What We Owe

Looking back on a presidency, with much to be grateful for.

May/June 2016

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What We Owe

Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

It was one of those wince-worthy moments when only later—after the chagrin has subsided—do you permit yourself a morsel of solace: I will laugh about this someday.

Well, that day has arrived.

It happened one evening in December of 2000. I was brand new in my job, as was Stanford’s 10th president, John Hennessy. My arrival at the Stanford Alumni Association as editor of this magazine had preceded Hennessy’s inauguration by only four weeks. 

A couple of hundred friends, colleagues and university administrators had gathered at a ballroom in Palo Alto to honor Bill Stone, ’67,  MBA ’69, the longtime SAA president who had recently announced his retirement. 

Soon after we walked in, my companion and I made our way to the bar and ordered drinks. As I reached into my pocket, I realized with disquieting certitude that I had forgotten my wallet when I had changed trousers at the last minute. I gave a pained expression to my date, who returned it with a wordless tilt of the head that essentially said, “Don’t look at me.” And perhaps also, “Thanks so much for including me in your public display of ineptitude.”

Just then, a voice behind me said, “I can take care of it.” I turned. Standing there, with a $20 bill extended in his hand, was the new president of Stanford University.   

In such a moment, one encounters a range of emotions. Abject humiliation being somewhere near the top of the list. I mustered enough poise to say thank you, took the twenty and paid the tab. Which immediately delivered a fresh dose of unease—do I give him back the change? That seemed like poor form, so I left a tip—never let it be said that charity is wasted on me—and pocketed the couple of dollars left over. The evening continued. I didn’t die. 

The next day, I folded a $20 bill into an envelope and sent it through campus mail to the president’s office. In a vain attempt to rescue my dignity, I included a handwritten note: “Thank you for bailing me out at Bill Stone’s party. I guess now I can say I was indebted to you from the beginning.”

Pretty clever, don’t you think? Yeah, whatever. Not the most auspicious beginning for my career at the university’s flagship publication. 

Happily, I recovered, and 16 years later, here I am, joining our magazine team in documenting the extraordinary tenure of the man whose simple act of kindness remains etched in my memory. (I’m sure he forgot it five minutes after it happened.)

The Hennessy years were marked by exceptional leadership, dramatic advances and the securing of Stanford’s place among the world’s great centers of learning. (Not to mention two Rose Bowl victories.)  

They have also been some of the best years of my life—watching my son grow up in the shadow of the Farm, collaborating with an exceptional team at the Alumni Association, developing a love for Stanford that is deep and reverent. It was a privilege to be here for every day of John Hennessy’s presidency. And for that, I will never be able to pay him back.

Kevin Cool is the executive editor of StanfordEmail Kevin

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