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As I prepared my remarks for this evening, I contacted many of the LBJ students who were privileged to take the last three classes she ever taught. The words I will share are not mine, but ours, in remembrance of our teacher…
Rostow never spoke without a point or a theme and she rarely went of topic. She was a master of words and knew how to take us on a verbal journey that tied seemingly unrelated events or ideas together.
So, I'd like to tie what her most recent students had to say about her together in the context of the example that she set for us.
Dean Rostow demanded 100% and that's what she always gave. Every morning she was elegantly dressed, perfectly coiffed, and, no one ever wondered if she had done the assigned reading! Many of us remember notes on papers demanding that we think harder, do better, and act more brilliant. She demanded it because she knew we could do it and less than 100% was never acceptable. When we visited her in her office, we learned to go in with a plan and ideas rather than just winging it.
Dean Rostow was always honest – always!
I had the privilege of taking the last class she taught. During the review of our final simulation she said that she was “impressed by the fuzziness of our logic…and not necessarily in a good way.” One of the students I spoke to reminisced about a mock interview that Rostow did with her. At the end, Rostow commented, “Well, I’m not impressed.”
But her praise was also abundant and more important because you knew, that if Rostow said it, it must be true. At the end of an early planning meeting for this year’s Barbara Jordan forum, I clearly recall dean Rostow wrapping it up by saying, I am confident, ms. Lalonde, that it will be a success, because you will make it a success. That was all I needed!
Dean Rostow showed us that challenges and adversity mean nothing in the face of dedication and determination. Learning about her life and all the things she did, made us think, if she did it, I can. She was a force of nature even as her body became frail. It was hard to complain about getting up for class and doing all the reading when you knew that dean Rostow would be there on time after a night of reading everything from the economist to vogue. And, oh, she had probably watched Stephen Colbert too.
Even though dean Rostow was the smartest woman I’ve ever met, she never condescended to a student. She showed respect to each of us and taught us to respect each other as well. But it was fun; many of us fell to her quick wit and stone-faced humor during class.
She affirmed and validated our pursuit of public service by her example of service.
She was full of grace and amazingly gracious. We could truly go to her office hours just to talk about “things,” or, just to get a piece of chocolate…or three. Each semester, she opened her home to her students and invited one of her friends to come speak to us. As a first year, I remember watching her and Ben Barnes holding hands at her home, each with a glass of wine in the other, Regaling us with tales of the old days. For a brief moment we were able not only to learn about history but to feel it and see it unfold.
When we heard of our beloved professor’s passing, there were so many emotions involved:
Disbelief – how was this possible, surely even death would fear Rostow
uncertainty – what will happen to the school, her classes, what about our grades???
But, mostly, it was sadness that we, her family, and the school had lost one of the greats. Our world became a little more dull without her. Now, after nearly 3 months without her guiding presence, as we continue to strive to live lives of consequence, I realize why she taught for 70 years.
She taught so the world could still be bright without her.
I first met Dean Rostow when I visited Austin as a prospective student and she was one of the people who convinced me to come here. I owe her a debt of gratitude for that. After I came here I had the privilege of auditing one of her classes and then being the teaching assistant for the class she co-taught with Dean Steinberg this past semester. Just before that class began she said, "The class has never been taught before, and I don't know if it will ever be taught again, but it certainly promises to be interesting." And it certainly was. It included such priceless moments as her playing the role of Vice President Cheney in a simulation exercise. At another point she said something that put it all in perspective; that reminded each one of us how fortunate we were to be there: "I worked in the OSS, probably before Dean Steinberg was born."
I've been in and out of universities for the last decade or so. In that time, as a TA and a student, I've come across a lot of professors. And I can tell you (something you probably already know), Dean Rostow was special.
She was special because she could teach you about what policymakers did; but also, since she knew so many of them, what they were like.
She was special because she'd inspire her students, and because her students not just respected her, but loved her.
She was special because despite the fact that when you first met her, you felt intimidated, you soon learnt to detect the twinkle in her eye before she said the wittiest thing you've heard in a while in the smartest way possible -- all of course, with a stoic expression that made it even funnier.
She was special because she knew -- in the classroom and outside it -- how and when to ask the right question and how to make you think before you answered it; and she listened when you did answer.
She was special because when you were talking to her, she made you feel special. Week after week, she took time out to meet with students. You could walk into her office for a 5-minute meeting and the next thing you knew it was an hour later -- you left her office, probably running late for class, but with a smile on your face and your brain ticking, trying to remember everything she’d said.
And she was special because she was not just a great professor, but also a wonderful person. She taught her students not just about presidents and foreign policy but about dealing with life and work, and doing it all with grace.
I know there are a number of people around the world whose lives are better for having had the opportunity and good fortune to have got to know her.
I know I am one of them.
More than four decades of students owe a sincere debt to Dean Rostow. By both her example and her instruction, Dean Rostow instilled in her students the wisdom for critical thinking, a spirit of compassion, and the importance of tireless dedication that is essential for public service.
In honor of the tremendous contributions Dean Rostow made to our class, and to the students who preceded us, it is with great privilege that I announce that the Class of 2008 has chosen to make it’s traditional class gift in her honor.
The class of 2008 will support the Dean Elspeth Rostow Memorial Graduate Fellowship being created at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. As Dean Steinberg has indicated, the Rostow Graduate Fellowship will be awarded to second-year graduate students whose interests embody the spirit and dedication to public service that Dean Rostow herself exemplified throughout her life and career.
Please join me in thanking Dean Steinberg for his dedication and devotion to the establishment of this fellowship in her honor.