Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor remarks of Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- Tribute to David Kearns

Posted on March 1, 2011

Madam President, if I may turn to another subject. In Rochester, NY, today and tomorrow, family and friends are celebrating the life of David Kearns, who died a few days ago at age 80. David Kearns was the former chief executive officer of the Xerox Corporation who, during the 1980s, led that corporation to win back the copying market from the Japanese. Along the way, he found time to become America's most effective business leader who was a champion of education reform, especially for pushing new technology into schools. He served as Deputy Education Secretary under the first President Bush while I was the Secretary of Education in 1991, 1992 and 1993.

I remember first meeting David Kearns in 1990, when I was president of the University of Tennessee and had my office in Knoxville. He came into my office, and on the way he said hello to every single person in the outer office, and every single other person he met while I was there. And he remembered every single one of their names. I didn't forget that, and they didn't forget him. When David Kearns left the University of Tennessee from that visit I bought his book about education reform and read it.

Later that year, President Bush called me and asked me to become his Education Secretary. I asked the President if I could put together my own team, subject to his approval, and then if we could put together our own plan, subject to his approval. Those were two of the smartest questions I ever asked, because that meant I didn't have to go through the White House staff to get the team cleared or the policy cleared. I could go directly to the President. And as soon as I had that permission, I called David Kearns and asked him if he would be willing to be the Deputy Secretary of Education in the U.S. Department of Education.

I knew it would be hard to persuade him to do so. He was at the peak of his career. He had just retired as one of America's best known business leaders. His friends said: Why in the world would you go into the government and subject yourself to all that abuse and take a secondary position in a minor department? I asked President Bush to call David Kearns and recruit him, and he did, appealing to his patriotism. They both served in World War II.

David had such a passion for education, he came on board, and it was terrific that he did. It was a privilege to work with such an accomplished executive. Employees in the Department of Education loved having him around. Having him there helped recruit a distinguished team of leaders for the Department and we put together what we thought, over 2 years, was a pretty impressive program working with President Bush.

Some of the ideas sound very familiar today, especially to former Governors. One idea was break-the-mold schools. Today we call them charter schools, or start-from-scratch schools. The thought was to have one in each congressional district -- 535 of them -- funded by $1 million of seed money from the Federal Government.

To support those schools, we created a new American Schools Development Corporation, and with David's leadership raised $70 million in private capital for that. That attracted hundreds of design teams from around the country with ideas for how to create better schools. President Bush hosted a number of America's business leaders at Camp David to help make that happen.
We worked with Diane Ravitch to create an effort to implement standards for the national education goals that President Bush had helped to set in 1987 with the Nation's Governors. These were the goals for math, science, history, English, and geography, and we took important steps toward that. Today, the common standards States are adopting owe some of their beginnings to those efforts.

We established commissions to look at extending the school day. We pushed for technology in the schools. The President proposed in 1992 a GI bill for kids, which would give scholarships to poor kids so they could choose any school, public or private or religious, so they could have more of the same choices of good schools that kids with money had.  

By the time we left in 1993, every State in America had their own version of America 2000 -- it was Tennessee 2000 or New Hampshire 2000 or Kansas 2000 -- moving toward the educational goals community by community. None of that would have happened without David Kearns' enthusiasm, skill, and leadership.

In 1992, during a riot over Rodney King in Los Angeles, President Bush sent David to represent him. David had a strong background in civil rights. While he was there, he telephoned me and said: This is the hardest phone call I have ever had to make. I have cancer. He had just discovered he had cancer of the sinus. When he came back, he had an operation and the operation gradually destroyed his eyesight.

That was 20 years ago, but it didn't stop David Kearns. During that time, he created the Kearns Center for Leadership at the University of Rochester, where he graduated and served as trustee for many years. Then to help him get around, because he couldn't see, or could barely see, he invited a young man each year to go with him and help him see and do what he needed to do. For those young men -- nearly 20 over the last 20 years -- that has been a remarkable opportunity to be in the presence of one of America's great mentors at an early stage in their lives. 

Everyone who knew David Kearns admired him and loved him. A few days ago, I spoke with Shirley Kearns, David's wife of 56 years, and reminded her of what she already knows: how much David's friendship meant to me. Honey and I will be thinking of them today and tomorrow in Rochester. We will be thinking about Shirley, their 4 daughters, 2 sons, and 18 grandchildren.

For me, one story sums up David Kearns' life better than others. I think back to 1995, when I was in Utah. I was trying to persuade Republicans that I was their natural nominee for President of the United States. I wasn't successful in that, but I was enthusiastic about it. I had made to a Republican group what I thought was an especially good speech. During the speech, I talked about my work in the U.S. Department of Education and I talked about David Kearns -- about his leadership and about how he helped do all the things I have just mentioned. After the speech, an enthusiastic Republican lady came up to me and said: That was a wonderful speech. Thank you very much, I said. Now I know who should be President, she said. Well, thank you, I said. She smiled and said: David Kearns. That was the opinion that she and I and almost everyone who met him had of David Kearns, whose 80 years in this country have been very special.