I may be the sole student recruited to UT-Austin by Charles Whitman. The coverage of the 1966 mass murder spree put Austin on my mental map.
I spent my undergraduate years in Madison, WI and conducted my search for graduate school at a time when “girl in graduate school” was an uncommon expectation. My MA in American Civilization was an extraordinary yearlong experience. I subsequently moved to Houston to make my fame and fortune but encountered significant difficulties in finding the level of professional employment I envisioned. My interview questions included, “Are you in love; what kind of birth control do you use?” I saw a piece on the LBJ School in Newsweek a few months later and decided to inquire whether any fellowships might be available. I was invited for an interview with Dean John Gronouski, during which I said little and listened a great deal. It was a valuable insight that, if interviewers do most of the talking, you are a successful recruit.
The building interior was incomplete when we entered, but it mattered little as we became accustomed to the initial group of 18 and the environment apart from the rest of the university. I paid for my previous degrees myself, so it was a luxury to be told not to work. I believe there was a line item budget of $450,000 for the LBJ School in its first year and most accepted fellowships. State law precluded the school from supplying us with books, so our secretarial pool (yes, we had access to one) photocopied small publications when needed. Students in other UT schools were not allowed to take classes with us until a law student persuaded the administration to allow him to take one.
My particular challenge was Quantitative Tools. When I finally was able to absorb LISP and FORTRAN in the first six-week segment, I felt a palpable sense of triumph – and relief. Late-night waits at the university’s research computer center for card runs confirming the results of our work is a memory later students were spared. If you inadvertently put a comma in the wrong place while writing the code you would have to start in the line again (sometimes taking hours). It was a busy place!
A physical feature that remains with me is the grouping of red upholstered chairs for our seminars with guests from Washington, DC and state government. Hubert Humphrey was the most succinct (despite his reputation for verbosity); Birch Bayh exuded uber charm and Sargent Shriver wore the first bespoke suit I had ever seen. I approached Bayh after his talk and scored a summer internship on his presidential campaign, to the apparent surprise of the dean. Lesson learned: jump in when opportunity presents itself.
I recall other pithy lessons culled from research projects, visits to courtrooms and experiences like a meeting I arranged with Lt. Governor Ben Barnes. Call anyone you want to meet or speak with because you may be surprised at the answer to your request. Never trust what a computer tells you unless you know the data entered into the program. Emphasize only three points when speaking before an audience and include a call to action.
I was involved in an assessment of health care disparities among the several UT campuses, and Ford Foundation funding allowed us to travel to Dallas and El Paso for on-site visits. The variable that determined the quality of health care was the success of the football team on each campus. This epiphany occurred while speaking with the lone nurse on duty at El Paso. Austin dedicated its student fee to the campus health center because its football team was a revenue source, while most of the fees at El Paso went to field its less stellar team.
We didn’t have to serve on a research team to appreciate its value. I still refer to the Edwards Aquifer research today, although I learned only by osmosis. It was signal in developing my obsession with potable water as a public policy issue. Overlooking Lake Michigan is a daily reminder of the precious resource and spurs my hyper-vigilance.
I went to Capitol Hill after graduation, where I worked for the Majority Whip in the House of Representatives, and was granted floor privileges along with another woman on the Majority Leader’s staff. We were the first two female staffers in the history of the country allowed access, at a time when there was no C-SPAN. I became a reporter for our office. I drew up the template for the Whip Advisory, a guide on pending legislation to give members basic facts about the votes they were to cast. I had to persuade committee staff directors to take on the additional task of meeting with me to discuss content. The staff director of our office was unaccustomed to dealing with a professional woman, and he referred to us three women on staff as “Gerry and the girls.” I hit the new mimeograph to its limit to spew ink all over the walls to avoid being asked to use it again. None of this solved the basic inequity of my salary being two-thirds that of the secretary. That said, I never had another job with similar excitement, variability and sense of belonging. The single greatest regret of my life is that I did not remain longer. It was a perfect setting for my abilities and insatiable curiosity. Lesson to be applied: if you find a setting in which your talents thrive, stay.
We students often mused whether the LBJ experience was a warranted investment of time. I can say with certainty that it was. We learned how to work closely with others whose company we would not have cultivated. We were treated as special people with bright futures and strong expectations of performance. We were exposed to people of great consequence and were able to develop skills to enable easy interaction. I, for one, would not have been able to secure a job with the Congressional leadership without my LBJ degree. It afforded access I could not have achieved as an individual applicant with no family connections.
An education is invaluable, however, for reasons beyond employment. It enables one to learn how to learn and develops the capacity to entertain oneself. A good education instills critical thinking faculties and reinforces integrity. One of my classmates commissioned a graduation plaque – The first of many to learn and to serve. Another created a certificate lauding us as Junior Policy Makers First Class. I am confident most of us have been both, sometimes concurrently!
LBJ School Class of 1972