I don’t know if Tom Ridge will take over the leadership of Penn State University. I’ve not spoken to him or anyone in his immediate inner circle, but when the news broke yesterday with rumors and news reports that he could be in the running to be the next President of Penn State, I have to admit to some very mixed feelings. They weren’t negative mixed feelings but rather selfish ones.
As one of the people fortunate enough to serve under Ridge in the early days of DHS, I got to observe one of the most dynamic individuals I’ve ever met in my life. For those who have never met him, Ridge is a big guy. He easily fills a door frame and exudes what I can only describe as positive electricity. When he walks into a room of any size, he lights it up. His smile, demeanor and presence say, “I’m damn glad to be here and I hope you are too.” His hand shake is firm, and when he speaks to you, he looks right at you, intently focusing on what you are saying. Whether that is to compensate for his hearing loss (which he got from his years as an artillery officer in Vietnam), or just his natural way of focusing on what people are saying, it communicates, “I listen.”
I remember setting up an industry roundtable meeting for him in Port Canaveral, FL in late July 2004. Assembled in the room were regional business leaders, including a few CEOs who were waiting for him to come in to talk with them about what was happening with port security, regional preparedness and other issues. One of those attendees was a seasoned executive who came up to me prior to the then-DHS Secretary’s arrival and said, “I hate things like this because all these type of guys do is talk and they never listen.” Unbeknownst to him and everyone else in the room was that Sec. Ridge was on the phone with the White House and NSC who were asking him to hightail it back to Washington because they had intelligence information about threats to DC, NYC and the country’s financial institutions. [This would end up being the infamous Code Orange threat for DC, NYC and northern NJ that focused on the World Bank, CitiGroup, etc.]
Before Ridge would head back to Washington that afternoon, he made a conscious decision that he would meet with the assembled Space Coast business leaders and hear what they had to say to him. He wrapped up his calls to the White House, walked into the meeting room and spent nearly 90 minutes in a back and forth conversation with them on a litany of issues until he was given the high sign by his staff that he needed to go. He then went and shook every hand in the room, thanking them for what they were doing for their community before getting on his plane back to DC.
The cranky CEO who just hours early had confessed his distaste for gatherings like the one he had taken part in came up and put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Son, I’m ready to do anything that man asks me to do. He looked me in the eye and listened and that’s more than a lot of people do today.”
I’ve thought about that moment a lot over the past 24 hours. Ridge’s ability to look people in the eye, listen and lead cooperatively toward the future is something our nation desperately needs on multiple levels. It’s also something that Penn State could use right now.
While I can’t state that I can speak for all of the Ridge alumni, I know I can say on a personal level how much we revere him and love having him in the DC area. Our Ridge Alumni events are a sure warning to any DC location that hosts us that we will take over your entire establishment and please tell the Fire Marshall to go away because we’ve over filled the room.
It’s also not uncommon to see the governor walking to various events in downtown DC and see people come up and greet him. If they are DHS alumni, the conversations and mutual greetings are even warmer. The selfish part of me wants to keep him right here with us, but that’s wrong.
If there is one thing anyone needs to know about Tom Ridge, he’s about public service. Whether that be as a soldier, a prosecutor, Member of Congress, Governor, White House Advisor, or the businessman he is today, he exudes looking out for people and making situations better. Isn’t that what a leader is supposed to do?
I find it somehow ironic that Tom Ridge left Pennsylvania to serve our nation in some of its worst hours and in an absolutely unprecedented role only to find that there is a potential of him returning to his home state to serve one of its most distinguished institutions in its worst and unprecedented hours.
Tom Ridge is the right man for this job. His skills as a leader are unparalleled, and he certainly knows a thing or two about bringing together fractured institutions to work together for the public good. There are truly only a handful of people in America with the skill sets to do that.
The loyalty and affection that he generates among those who have worked for him is like nothing I have ever experienced. I realize that more than makes me unbiased in heralding him for what can only be a herculean task of rebuilding the reputation of one of the nation’s pre-eminent educational institutions and that is the other part of my mixed feelings. The more I’ve thought about him leaving the DC area to serve again in an unprecedented capacity my chest feels with pride knowing what a difference he would make and how fortunate I was to be a part of his team.
If his move to Penn State should come to pass, the institution will gain someone who not only can navigate the most dangerous of seas but bring people together in service to mission and future in ways never done before.
Penn State is certainly more than a football program or a legendary coach. It’s accomplishments in academics and producing talent in any number of disciplines gives it an incredible foundation to move forward. That foundation though has a fissure of public confidence when certain individuals looked the other way as unspeakable horrors were unleashed on the most vulnerable amongst us. Time, reflection and leadership with integrity will heal that fissure, but the public and private scars of what has happened there will never go away. Ask Virginia Tech or any of the Catholic Dioceses that experienced similar traumas.
The plan now is to correct the existing problems and move forward. In my mind, that’s a job for Tom Ridge