The following article appears in the January/February 2006 issue of The Alcalde.
From time to time, there emerges an individual who was not a student at The University of Texas, but whose service makes a profound and positive difference to the University.
To recognize this service, the Texas Exes created the Distinguished Service Award, and on October 14, the Association awarded it for only the fourth time, to Elspeth Davies Rostow. It was conferred at the LBJ Library Auditorium during the Texas Exes’ Distinguished Alumnus Awards.
Elspeth Rostow has been a force at The University of Texas since 1969, initially drawn to Austin with her late husband Walt by the research value of Lyndon Johnson’s presidential papers. (Walt had served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and was writing a book.) While she has served as dean of both the LBJ School of Public Affairs and UT’s Division of General and Comparative Studies, she is, first, a teacher. She says, “I enjoy the simple act of teaching. It’s not transmitting information, it’s enticing people into the world of ideas.”
She teaches about the American presidency and U.S. foreign policy. Of studying Woodrow Wilson, one student wrote that “she takes the presidency from the beginning of the development of the person. She relates it to his life experience.”
Her open-door policy and exacting standards both for herself and her students earned Rostow a 1988 Texas Exes Teaching Award.
Born in Manhattan, Rostow brought to The University of Texas impressive academic credentials and internationally recognized expertise in the area of public policy. Among her numerous presidential appointments, President Ronald Reagan appointed her to the board of the U.S. Institute of Peace, which she later chaired.
In 1991, she co-founded The Austin Project, a comprehensive community investment program in children and young people. Late husband and faculty colleague Walt Rostow said, “She’s extraordinarily concerned with other people. She is an administrator with a green thumb. When she runs something, it flourishes.”
A steadfast supporter, “Top Hand Award” recipient, and Life Member of the Texas Exes, Rostow has served on the blue-ribbon committee to select Texas Exes Scholars since 1982. Her friends and former students established an Award of Recognition in her honor. Many Texas Exes Scholars have excelled because they “survived” her rigorous interview, and they were nurtured by her abiding interest in their lives and futures.
In 1996, The Alcalde described Rostow as having “never a hair nor a thread nor a word out of place. She is quietly intense, notoriously elegant, eloquent, proper, and continually self-deprecating.” She also is a gourmet cook, limerick writer, and proud grandmother. Elspeth Rostow has made a profound positive difference to The University of Texas.
What follows are her remarks upon receiving the award.
It is now 36 years and nine months since, with my family, I came from Washington to Austin. It has been a wonderful period for me not only because of the fact that I’ve been in this university and watched it change and grow, but because it has given me a chance to live up to the very wise words of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard when he said, “You live life looking forward. You understand life looking backward.” These 36 years have given me a chance to see what a university can be.
I am a child of academe. I was brought up in the atmosphere of Columbia University, and I’ve been teaching now since the day that World War II began. There is no connection between those two facts. But coming to Texas has been the experience that I did not anticipate. I knew that I loved teaching. I knew that I enjoyed being on the campus, but I didn’t realize that to be in the University with such a dynamism, with such a capacity to grow and to change, was an experience that I will treasure and that I will share not indefinitely. I think it’s about time to stop teaching, but as some of you know, I find it addictive. At this stage, I have a graduate class of about 31. Six of them are lieutenant colonels in the Army; the rest are civilians. But to watch them study national and international policy is a privilege, because that’s what teaching is — it’s a privilege to share with your students, with your colleagues, with your community whatever it is that you have observed over the passage of time.
Benjamin Disraeli said that a university should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning. He can be forgiven for not putting in “and football.” But this experience of watching light, learning, and the experience of sharing with you, the graduates, of this great university has been something for which I am eternally grateful. And this day, this opportunity to thank The University of Texas, is something I looked forward to, as it turns out now, for these past 30 years. I thank you, I thank the University, and I am convinced now, as a historian, that I watch a work in progress, and the progress is great. A work in progress, and the goal of excellence is within reach. An experience that very few people are privileged to have. And so I turn not to these distinguished graduates alone, but to all of you, and say, thank you very much.
© Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs
10 January 2006
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