Thoughts From a Cobber Kid
Sep 29, 2010Homecoming is a time to reminisce about shared experiences at Concordia. George C. Halvorson '68, CEO of Kaiser Permanente, delivered the Commencement speech to the Class of 2010. Below is the first speech he wrote, but didn't give. In this piece the second-generation Concordia graduate shares his memories about what it means to be a Cobber.
Low on an Important Learning Curve
(Thoughts from a Cobber Kid)
George C. Halvorson
I began my years at Concordia earlier than most. I was almost born here.
My father was a young Marine Corporal from Northern Minnesota who returned from the second world war, married, and used the GI Bill to become a Cobber.
The first home I remember – at three-years-old – was the old Concordia barracks for married students – a row of Quonset huts set up on the edge of campus.
My very first memory in my entire life is standing outside one of those huts, holding a squirming puppy in my arms, and having my Dad telling me to put the puppy down because it needed to do number one.
I put the puppy down. It did number one – and I can clearly remember feeling that my Dad was the most wonderful person on the planet and he even knew what dogs were thinking.
Mom worked as a waitress at the Pheasant Café and my second memory in my life is being taken by my Father to see my Mother at the café and being astounded at the magnificence of these stuffed pheasants on displays perched over the tables.
Those same pheasants were still there when I returned to Concordia as a student. I still thought, at 18, that they were very special.
So I am not just a Cobber – I am a legacy Cobber – second generation Concordia and proud of it.
There never really was any choice in my life relative to where I would go to college. When I graduated from high school and received some brochures from Eastern schools who were recruiting rural Minnesotans, my Dad explained to me – "Son, Concordia is the Harvard of the Upper Midwest.” I never forgot that conversation. Made sense to me.
I have since modified that phrase a bit. When people ask me where I went to school, I sometimes say, “I went to the Harvard of the Upper Red River Valley.”
I am grateful and very happy with my Concordia education. I love a liberal arts education. I love having been exposed to a wide range of topics and subjects and thought processes. A liberal arts education gives you a magnificent breadth of knowledge that can be used in a great breadth of circumstances and situations, and I love the fact that we studied so many subjects and topics and ways of looking at the world. I am continuously grateful to my teachers for helping me learn so many things that I have used every day since I left Concordia. Paul Dovre, my debate coach, taught me to understand absolutely clearly that there are two or more sides to a great many issues.
I almost quit debate the very first day when I learned that I couldn’t just pick a position and then persuade people to believe it. I was stunned to learn that there were two or more sides to a lot of important issues and that debaters needed to take both sides and argue them well. I learned more useful things about truth, reality and context from debate than I ever expected.
Walter Prausnitz taught me to have an irreverent love of the written language – to revel in a lovely turn of phrase – to find and appreciate the truths and insights about people and the world that only great literature puts on the table.
Ted Heimarck taught me economics – nitty gritty practical baseline economics that explained how money created and structured and influenced both human behavior and economic realities.
There are echoes of Ted Heimarck in every one of my books.
Harding Noblet taught me political science as a practical way of looking at how people and laws and groups and societies interacted and interrelated.
His comparative government lectures have stood me in good stead in structuring and restructuring the organizations and trade associations I have led. He basically taught that there were multiple ways you could organize the governance of an organization and each approach had its relevance and value in the context of the situation it was in. I have used that learning to organize companies, organizations, community groups and professional associations in a couple of countries.
And Dr. Helen Sanders taught me to be absolutely honest in what I wrote. Dr. Sanders would hand me back a clever and cute piece that I had written for her as my creative writing special studies teacher and she would say – "George, Is that piece absolutely honest? Is this really the absolute and focused truth about what you wanted to say?” Dr. Sanders gave me clarity.
So I treasure my Concordia teachers.
Dr. Dovre taught me to look at the entire context of an issue. Dr. Heimarck taught me that economics could be used as a tool to influence behavior.
Dr. Prausnitz taught me to have fun explaining what I wanted to explain. And Dr. Noblett taught me that politics are about people, structure, and processes – all completely intertwined. And Harding Noblett had a lovely and amazing level of insight into how people thought.
