‘Last Lecture’ speaker shares life lessons from world of politics

Valuable lessons for everyday life can be found in the world of contemporary politics, Don Livingston, professor of political science and public affairs, told a standing-room-only crowd assembled for WCU’s inaugural Last Lecture Series address Friday, Oct. 3.

Don Livingston

Don Livingston

Drawing upon politicians from Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina to current vice presidential nominees Joseph Biden and Sarah Palin, Livingston (pictured) shared insights from his nearly 30-year career as a professor at WCU, reminding the crowd that no one finds success without the support of others.

“If you find a turtle on a fence post, chances are he didn’t get there by himself,” Livingston said, quoting one of former President Bill Clinton’s favorite sayings. “You see, Clinton made it his life’s work to collect friends. Without friends, he would have never made it to the White House. Sure, he was gifted and he was smart, but he would have never made it without friends to help him along the way.”

Thurmond embraced a similar philosophy to become the longest-serving senator in U.S. history, Livingston said. “Strom didn’t waste his time and effort collecting enemies. He didn’t want his opponents as enemies. He wanted his opponents as friends,” he said.

Livingston pointed to several “political odd couples” such as Clinton and George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, and Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter as proof positive that “good and peaceable people from different sides of the aisle can agree to disagree and to do so agreeably.” He called the end of the previous night’s vice presidential . It doesn’t have to be ugly. Democrats are not supposed to hate Republicans. Republicans are not supposed to hate Democrats. Republicans and Democrats are not enemies. They need to work together to find common ground upon which they can build solutions.”

Among other lessons from politicians shared by Livingston:

From Lincoln, allow people to fail. “We learn from failure. We don’t always succeed, but we need to have an opportunity to learn from our mistakes,” Livingston said.

From Franklin D. Roosevelt, associate yourself with good people. “Find the right people with the right stuff, the right talents. Be a talent scout, but don’t become overly dependent on those people,” Livingston said.

From Reagan, have a good attitude. “Cheerfulness and optimism are contagious. How many of us like to be around somebody who’s always moaning and groaning and down in the dumps?”

From Sam Ervin, don’t oversell it. “Sam would always say, ‘I’m just a country lawyer.’ Well, Sam was a heck of a lot more than just a country lawyer. But he didn’t over-promote himself.”

From Bush the elder, be involved and be prepared. “Just showing up is half the battle. Showing up prepared is three-quarters of the battle.”

Livingston spoke as the first winner of the Last Lecture Series award, created by the WCU Committee on Student Learning to honor faculty members who inspire students with passion and enthusiasm in their teaching. Students select the honorees, who then prepare and deliver a “last lecture” – the words they would share if it was the last lecture they were ever going to give. The series was inspired by Randy Pausch, a computer science professor who was terminally ill when he gave a lecture as part of a similar series at Carnegie Mellon University.

Following the lecture, Provost Kyle Carter told the audience that Livingston’s words should remind faculty members that what they say in the classroom matters. “To paraphrase Don, as we as a faculty think about teaching, we need to realize that part of the battle is not only showing up, but also being prepared and knowing that your words make a difference to your students.”

Carter also called Livingston a living, breathing example of the university’s new brand promise statement: WCU offers opportunities for those who aspire to make a difference in their world. “Don Livingston was living our brand promise when he didn’t even know what it was.”

Watch the recording of Don Livingston’s lecture (link no longer active) online.