A Visit to the White House

February 3, 2014

Growing up in New Providence, New Jersey, my siblings and I had two childhood heroes: Carl Yastrzemski and Pete Seeger. Admiring a baseball player was fairly typical for the kids in our neighborhood (even though “Yaz” played for the Red Sox rather than the Yankees), but idolizing a folksinger was a little bit different.

My brother and I loved the fact that Yaz was an all-around ballplayer: a terrific hitter—for average and power—as well as an excellent fielder. We were impressed that he made himself into such a great player through hard work—more so, as the legend goes, than through natural talent or inborn athleticism. We could see that he gave his all with every swing of the bat. Yaz inspired an appreciation for seriousness of purpose in a world that would then reward it.  

At the same time, it was the era of the Great Society, and the idealism and commitment to improving the world expressed in Pete Seeger’s songs were echoed in our family’s dinnertime conversations. (My parents were such fans of Pete Seeger’s music that they named their oldest child after him!) His simple melodies carried deep wisdom, and they celebrated the lives and voices of all citizens of the planet. His message was clear: join your voice to others in harmony and make community. 

So, Yaz and Pete: these were individuals who represented the ideals of the home in which my siblings and I grew up.

I still remember when Carl Yastrzemski retired in 1983, just a few years after I arrived in New Haven as a graduate student. And then a few days ago we learned that Pete Seeger had died at the age of 94. But the examples they provided live on. In fact, in a way, the values these two very different men represented were front and center two weeks ago at the White House Summit on College Opportunity, hosted by President and Mrs. Obama, which I attended. The theme of the gathering was that college should be accessible to all dedicated, hardworking, and high-achieving students, including those raised in families with limited financial means. Education can be a way for such individuals to better their own lives and the lives of others.  

I am very proud to tell you that, of the hundred or so colleges and universities represented at the White House, Yale was singled out twice: by Governor Jack Markell of Delaware for our leadership in an outreach effort by a group of elite colleges in the northeast; and by the President’s National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling (LAW ’85), who highlighted Yale’s sponsorship of the New Haven Promise program as a way of encouraging and helping to fund college attendance for students in New Haven’s public schools.

These themes were very much a part of the welcoming address on the American Dream that I delivered to the Yale College Class of 2017. I am gratified that my talk resonated with so many students, parents and alumni, and I share them with you here. I think you will find a little Yaz and a little Pete in the message.