NSights Blog

The notebook wisdom of President Joe Crowley

Over the years, the words and wisdom of the late President Joe Crowley have provided humor, comfort and solace

When the people we love pass away, we often spend time foraging through our imaginations and our memories for the one moment that defines them.

There are few too many regarding the life and times of the 13th president of the University of Nevada, Reno, Joe Crowley, who passed away at age 84 on Tuesday at St. Mary's Regional Medical Center surrounded by his family, to begin this process of definition.

I can tell you, though, that I know that he was a great husband and father and grand-father. Years ago I remember his wife, Joy, telling me the story of when Joe was working on his Ph.D. at the University of Washington.

The Crowley's oldest daughter, Theresa, who was then about three, used to sit by the window of the cramped little home the family had in Student Housing.

She'd see her Dad, walking home after a long day of studying and writing. She'd cry out, "Mommy, Daddy's home!" and then she would bolt out the front door to greet him. This would be a cue for dozens of other small children who lived in Student Housing, who all loved Theresa's Dad. They'd, too, all bolt out their front doors to greet Joe.

"It was always the father who was in school, and many of them didn't see their fathers very regularly," Joy remembered. "Joe looked like the Pied Piper with all these children around him - they had a real need to hold onto this big daddy."

Years and years later, as he became president, Joe never turned down an invitation to read to an elementary school.

"The first-graders and kindergartners were always his favorite," Joy said.

And, as university presidents go, Joe was exactly what our institution needed throughout his historic 23-year tenure - the longest in the University's 143-year history.

Last week, when we heard the news that Joe was hospitalized, I spent a long time in my garage. I rummaged through the old tattered, yellowing pages of old notebooks from interviews I'd conducted with Joe over the years, first as a sportswriter for the Reno Gazette-Journal in the late 1980s and 1990s, and then, later, as a writer for the Office of Communications from 1998-2003 and then again for Marketing & Communications from 2006 till today.

To my surprise, I found the entire text of his remarks that he gave during the dedication of the building named in his honor, the Joe Crowley Student Union, an event that occurred on Nov. 15, 2007. I'd recorded Joe as he stood at the podium in front of what has come to be known as "The Joe," then came back to my office and transcribed his every word.

I can still remember that day.

It was a day lot like this week's November has been. A cold front had blown through a few days prior, but Nov. 15, 2007 dawned with blue skies, plenty of sunshine, a bit of a crisp breeze and temperatures that struggled their way into the comfort of the 50s. Joe wore a gray suit and a blue tie and looked the most relaxed I think I'd ever seen him.

Joe, who had been a sportswriter for the Fresno Bee as a young man, was a good writer and an excellent public speaker. He had this way, either in his writing or in his public speaking, of striking the perfect balance between humor and seriousness. He could use big, academic-sounding words - "adduced," "perforce" - and in between the ivy-covered phrasing were richly imaginative yarns, tales and puns that were seductive and memorable ("fricassee them to a farethewell"). He could be at once a skeptical Ph.D. in political science and a wide-eyed farm boy from Iowa.

Whenever he spoke, Joe had this way. His sharp features always had this way settling in on themselves. The serious, careful way would give way to a gesture, a light touch of his stomach, a smile. The words would join together. He would change from professorial to somebody's gently wise father, or grandfather. A story would unfold. If you waited long enough, you would be rewarded.

He told those assembled in front of the Joe during its dedication ceremony that he had come to campus some 42 years earlier as a young political science professor "with no expectation of staying."

"I never had a notion, never gave one tiny, fleeting thought to the notion that one day I might be a university president somewhere, let alone this institution," he said. He said his initial plan as president was "a six-year task for me."

"What I can get done in six years is what needs to be done and can be done ... so after six, I'm gone," he said. "That's a year and a half more than the average stay of university presidents at that time. I remember the statistic well because it's the same statistic that describes the average stay of a running back in the National Football League ... and the jobs are very similar, of course."

That tail end of the last sentence, almost buried, is what made Joe such an effective communicator. The man could always laugh at himself, and could always find the absurd connections that often run through a presidency and a public life.

