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You have an opinion, but do you have what it takes to be heard?

William Cunion
Shaker Heights, OH

William Cunion

I hold a doctorate in American government, but I don't pretend to know everything. I'd like to speak for those who know that we can be opponents without being enemies.

What Matters

Editor's note: The contestants were given free rein for their second post of the day. You can read William Cunion's earlier post here.


Today is my 40th birthday. No gifts please -- your rapt attention all week has been more than enough. I mention it only because it presents a perfect occasion for me to reflect on what really matters in life. Turns out, it isn't politics.


I teach at the University of Mount Union, a smaller liberal arts school of about two thousand students in Alliance, Ohio. We are pretty well known for our football team, which has won ten Division III national championships in the past fifteen years. But a quick scan of our roster of speakers suggests that a boxing metaphor might be more appropriate, because we are punching way above our weight class. In just the past five years, we've hosted Newt Gingrich, James Carville, Madeleine Albright, David Gergen, Fareed Zakaria, and many others. But none left me the impression on me like last week's guest, Bill Strickland.


Strickland lacks the name recognition of some of our other speakers, but he quickly made up for that as he told his story. Growing up in one of the roughest sections of Pittsburgh, he was on his way to becoming another urban statistic in one way or another, when he happened to catch a glimpse of an art class. He was immediately transfixed by ceramics, and in his own words, "It saved my life."


Strickland has gone on to create his own schools, including at least one in the very neighborhood where he grew up - and still lives. Befitting an arts school, the building is palatial, inside and out. "If your buildings look like prisons, you'll get students who act like prisoners; give them beauty and they will act beautifully." In more than thirty years, Strickland claims, there has never been so much as a fight. Graduation rates exceed 90%. In 1996, the MacArthur Fonudation awarded him a prestigious "genius award," and it is easy to see why.


He shared pictures of his students' artwork, some of which was, um, not great. I'm no art critic, but one flowerpot leaned noticeably to one side. All part of his plan: "Few of our students actually become artists, as you can tell. Art is the bridge to life. You can't teach a kid algebra if he doesn't care whether he lives." Instantly, he won the room, and every person there understood the value of arts education.


By itself, that moment would have made Strickland's speech memorable, but it wasn't even the highlight. For me, what stood out was his recollection of the late Republican Senator John Heinz, who had been one of Strickland's earliest benefactors before being killed in a plane crash in 1991. Strickland spoke of Heinz with a sincere affection, at one point calling Heinz, "one of the greatest men I ever knew." This was not mere gratitude for financial support, but a level of genuine admiration. Had Heinz lived, Strickland said, "he would have been handing the keys to the White House over to Barack Obama." Strickland continued, "Some people...just get it." Some really do.


Right after the speech, one of my colleagues said to me, "A lot of people talk about it, but this guy is living it." And he'll continue to "live it" no matter what happens in the midterm elections. Some people can see beyond politics, in more ways than one. How remarkable that Strickland made no presumption about John Heinz based on his party affiliation. Perhaps a successful social entrepreneur does not have the luxury of deciding in advance whether one is friend or foe. I left wondering whether that might be the key to being a successful human being, as well.


Strickland's foundation continues to expand, with schools in San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Grand Rapids. Next month, Strickland will be back in Ohio for the grand opening of the Cleveland Center for Arts and Technology. November elections are important, but not that important. Trust me. I'm an old man.


Read more posts from this round. See what the judges are saying. And cast your vote on Friday.

By William Cunion  |  October 21, 2010; 4:17 PM ET  | Category:  Blogging Challenge
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Please report offensive comments below.

to Martymar123
thanks for the very polite correction.
As soon as I hit 'submit' I wondered and realized I probably should have checked the name more carefully.

Posted by: realitybased1 | October 23, 2010 12:59 AM
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Sorry to be brutally honest, but this reads like a small-town newspaper column, complete with a shout-out to the local university (not to mention the gratuitous "Hey, it's my birthday!" declaration in the first sentence).

Moreover, it fails to deliver what it promised: an argument for why elections don't matter that much. Of course they do, especially in a nation where unemployment has topped 9.5% for 14 straight months, the worst such stretch since the 1930s.

Cunion's premise is a non sequitur. So he saw a speaker at his university who's doing good things with schools. That's peachy ... but how on earth does it make November elections almost irrelevant??

Posted by: UponFurtherReview | October 22, 2010 10:18 AM
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Nice piece...I was moved by William Strickland's speech (but more by his life story) too! I wish I could 'live it.' Did you send this punditiefficent piece to Mr. Strickland? Talk to me I've got his email.



Posted by: schnelpl | October 22, 2010 8:41 AM
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"Why doesn't Strickland focus on promoting the arts in education? Why does he have to be governor to do that?"

Ahem....I believe you were thinking of Ted Strickland. Follow the link provided to read more about Bill Strickland.

Posted by: martymar123 | October 22, 2010 6:49 AM
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Grudgingly, I must say a nice read.
But I would disagree that Nov elections are not so important;
Ohio doesn't need a boutique governor like California has with Gov Schwartzneggar.
Why doesn't Strickland focus on promoting the arts in education? Why does he have to be governor to do that?
Also, are you saying Teresa Heinz' husband whoever he might be at the time, would be destined to be POTUS? or at least run for it?

Posted by: realitybased1 | October 22, 2010 2:40 AM
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Here's how to tell if you're old:

You might be old, if.... go to more funerals than weddings. find yourself paying attention to what candidates say about social security and medicare---and voting accordingly. don't look better after a haircut have shredded several offers to join AARP, and then you finally joined.

...College professors look like they're in high school...(just kidding, take it as a compliment)

Posted by: martymar123 | October 21, 2010 6:40 PM
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Happy Birthday!

Excellent, well-written, and kept me reading until the last word.

But you are NOT old. Trust ME.

Posted by: martymar123 | October 21, 2010 6:18 PM
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Wonderful story. Well written, inspiring, gives one hope.

Strickland said, "If your buildings look like prisons, you'll get students who act like prisoners; give them beauty and they will act beautifully," a concept that gives one hope. Problem is, as an avowed Republican, this goes against your beliefs and the actions of your party. Republicans advocate more prisons, not of the beautiful kind, more people in prison, and longer sentences. So who are you William, a Republican or a stand up guy who is looking to improve America?

I agree, Senator John Heinz may well have been president if he had lived. He was one of the last Moderate Republicans, so moderate today's Republicans would have considered him a Liberal, and the Tea Party a traitor. John Heinz shares none of the beliefs you have espoused, except today's post.

So who are you William? A deficit loving, war mongering, tax cuts for the Rich, NeoCon Republican of today? Or a stand up guy like Strickland and Heinz? Let us know.

Posted by: chucky-el | October 21, 2010 5:24 PM
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Happy Birthday!

(Go Warhawks!)

Posted by: MsJS | October 21, 2010 5:07 PM
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