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Distinguished Kansan of the Year Award

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Topeka, Kansas, Friday, January 29, 2010

Thank you, Governor Parkinson, for that introduction, and a special thanks to the Native Sons and Daughters of Kansas for having me and my wife Becky, my family and friends, here this evening.  The recognition you bestow on me is most generous. I am honored to have so many distinguished guests here tonight, and I shouldn’t name names lest I omit someone special.  Still, I would thank my cabinet colleague and former Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, as well as Senator Brownback.
              As every schoolchild in this state knows, it’s Kansas Day, and I am glad to be back home, toasting Kansas’ 149th birthday with all of you.  This group does a wonderful job of celebrating the day, and it’s great to be a part of it.
              There aren’t many states where citizens place such importance on commemorating their admission to the Union.  The hard-won battle for statehood – free of the institution of slavery – is a deep source of pride.  So is the character of our Kansas forebears, who managed to survive on the windswept prairie.
              As we know, their tendency to see the humorous side was key.  One folklorist wrote that, for the sod-house settlers, “Even wind-borne tobacco juice brought a comforting moment with the illusion of rain.”
              What is special about us as a breed is something of a well-kept secret. Last year I did an interview with an East Coast newspaper. When asked about where my pragmatic approach to government comes from, I mentioned my Midwestern background and the “uncommon common sense” of Kansans. It was like explaining an exotic Polynesian island culture to a late 19th century Victorian anthropologist.
              Then of course there’s Hollywood’s take. Everybody has seen The Wizard of Oz, and it’s made our state into sort of a symbol of Midwestern innocence.  It can get a bit old for citizens of the state who have moved to Washington, hearing Beltway types joke that “You’re not in Kansas anymore.”
              That’s the understatement of the century.  In Topeka, unlike Washington, you are unlikely to see a prominent person walking down Lover’s Lane holding his own hand.  Washington, after all, is the place where those traveling the high road of humility encounter little heavy traffic.
               As you can imagine, it’s a city that puts a premium on status and title. David Brinkley had a telling anecdote, about the time when the United States Senate was about to vote on Dean Acheson’s nomination to be an assistant secretary of state.  A matron of D.C. high society called him up on the phone with a uniquely Washington invitation. She said, “If you’re confirmed, will you come for dinner?  If not, will you come after dinner for dancing?”
              There is probably no sharper observer of Washington and the people who wield power there than our fellow Kansan, Bob Dole.  About his own beloved institution he said:  “If you’re hanging around with nothing to do and the zoo is closed, come over to the Senate.  You’ll get the same kind of feeling and you won’t have to pay.”
               Bob Dole’s hometown, famously, is Russell. Mine, less famously, is 160 miles southeast, in Wichita. My family’s history in the state has deep roots. My mother’s father came west in a covered wagon nearly 125 years ago. He made his way with his mother from Pennsylvania to Iowa, then Oklahoma, and finally, in his early twenties, ended up as the Santa Fe station agent in Sharon, Kansas – where my mother was born more than 96 years ago.  Mom, take a bow.
               Her dad soon was transferred to be station agent in Pratt, where, many years later, my brother and I often would visit our grandparents and spend countless hours playing in the Santa Fe train yard.  I’m sure the federal occupational safety folks would have a collective stroke if they saw kids today doing what we did then – clambering in, on, and around the railroad cars, engines, tracks, and switches. On a different level, watching the trains come and go and looking down those straight tracks all the way to the horizon, I dreamed of what lay beyond.
               My father was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1906, and was just about to enter the University of Kansas when his mother’s illness required him to stay home and work. He finally made it to Kansas – to Wichita – in the early 1930s, where he married my mother in 1934 and lived for the next 53 years.
               Growing up in Kansas in the late 1940s and 1950s was, for me, in retrospect, an idyllic childhood.  My life revolved around family, school, church, and Boy Scouts.  I had wonderful friends, some of whom I am so pleased to have here tonight. We didn’t do too many stupid things, and somehow we survived the absence of bike helmets, seat belts, airbags, and hand sanitizer. We’d share a single bottle of pop, carefully wiping “cooties” off the top with a dirty palm.  We drank out of the garden hose and made periodic trips to the hospital emergency room.
                In addition to my parents, I had a number of amazing role models growing up in Kansas, especially in Boy Scouts and in school. Scout Master Forrest Beckett taught me about leadership and character and persistence.  He also taught us Kansas Scouts many important skills, such as how to build a cookfire in winter from dried cow chips – imparting a unique flavor to already nearly inedible food.
               But tonight I would like to single out one particular person outside my family who had a lasting influence on me, and that is Coach Bob Timmons – who is here tonight. I wasn’t much of an athlete, but I worked for Coach Timmons for three years as a student manager in both cross country and track at Wichita High School East.  Timmons’ teams won many state championships and, of course, he won many more championships as a longtime coach at the University of Kansas. I first learned to type working for Coach Timmons – and the smell of white out and mimeograph ink lingers still.
               He was a great coach but, above all, he was a great teacher and example.  In three years working for him before and after school, I never heard Bob Timmons swear, and I never heard him yell at a kid. No amount of screaming was as effective a motivator as Bob Timmons putting his arm around a student’s shoulder and quietly saying, “I’m disappointed you didn’t give your best effort, your all.” And that applied to academics as well as athletics. Half a century later, as Secretary of Defense of the United States, I carry Bob Timmons’ life lessons in leadership, integrity, discipline, motivating people, and treating all of them respectfully to work with me every single day. Coach, thanks.
                As a kid, I was well-traveled. I visited Dodge City more times than I can count – and I saw the world’s largest hand-dug well in Greensburg.  I also toured the then-new Eisenhower Museum in Abilene and Coronado Heights on our sixth grade field trip.  And how could I leave out the “World Famous Topeka Zoo”?  My friends, after all that, seeing the rest of the world has been anticlimactic.
                I have distinct memories of my elders back when I was growing up.  The Kansans who’d lived lives spanning the 19th and 20th centuries
represented, really, a vanished way of life on what was the American frontier – a generation whose lives, like my grandfather’s, spanned traveling in covered wagons to seeing a man on the moon.  Our immediate elders had survived the Depression; the Dust Bowl, which was particularly severe in western Kansas; and two world wars.
                 But people like Beckett and Timmons and others have a lot of company in Kansas in terms of both character and contribution.  Many Kansans have over the decades provided ballast and balance to the American ship of state. The person who first comes to mind is, of course, the World War II commander who became commander-in-chief.  
Dwight Eisenhower’s “uncommon common sense,” his prudence and level-headedness, were crucial qualities for the supreme allied commander in Europe who had to achieve many things at once:  satisfy his superior officer, the austere and imposing George Marshall; quell the rivalries that existed between the branches of the U.S. armed forces; and gain the respect of our allies.
                 Some of the more aristocratic British officers didn’t quite know what to make of General Eisenhower at first. One of Ike’s biographers, Mark Perry, described an allied planning session with General Sir Alan Brooke, head of the Imperial General Staff. Perry wrote: “Slouching in his chair, the droll Brooke watched Eisenhower, barely concealing his concern that this farm boy from Kansas could rise so quickly in the American ranks.”
                 In the end, Ike didn’t fare too badly:  the defeat of Nazi Germany, Army Chief of Staff, NATO Commander, President of Columbia University, and twice elected as president of the United States.  But the true marvel – and something I have come to appreciate recently – was President Eisenhower’s determination that we ought not buy more for Defense than we really need – an arena where his credibility was unchallengeable.
                Our state’s role in the defense of America and her interests does not end with Eisenhower’s towering example.  Consider, for a moment, the range of contributions, from:

·         The advances in aviation that were pioneered in Kansas by the likes of Clyde Cessna, Walter and Olive Ann Beech, and Lloyd Stearman, whose aircraft company inWichita would become the Boeing Military Airplane Company;

·         Today’s dedicated soldiers at Fort Riley; and

·         Fort Leavenworth’s pivotal role as the intellectual hub of the U.S. Army.  

I would note that Kansas universities are pitching in:  Scholars from K-State are helping to revitalize universities in Afghanistan and improve the agricultural, engineering, and business sectors of that nation.  The University of Kansas has established programs to educate our wounded warriors and to train Army Special Forces in subjects like political science, history, and public administration.
                The many ways available for us to put our love of country into action is a theme I emphasize with young people, and I did this when I came home last year for commencement at my alma mater, Wichita High School East. One always tries to encourage the graduates at such moments, of course – often without success since their focus is elsewhere.  But in speaking to the Class of 2009 about public service, and leadership, I also did my best to level with them.  The message was twofold – that on the one hand the work is tiring, the bureaucracy frustrating, and whatever decisions you make will bring criticism from some portion of your fellow citizens.  Yet for all the hassles and the frustrations, serving this nation, and having a chance to witness and even affect the events that shape history, are rewarding beyond measure.
               Walter Lippmann once wrote that “[t]hose in high places are more than the administrators of government bureaucracies.  They are more than the writers of laws.  They are the custodians of a nation’s ideals, of the beliefs it cherishes, of its permanent hopes, of the faith which makes a nation out of a mere aggregation of individuals.”
              Old-fashioned, perhaps. And though Lippmann may have been a patrician Ivy Leaguer from the Northeast, he tapped straight into something that I think must be in the water around here – and that people in the mosh pit that is Washington too often lose sight of: we must never forget the ideals and the beliefs that make us a nation; we must never forget the hopes and aspirations of our people; we must always keep the faith.
              So let me close by returning to the beginning. In addition to a wonderful home, my youth in Kansas was rich with good and modest people. Surrounded by such people, character, and integrity, Kansas values and Kansas common sense became the bedrock of my life, a bedrock that has been my touchstone no matter how far I have traveled or how long I have been gone from Kansas.
              For all the places I have gone, the jobs I have held, the notable people I have met and worked with, I will always consider myself first and foremost a kid from Kansas who got lucky. I have now worked for eight presidents. Whatever I have accomplished I believe has been due to my Kansas roots and heritage – a heritage of family, friends, mentors, and values.
                 I left Kansas to go to college in Virginia when I was just 17. The boy left Kansas, but Kansas never left the boy.
                Thank you.

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