As he spoke in 2007, he noted wryly, "Never in all these years, all the turnings of the corner, all those great adventures, did it ever occur to me that some person or some group of persons would want to put my name on a campus building. But my goodness, somebody wanted to do it, and it happened and it's up there." Then Joe turned, staring back at the building with mock seriousness, feigning being startled, as if perhaps someone had stolen his name from the new building's exterior. "At least," he said, turning back to the crowd, "it was up there the day before yesterday. I'm hoping it's still there."

More seriously, Joe knew exactly what the building with his name on it meant. It was the beginning of what has been a re-invigoration of student success on our campus. It was a building that begat other student-centered buildings, such as the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center and the William N. Pennington Student Achievement Center and the E. L. Wiegand Fitness Center.

"What makes this naming especially nice is that this is not just any building," he said. "This is the students' building. If somebody had asked 20 years ago, 'Would you want your name on a building?' 'Of course,' I would've said. But what building would be your favorite building to have your name on it? I would've said, 'Well, if they ever build a student union, sure, that would be nice. ... I couldn't think of a greater honor than having my name on that student building."

Joe foresaw 10 years ago what the Joe Crowley Student Union has since become: a hive of student activity. A restless, ever-changing, always bustling, place for current students, paid for by past students, for all the students of the future.

"It's full of buzz and activity," Joe said. "You can just feel the place. I think it's going to be that way for, who knows, the next 50, 60, 100 years ... however long buildings last these days. ... My grandchildren will be students here (this was no idle threat from Joe - consider that all four his children, Margaret, Theresa, Neil and Tim are graduates of the University). You all know that, all seven of you will be coming here. And they can look up one day to that sign and say, 'Hey, that's Bapa. I know that guy. And that's a humbling experience for me as well.

"And it still won't be my building. It will be theirs."

That was the public Joe.

I had a few occasions in my life to experience the private Joe, which in some ways weren't much different than the public Joe. He was a kind and generous man.

My favorite interaction with Joe occurred at Harrah's Steak House, not long after he had stepped down as president in 2000. Joe was a major player on the national stage following his time as president of the NCAA from 1993-95, and his connections were often mind-boggling.

Along with my good friend, Journalism Professor Paul Mitchell, Joe invited me to dinner. For several years Joe had known that I loved the writing of Ralph Wiley. Ralph passed away in 2004, too young at age 51, from a heart attack, so his name might not be familiar to today's fans of great sportswriting. There were few who did it better, though, during the time Ralph wrote for Sports Illustrated in the 1990s and into the 2000s for ESPN. Wiley was an exceedingly well-read and thoughtful man. His experience as a black man in America informed all of his work, and helped all of us better understand the question of race in sports, and in society.

Joe, through his work with the NCAA and throughout a career that had championed equality and fairness, and Ralph, as an inquisitive journalist who soon came to admire Joe's leadership advocacy for equity for all people, had become great friends through the years. Joe knew I would be blown away if I actually sat at the same dinner table with Ralph Wiley.

And that night, at Harrah's Steak House, I was.

It was simply fascinating to hear Joe recall his stories of growing up in the segregated Midwest in the 1940s at the same time that Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in Major League Baseball, and then hearing Ralph Wiley, a child of the '60s, riff on jazz, history, sports and politics. Ralph at one point compared Miles Davis' "Sketches of Spain" to how there was always a sense of sadness whenever he covered a big championship boxing match. To which, Joe, ever the student, ever the wry observer, ever the sly revolutionary himself who I would've never imagined had ever listened to the revolutionary Miles Davis, said, "That's an interesting observation, Ralph. I'm going to have to listen to that album once again more carefully."

Joe was a connector that way. He could always make what you said matter. He was a superb listener, and he was always willing to grow, to try on a new thought or address a new perspective, based on a reasoned, well thought-out idea.

In 2012, a couple of days after Joe's good friend, Nevada State Sen. William Raggio passed away, I called Joe on the phone at his home on Muir Drive. It was February. A few hours before I phoned Joe I had trekked down to Raggio's childhood home off Valley Road, the cold morning air biting at my cheeks as I hustled over railroad tracks and dodged a couple of cars racing down Fourth Street.

