it!

Alexis DeTouqeville spoke about America in 1830. And what he marveled at was our propensity, indeed our comfort, in building the concept for association, of finding common ground, a theme that runs through a group. And once that commonality was found, a basic foundation was formed to accomplish something. What would Mr. DeTouqeville say about today's America?

About the red and blue definitions of our society that all too often form our political leadership and ourselves into unbending molds. What would he think, if he watched today's TV, when the first 40 minutes of an important presidential debate, moderated by two so-called journalists, focused on such lame issues as to whether or not wearing an American flag lapel pin proves one's loyalty to America? Or if DeTouqeville listened for awhile to today's "talk radio?" Do these mediums, whose right to exist, supposedly are still owned by we, the people encourage thoughtful interaction? There has been a sea change. This change has manifested itself each day in the way our politics have become battle grounds, not for the common good (remember cooperation) or visionary, inclusive thought, but for limited personal views and leveraging power and monetary profit.

Listen, if you can, to talk radio. Does it respect divergent views? Does it stimulate thoughtful dialogue with positive outcomes? In my personal view, no. It's me against you, us against them. Don't trust their kind. You know what they're like! Ridicule, demean, shout down, and interrupt, all for the cherished ratings points and monetary profit and who the hell cares about how society is harmed? Talk about lack of vision. Any one of us in this room could make a million dollars right now, sowing the seeds of mistrust, division, and criticism. It's so easy to build fences to tear at the all too delicate fabric of society as opposed to building bridges.

Folks, the opposite of vision is division and I feel that we have marched to the tune of the latter. Nature abhors a vacuum and unfortunately, this is what has filled it.

That is why, to my core, I feel that this concept of association, leading on to those other steps of building community are so important in our society today. I'm so pleased that people are once again getting together and looking at their communities in a new light. They are becoming engaged.

They are transitioning from passive observers to the active participants. From simply being a resident, to feeling a sense of place, and finally, embracing a pride of place. I take these hopeful signs as a barometer that this good land with all its faults, is still good. That its people still believe. And that this imperfect place called America, the melting pot of the world, the gathering place for over 100 nationalities, can still survive and become stronger. This societal and political experiment called America has been tested time and again, and it comes through. We have to endure. We can't afford the alternative.

To stand here before you today, with my father, my son and my wife in attendance is not really a dream come true. For in my mind, this was so totally unattainable that I never could even dream of such a life scenario. This supreme honor, of being accorded this honorary Doctorate, will stay with me for the rest of my life. As I look at the one name inscribed on the certificate, I will always see two. For this never would have occurred without my wife, Jan. It was Jan, who joined me that first day with her love, support and strong belief that we could make a small difference in our beloved Oregon. She has been with me on this 18-year journey as Co-Director, and SOLV could never have achieved its mission without her.
My last message to you today stems from my opening thought about change. Don't be afraid of change in your lives. Listen to that inner voice. And whatever you do, make room to give back.

I'd like to share two quotes with you. The first is by Sir Wilfred Grenfell. He said, "The service we render to others is really the rent we pay for our room on this earth. It is obvious that man is a traveler: that the purpose of this world is not 'to have and to hold' but 'to give and to serve.' There can be no other meaning." Tom McCall, the late governor of Oregon and the founder of SOLV, also had an inspirational saying that I truly love. He said, "Heroes are not giant statues framed against a red sky, they are people who say "This is my community and it is my responsibility to make it better."
In this country, the individual can still make a difference. Will that individual fight the good fight? Or will he or she practice the politics of division. Me against you; us against them. Where the personal benefit of a few is at the expense of many. It is your choice.

These past eighteen years have been the most stressful in my life. Many times I've worried about where the next dollar would come from to keep SOLV going and my wonderful staff employed. But as far as personal fulfillment? The New York Stock Exchange couldn't hold a candle to the gift that SOLV and service to my beloved Oregon has given my family and I. I have found that when you serve, you become a "yes person" in the finest sense of the word:

Yes, I can do that
Yes, I can make the time
Yes, that's the goal.
Yes, we can accomplish that.
Yes, you can count on me.

This doesn't mean sackcloth and ashes. It's a simple, yet extraordinary statement about who you are and how you relate to your fellow human and the world around you. It all comes down to a saying on a veterinary reader board I saw recently: "Strive to be the person you dog thinks you are."

Thank you.



Related to this story


Jack McGowan at the Pacific University Summer Commencement, May, 2008.