Memories of David Kearns

The Education Gadfly

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="190" caption="Photo by Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times"][/caption]

This past weekend, the education-reform world lost a long-time champion with the passing of David T. Kearns, former deputy secretary of education under President George H. W. Bush. Here are some thoughts from those with whom he served.

Leslye A. Arsht

Former Counselor to the Secretary of Education, When David Kearns was Deputy Secretary

It was impossible, when I heard that David Kearns had passed, not to have a sad, then bittersweet moment.

David, who might have coined the ?believe in better? attitude, defied death for a very long time?and he lived his life?post-cancer diagnosis?with the grace, dignity, energy, and enthusiasm that he modeled before it.

I believe everyone who worked with David, as I did for only a brief time, while he was deputy secretary, was energized and empowered by him in ways that may not have been apparent, until we'd left his daily presence.

He taught us to be undeterred by big obstacles, and to meet those barriers with big solutions; to use the tools/ ideas/strategies available, regardless of their genesis; while at it, be open to a better approach; be relentless and unwavering in the demand for forward movement; know it will be messy but bring people along; be as kind and as cheerful as your nature will allow.

Never STOP trying.

I'll never forget him. His memory is a blessing.

John Danielson

Former colleague, US Department of Education, 1991-1993

It was a remarkable time in the history of the United States Department of Education when David Kearns stepped forward to offer his considerable leadership on behalf of America's children. Halcyon days, indeed, when all were present for the routine 9:00 AM staff meetings during his time. I am not sure when another more esteemed, talented group of passionate individuals?political appointees and civil servants alike?stood together to improve education. Much of this was due to the charismatic, determined spirit within David Kearns to attract and inspire the best. A humble man who rose to the greatest heights in business but who was willing to set that aside and to feel honored to serve as the Deputy on the team of another extraordinary American, Lamar Alexander, so that he could contribute all that he had toward making quality education available to all of our children. All of us who were there then remember the special quality of that time?the nexus of Lamar and David. The inspiration we all felt from David was without peer?then or since.

David brought an impeccable style to the glacier-like pace of federal bureaucracy. When had any of us ever seen a standing desk before? David was a constant beehive of positive activity. His style was clearly honed in the halls of the highest echelons of American business and it was a remarkably welcome addition to the frustratingly slow pace of government. David made us believe that the urgency to make things better on behalf of children was real. That our inability to act soon had a detrimental impact upon the financial health of the nation and this was equally as real. And he inspired us to believe that we could, in fact, put our collective stamp on making things better. But none made more of a difference than he.

I remember the burst of energy that was palpable whenever David was around. It was intoxicating! As a young twenty-something, I also remember the quiet example he set for keeping one's priorities straight when, regardless of the import of what might be taking place at that moment, when the 7:00PM hour neared, David excused himself and was out the door on his way home to his beloved Shirley.

I remember visiting Bentonville, Arkansas in 1992 with David. David led the effort to forge an amazing partnership with one of the country's leading families to improve America's schools. David's entrance that Saturday morning to the fabled WalMart auditorium, when he quietly walked in as the senior executives and many Walton family members were waiting, the eruption was as if a rock star had entered the room. I also especially remember the caring friendship he developed with Mrs. Walton at a tender time soon after the passing of her husband and the reverence these two held for one another for the work they each did to make things better for others. Quality attracts quality. David and the Waltons were magnets to each other for a noble purpose.

For me, I think now of the marvelous tribute Churchill paid to FDR. He said that ?knowing FDR was like experiencing your first taste of exquisite champagne.? The vividness of David Kearns and his singular vintage will live on for a very long time.

Barbara R. Davidson

Former colleague, US Department of Education, 1991-1993

Probably the most indelible image David Kearns made on me was when, in my first week on the job as White House liaison, I was presented with the dilemma of bringing onboard a young staffer who had blown the whistle on unethical behavior at another federal agency and, having lost his job as a result, was looking to join the team at ED. Despite the good impressions he made on many of the senior staff he interviewed with, no one had yet bit the bullet on offering this young man a job?so I went to David and presented the situation: Could we take a leap of faith and bring him on board, hoping he'd make himself useful? David looked at me and said, ?I think he did the right thing and deserves a break.?

Leaving aside the fact that this young man has gone on to do great things in education, for someone of David's experience and stature to take a stand in favor of principle and to remove with those simple words all the obstacles in the way of doing what was clearly the right thing made a very powerful impact on me.

Working with David was one of the highlights of my career. ?Education has lost a real leader.