I had felt an immense sense of sadness as I stared at Raggio's old home, which had once been part of a little Italian neighborhood of old Reno - a place where neighbors delivered pies at night to other neighbors, where porches would be shared and conversations would go long into the night. The neighborhood, like the conversations, had long since drifted into memory.

When I got back to the office, I phoned Joe. I found the notes from that conversation in my garage along with the transcript of Joe's "The Joe" dedication speech in 2007, along with the napkin I had Ralph Wiley initial - RW Jr Peace to you JT - following that amazing Harrah's Steak House dinner.

I pored through that notebook. As I sat in our darkened garage, with that notebook from 2012 on my lap, I closed my eyes and I could hear Joe's voice when I got hold of him at the home on Muir Drive: so calm, so wise, so funny, so poignant. It was a relief, frankly, to hear that voice - Joe's voice. It was reassuring to know that its equanimity of spirit, its dependability, its wise and reasoned ways, was still strong, vibrant and alive.

We find our best comfort, during sad and trying times, in voices like Joe's. I know I certainly did that day.

The whole time Joe spoke about Raggio, and I know this thought might sound counter-intuitive to those who knew Raggio, a lifelong Republican, and Joe, a lifelong Democrat, I couldn't help but think that many of the masterful Raggio's secrets to success were also those that were in Joe's quiver as well.

"People who are blessed with a great sense of humor can be like athletes who are blessed with great physical ability - it's just so natural, it flows so easily and so beautifully, and that was Bill," Joe said. "It can be a very effective gift when it's employed at the exact right moment, and goodness knows that when the most serious business in Carson City is being conducted, you need a great sense of humor. It has a calming effect during the greatest moments of stress, Bill would always find a way to incorporate that gift, and it truly was his gift, into the process."

Try as he might, Joe said he could never keep up with the Raggio sense of humor.

"Bill certainly had a plentitude of targets for that humor, and I was, proudly, one of them," Joe said, laughing. "Lord, there were so many of us who were easy targets for him. I always felt honored to be the recipient of his barbs. I did my best to give back some barbs to him, but I always fell short. No one could keep up with him in that area."

We turned to the question of legacy. It was much easier for Joe to talk about Raggio's legacy. The question of legacy had always been one that Joe, himself, had little use for. I reminded Joe that back in 1998 I had asked Joe about his own legacy as University president. I was 35 years old in 1998, still a little too young for my own good, and should've known better than to ask a sitting university president what his legacy, still to be determined, was to be.

"You know John, the minute I answer your question of legacy, I join the lame-duck legion," Joe said then.

I reminded Joe of the "lame-duck legion" comment as we talked about Raggio's legacy.

"As for me, I prefer, to mangle a phrase from Calvin Coolidge who once famously said, 'I choose not to run' ... well, John, I prefer not answer," Joe chuckled. "As for Bill's legacy, now that's something I can talk about. Ah, where to begin?"

I think the words from 2012 that Joe shared with me about Raggio are instructive. If they are applied to a hard-charging Republican or an equally wise and strategic Democrat, they still have the same implication, and perhaps the same meaning.

"Well, he's legendary," Joe said of Raggio. "I think that the contributions he made were in part a product of his understanding that, over the years, you make the best, most well-informed, principled, long-term decisions you can based on the never-ending short-term pressures and realities you sometimes face. Sometimes you have to put those pressures and realities to the side and remember that we are a nation and a state of tremendous diversity - of just about everything, geography, religion, ethnicity, background.

"Therefore, the only way we can solve problems and meet challenges is by working together and that involves a place I am well familiar with. You must meet in the middle. You must meet in the middle of the road and find the common ground to advance the process. Bill had a very strong commitment to do that. He had a strong personality, but he always knew that he needed to build consensus.

"Check your personal enmities at the door and let's sit down and do business. That's how he got it done."

That's how you got it done, too, Joe. You mastered the process - of being a president, of being a husband/father/grandfather, of being a thoughtful and impactful friend - like no other.

In the reporting business, there are notebooks you toss away without giving a second thought.

There are others, though, that you hold onto for the rest of your days.

I will always hear Joe's voice in the pages of my notebooks. And I can guarantee you, a day after a truly great man has left us, they will never be thrown away.                

John Trent