When I was six and we lived in Chickasha, Ok, we went to the rodeo. It was there I learned what I wanted to be when I grew up. A rodeo clown. Men who were brave and fearless, and above all, wildly funny. That was what I wanted to be.
When I expressed this to my parents, they firmly told me, “No. You will go to school. You will go to high school. You will get good grades. You will go to college. You will have a nice, clean life away from wild horses and angry cows.” This was the way they said good night for weeks until I stopped talking about the rodeo.
As I grew up, I never forgot my dream of the rodeo. I kept searching for that one thing that would have all the excitement and glory of those rodeo clowns I saw back in Oklahoma. That search got so out of hand that I eventually dropped out of college, joined the Army, and became an infantryman. That was adventure and excitement all right, but not enough. Not even when it came to dangling out of perfectly good helicopters on very skinny ropes. I even tried marriage along the way.
When I left the Army I did the most dangerous thing I could think of: I became an art major at Missouri Southern.
In the interest of full disclosure, I glossed over a few details. Let’s just say I didn’t always make good choices. Dropping out of college was probably one of those. However, without those wrong choices I would not be here today.
When I told my father that I had become an art major, the response was a bit less than supportive: “What? You’ve never shown any talent! What were you thinking?”
Well, I wasn’t thinking at the time I made the decision. I was a responding to a compulsion I didn’t understand. Three years later I completed an art degree. Somewhere along the way, I impressed the art faculty well enough to vote another student and me as “The Outstanding Senior Art Student” in a tie. I do not think I accomplished this through being talented. Instead, it was hard work, the willingness to make a lot of mistakes, and immersion in the process of art bordering on obsession.
It was all this that prepared me to run a statewide postsecondary education data system in Virginia.
Life is about making choices. Having the life you envision is about making the choices that lead to that life and appreciating the value of the lessons of your mistakes along the way.
I was accepted to Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville for the graduate program in art. Immediately following graduation practice I headed to Edwardsville to check things out. I had no real plans. I simply wanted to see the layout of the town and campus.
The next afternoon I started back to Joplin with a job and a place to live. As Woody Allen said, “80 percent of life is just showing up.” From what I can tell, 20 percent is knowing where to show up. The remaining 50 percent is figuring out what to do when you get there.
Yes, it is hard to get anywhere giving only 100 percent.
After a year in grad school I changed from the Master of Fine Arts to the Master of Public Administration. It was a calculated choice because of other events in my life outside of education. After completing that, I enrolled in the public policy program at Saint Louis U. as a doc student. This led me to a part-time job at the university in institutional research.
At last I had found the life of danger and excitement for which I longed. The excitement of uncovering the truths behind the myths of the institution. The danger is found in sharing those truths with institutional leadership. Indiana Jones had a life of milk and cookies compared to mine – he only had to deal with snakes, Nazis and the supernatural, and later, soviets and aliens. I had to face faculty members, deans, vice presidents and presidents and later, legislators and governors.
Twenty years later I have no regrets about my career. I have had a great time and truly love what I do.
(this was originally part of a commencement address I gave at Missouri Southern State University)