One of his favorite stories was about Senator Bill Langer – a longtime North Dakota vote winner. Senator Langer used to go to small towns – to the co-op meetings and the Grange meetings, and he would give his stump speech – and at the end, he would ask every farmer in the room to contribute a dime – one dime – to his campaign. Most did. Dr. Noblet said that he observed that same fundraising approach several times and finally asked the Senator – "Why do you do that? Why do you ask for a dime? You can’t run a Senate campaign on dimes.”
Senator Langer said, “You’re right. I can’t. But North Dakota farmers are so darn tight with their money that if they have a dime invested in me they will show up to vote just to make sure they didn’t waste their money.”
Lloyd Svendsbye taught me that religion could be about God and not just about churches or theologies. He was a great teacher of ethical commitment interwoven with religious belief. He taught that every vocation could be a calling and he taught that we could and should all be ready to make a difference wherever we are planted. Dr. Svendsbye taught the full cycle of individual accountability: Bloom where you are planted and plant where you have bloomed. And he made us think “outside the box” before anyone knew that there was a box. Dr. Svendsbye once drop-kicked a Bible from the front of our class over every student’s head and then he said, as we all gasped – "That was a bunch of pieces of paper. What’s important isn’t those pieces of paper. We should not worship pieces of paper. We should worship the truth that is embedded in that paper.”
It took me a couple of years to get over that kick.
He followed up by saying it was the revised standard version and not the King James version – and told us about the elderly woman in the small church where he preached in North Dakota who absolutely refused to use the New Standard Version. When he asked her why, she said, “If the King James version was good enough for Jesus Christ, it is good enough for me.”
Since I left Concordia, I have spent most of my career in either health care delivery or health care financing. I have had a really interesting and usually fun and growth provoking time in a number of settings. I have been the CEO of a dozen companies – including health plans in Jamaica, Uganda, and Spain. I have been CEO of something or another since the mid-seventies, and I have worked in large organizations since 1969 when I left Concordia.
My liberal arts education has been absolutely invaluable in each of my jobs. Being able to think broadly is a good thing to do when broad view opportunities exist.
For the past several decades, I have been perpetually learning – perpetually evolving as a thinker and a manager and an organizational strategist.
Every step has been an adventure. Every step has been a learning process – a time of excitement and growth.
I suspect that my likelihood of success in that entire range of jobs would have been a good bit lower if my educational preparation had been prematurely narrowed to any single field of study.
Liberal arts gives us a chance to think across boundaries and down multiple pathways. My own life has given me a chance to enjoy the challenges and the opportunities that are offered by new settings and to apply the kinds of synergistic thinking that came from a broad liberal arts education.
Every setting has also been a chance to make a difference. As Dr. Svendsbye taught – bloom where you are planted – but even more importantly – plant where you have bloomed. Planting is a good thing to do. Blooming is a form of self-actualization. That’s good – but it’s inherently about self. Planting, on the other hand, is about the future – about giving back – and adding value once you have bloomed.
Planting can be a lot of fun.
When you go into a setting and ask – what can I do to add value here? – that doesn’t diminish the adventure – it expands it.
You are about to graduate. You will get your diploma today – and you will be off to do the next important thing in your life. Celebrate, today, where you have been and celebrate where you are going.
Our college years can be some of the best years of our lives.
When I look back on my days at Concordia, I remember a time of intense intellectual growth and I remember intense friendships, intense relationships, and a real sense that I was not at a destination – but on a path. And I had a sense that the path would lead me to the point where I would be starting the rest of my life.
That’s where you are today. Graduation isn’t a destination. It’s an open door – a milestone on a path – and the path right in front of you today will take you to the rest of your life.
When I became chairman of my current company, I got a phone call from a friend of mine who used to be the chair of the Mayo Clinic. He is one of the people I admire greatly. He called and said – "Is it true you are going to Kaiser Permanente?” I said, “It is. I will be there next month.” He said – "I really do envy you.” That surprised me – so I asked why. He said, “I envy you because you are about to experience the exhilaration of being low on an important learning curve. That can be one of the most frightening and energizing and exciting times in any life – and you get to do it again. I am jealous.”
He was right. It was exhilarating to be low on an important learning curve. And that’s where you graduates are today. You are low on an incredibly important learning curve and that exhilaration is right in front of you. I am jealous of what you will get to learn and do. Enjoy the ride. Be well.