Denis P. Doyle

Co-author of Winning the Brain Race and co-founder of Schoolnet

I met David Kearns for the first time nearly twenty-five years ago. For me, at least, it was a fateful encounter. He was in the prime of life, successful beyond compare. The good news was that he had risen meteorically through the ranks of Xerox, a storied corporation; the bad news was Xerox had seen its glory days. As imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the Japanese were beating Xerox at its own game. When David became head of Xerox, the Japanese were bringing plain-paper copiers to market at lower cost and higher quality than Xerox, the company which had been so successful that its name became a verb, ?to copy.?

Rather than asking for protective tariffs and complaining about unfair trade practices he brought Xerox back from the brink by out-competing the Japanese. He committed Xerox to making a better product, at lower cost and higher quality and he laughed all the way to the bank.

The habits of optimism, hard word, creativity, and clear thinking that served him so well in the business world went on to serve him in his next two incarnations, education reformer and cancer survivor.

I knew him first as an education reformer. To figure out how to out-compete the Japanese, David had made nineteen trips to Japan and had his Xerox team backward engineer the Japanese copiers that had begun to flood the world market. They were cheaper and better. Why? One lesson stood out?Japan had achieved high quality at low cost because its work force was among the most skilled and responsive in the world. They were flexible, disciplined, hard working, but above all, educated, which meant they could be trained, on the job.

To his surprise he discovered that the typical Japanese worker with a high school diploma was as well prepared as the typical American worker with a four-year college degree. For example, when a major change in a manufacturing or assembly process was required, the Japanese could accomplish it flawlessly, with a long weekend of preparation, reading?on their own?the templates for change. Order the change Friday afternoon, implement Monday morning. Similar innovations took Americans six weeks of intensive, guided training.

David left Japan convinced he had discovered their secret trade weapon: Japanese schools.

America, he believed, owed its workers no less.

Japan made David a disciple of education reform and he took the bull by the horns. He decided to go to the bully pulpit. The first step was a six-point speech to the Detroit Economic Club which was picked up by the New York Times the next morning. The next step was the book we co-authored, Winning the Brain Race. ?Published in 1988 it is as current today as the day it was released. It called for changes?that had they been implemented?would have spared us the last two decades of education disillusionment and disappointment.

The strength of David's vision was that he neither preached nor claimed that business was more virtuous than education. But he firmly believed that business was a major stakeholder with the right and the obligation to chime in. And chime in he did, as revealed in Winning the Brain Race's subtitle: A Bold Plan to Make Our Schools Competitive.

We worked on the book in the one place in which David was unprogrammed?I deadheaded on the Xerox ?air force,? the small twin-turbos and jets that carried David from his countless meetings around the country. He never traveled with an entourage and only on the plane could I claim his undivided attention.

The program we hammered out called for the creation of a model high-performance school in every city in the nation, family choice in schools, abolition of traditional grading and age grouping, year-round schooling, greater teacher involvement in testing and textbook selection, pay for performance, higher academic standards with a core curriculum for all, second language mastery, demonstrated content mastery to graduate, restoration of the values of democracy and citizenship with mandatory public service as a condition of graduation, a federally funded venture-capital fund for education R&D, and fully funded Head Start and Title 1.

We ended on a stern note, arguing that if these reforms were not implemented by the year 2000 American education would continue to decline.

Sound familiar?

In 1991 David was persuaded by President Bush to leave Xerox, at substantial personal sacrifice, to become Deputy Secretary of Education; he later founded New American Schools.

To those of us who knew and admired David, however, his last act was the most telling. Diagnosed with sinus cancer that pushed the limits of modern medicine, he endured surgery, brutal radiation, and chemo therapy so harsh that it is hard to imagine. Yet he never complained. He unfailingly beat friends and visitors to the punch, inquiring about their well being before they could ask of his. As the radiation and chemo therapy progressed he was left physically diminished yet he never lost his good spirits. Left virtually blind and deaf David sported an eye-patch with a jaunty flair. He continued to travel and work; unable to negotiate the world of airports and hotels with his former ?lan, he engaged a succession of young college graduates to act as guide and facilitator. But as this succession of ?interns? (who today represent an informal David Kearns alumni association) will attest, they had the better part of the bargain. They had the chance to learn from a master.

One of my most enduring memories of David is emblematic of all that he was: the courtesy he extended to everyone he met, from doormen and cab drivers to captains of industry and heads of state. He was a true small ?d? democrat, as good a listener as a talker, a problem solver not an ideologue and, it goes without saying, a devoted husband and father as well as a fine friend.

Several years ago I was asked to introduce him before a large audience gathered to honor his accomplishments and could think of no more apt comment than Hemingway's famous observation: courage is grace under pressure. So it was with David.

Oh David we hardly knew ye?

Please feel free to share your own remembrances in the comments section below.

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