By David Gonier

By David Gonier

Herald Democrat

National politician, civil rights attorney and Austin College alumnus Ron Kirk visited the AC campus Thursday to encourage and advise the new generation of Kangaroos.

Kirk spoke as part of the school’s Williams Executive-In-Residence Lecture Series. "This program was set up with a goal to have every speaker come and talk not about necessarily what they do on a daily basis, but frankly almost as if they were talking to their young son or young daughter: ‘Here’s my life. Here’s what I learned from it, the mistakes I’ve made. Here’s the advice I give you,’" alumnus Todd Williams, who founded the lecture series, said, before introducing Kirk.

Kirk, a former mayor of Dallas and U.S. trade representative, brought the audience to laughter often with anecdotes and jokes about his upbringing, his education and career, and important moments of his life such as meeting President Barack Obama in the 1990s when Obama was about to run for state senate in Illinois.

Kirk said when one of Obama’s staff members introduced Obama by his name, Kirk exclaimed, "For real!? What does your mother call you? … The first (advice) I ever told him was, ‘Change your name, (or) you’ll never make it in politics.’"

Kirk reminisced about his time on the campus, saying the last time he was in the Hoxie Thompson auditorium — where he spoke Thursday — the school was hosting Abraham Zapruder there for a showing of Zapruder’s home footage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Kirk, who graduated from AC in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree in political science, offered the Kangaroos advice on everything from romance to reading.

"Girls in particular, but I say this to everybody, you’ve got to love yourself," Kirk said. "The sooner you learn in life that life’s too short to put up with jerks, the better off you’ll be. Find somebody who likes you, makes you feel good about yourself. If somebody’s being a pinhead, let him go."

Kirk said exploring opposing views was an important part of his intellectual development: "You should read what you love. Just read. The easiest way to become a reader is to read what you love. The only thing I ask young people here is, challenge yourself to read something that challenges your basic assumptions. You can find 8,000 websites that will tell you every day, ‘George Bush is an idiot,’ or ‘Barack Obama is a communist.’ You don’t know who’s feeding you this stuff, so the only thing you can do is, read from a variety of sources."

Kirk was the first African-American mayor of Dallas, and he spoke freely about his struggles with racism growing up in the era of Jim Crow laws and attending school in the South. Kirk said one landmark moment in his life came during his education at AC, when he realized he had attended non-segregated schools for longer than segregated ones.

"The one thing you can choose every day is your disposition," Kirk said. "If you wake up every day and believe that people in America are generally anti-Semitic, somebody will say something to you that will validate that every day, and you can go through life with a big chip on your shoulder.

"If you believe men are sexist, (if) you believe people are homophobic, you can wake up every day and wait for somebody to make you angry. Or, you can believe that every day is a gift from God, and every day is an opportunity for you to do something extraordinary, to see something that will put a smile on your face, and you will live a life of joy."

AC sophomore and political science major Shannon O’Brien from Paris, Texas said she went to hear Kirk speak out of her own curiosity. "I thought he was really insightful and helpful," O’Brien said, "especially since I’m hoping to go into law also."

O’Brien said she agreed with Kirk’s advice about exploring views different from her own. "It’s important to sometimes read things that don’t interest you, and things you disagree with," O’Brien said. "Even if you disagree, it’s important to know what they’re saying. When you have the experience of all different kinds of information, you see things that network and the places they overlap."

O’Brien was unenthusiastic about Kirk’s advice on relationships, but said she agreed with his admonitions. O’Brien also shared Kirk’s admiration for the school’s instructors, saying her teachers and mentors have been an instrumental part of her education.

"This audience is a little bit different than what Todd Williams sold me on," Kirk joked at the beginning of his speech. "He told me, ‘a handful of students,’ and I’m still intimidated every time I see Dr. (Kenneth) Street. One day I’m gonna call him Ken, but it’s not gonna be today."

Speaking to reporters after his conversation with students, Kirk lauded his connection to professors and the liberal arts education he earned in Sherman as a Kangaroo.

"There’s a great debate going on right now about the value of a liberal arts education versus a technical education," Kirk said."Technical skills are critically important, and we need math and science skills, but if you look at the leaders of Fortune 500 companies, many of them have art history or other kinds of degrees."

Kirk said, in his experience employers at the highest levels demand skills like complex problem-solving, excellent communication abilities and other, less-tangible skills, "and I don’t think there is anything that can prepare you better for that than a liberal arts education."

"The only thing I want to add is: write. Go and write a letter to your parents," Kirk said in his parting words. "Your grandparents cannot tape a text to the refrigerator. My 92-year-old mother just died, and the most wonderful thing we did is go through and look at every picture, every letter that my daughters wrote to their grammy with ‘grammy’ spelled badly. That’s the stuff people cherish."