A Legacy of Public Service

February 19, 2018

Today the United States celebrates Presidents’ Day—a holiday originally commemorating George Washington’s birthday. Here at Yale, we think of a handful of other presidents with important ties to our campus. In fact, we are proud to count five U.S. presidents among our alumni!

The first Yale alumnus to occupy the White House was William Howard Taft (B.A. 1878). After enjoying a rapid rise as a lawyer and judge, he was appointed civilian governor of the Philippines, then secretary of war. In 1908, he defeated William Jennings Bryan to become president. But his Yale days were not over: weeks after losing his reelection bid in 1912, Taft returned to campus, where he taught in Yale College and the law school for eight years. He left Yale again to serve on the Supreme Court, fulfilling a longtime ambition. Taft is the only individual to have served as both a U.S. President and Chief Justice.

Several decades later, Gerald Ford ’41 J.D. arrived at Yale Law School after turning down offers to play professional football. But Ford did not leave the sports world behind entirely. To support himself while at Yale, he worked as an assistant football and head boxing coach. In 1938, he enrolled in classes full-time and continued to coach. After graduation, Ford enjoyed a lengthy career in law and politics. In 1974, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Ford was sworn in as president—the only person to hold the office without ever having been elected president or vice-president.

George H. W. Bush ’48 was an avid Bulldog as well. The elder Bush was part of the generation that delayed its education due to World War II. On his eighteenth birthday, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, serving with distinction as a navy pilot before attending Yale. A member of the Yale baseball team that competed in two College World Series, Bush served as captain and first baseman.

Most Yalies know that the forty-second president, Bill Clinton ’73 J.D., met Hillary Rodham Clinton ’73 J.D. at Yale’s Lillian Goldman Law Library. Both graduated from Yale in 1973, and they have returned on many occasions to speak and meet with students and faculty. As the Yale College Class Day speaker in 2010, President Clinton urged the graduating seniors to remember all they share in common with others. “As interesting and fascinating and profoundly important as all of our diversities are, our common humanity matters more,” Clinton said.

Our next president, George W. Bush ’68, returned to Yale in 2001 to deliver the university’s commencement address. Then in his first year in office, President Bush peppered his remarks with self-deprecating jokes and playful remembrances of his college days. But he also spoke seriously about the call to public service. “If you hear that calling, I hope you answer,” Bush told graduates. “Public service is one way, an honorable way, to mark your life with meaning.”

All three of our living alumni presidents have spoken about the importance of service and their time at Yale. In 2014, Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Bush joined former U.S. senator and secretary of state Clinton as honorary chairs of the Yale Day of Service. Organized by the Association of Yale Alumni, this event brings together thousands of Yalies for a global day of giving back. But this commitment to service and dedication to the public good go beyond a yearly celebration.

Alumni often tell me that Yale’s enriching educational environment and vibrant community imparted to them the importance of serving all sectors of society. In a world of bitter partisanship and destructive discord, this tradition of public service—an integral part of Yale’s mission—reminds us that we can transcend differences to create a better world. At Yale, service to our nation and world is part of our rich history—and it is essential to our shared future.