Sen. Coons delivers annual James R. Soles Lecture
2:14 p.m., Sept. 17, 2013--Though she never took a class from the late James R. Soles, Brenda Mayrack learned some life lessons from the beloved University of Delaware professor of political science.
And the Class of 2000 graduate also became a part of Soles’ legacy, which was honored Monday, Sept. 16, as part of the third annual Constitution Day James R. Soles Lecture on the Constitution and Citizenship.
Popcorn and probability
U.S. Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware delivered the lecture, connecting 226 years of constitutional history to events relevant to today.
Like a family patriarch, Soles’ passion for public service has given rise to an ever-growing number of UD alumni connected by a shared commitment to community engagement. Many of them were gathered at the Perkins Student Center Monday, joined by University President Patrick Harker and Provost Domenico Grasso.
After graduating with dual undergraduate degrees in international relations and women’s studies, Mayrack joined the Soles’ public service family by becoming the third James R. Soles Fellow.
She fulfilled her fellowship at the Washington, D.C.-based Center of Public Integrity, founded by UD alumnus Charles Lewis, spending seven months writing investigative journalism stories connected to the then-new Bush administration.
Soles was a mentor to Lewis.
Since that time, Mayrack has become a solo private practice attorney in Wilmington, moving back to the state after pursuing her graduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She volunteers for local political campaigns and helps get UD students involved, paying Soles' values forward.
“His legacy lives on,” Mayrack said, because those he touched continue to give back and pass on his commitment to serve their communities.
This year, Soles' legacy is even more poignant as the University endeavors to achieve community engagement classification by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. It is part of UD’s strategic plan to become an engaged university.
A task force was created this year to support the University’s application, due next April. The foundation awards the elective designation only once every five years to universities that demonstrate, as a whole, a rigorous commitment to community engagement, to addressing societal issues and to working toward the public good.
The task force is represented by multiple departments and units on campus as well as the public and is led by Lynnette Overby, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and Experiential Learning. Its work is already underway, gathering an inventory of the University’s current efforts and partnerships.
The hope is that the process of seeking classification itself will inspire renewed and elevated community engagement across the University, something which certainly would have earned Soles’ approval.
“He inspired many to pursue a lifetime of service to the larger community and to do more and contribute more in their own lives and in their work than they had ever imagined they would or could,” Daniel Rich, professor of public policy and administration said Monday. “...Jim Sole’s life and work exemplify the University of Delaware’s identity as an engaged university.”
Joking that he was the bronze medal of invited speakers for the celebration, following past Constitution Day lecturers that include Vice President Joe Biden and longtime Delaware political figure, U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, Coons recalled the last time he saw Soles before his death in 2010. It was at a campaign fundraising party Soles held at his Newark home on Coons’ behalf.
“He was the professor who always had his office hours open,” Coons said, referring to himself as the junior student, seeking advice from Soles on how to balance family life with his career in the public and private sectors.
Coons' memories of Soles launched into a reflection on the Constitution -- Soles found heroes in some of its authors -- and how some of the big questions of both then and today were left unanswered.
More than two centuries ago, privacy, security and liberty were of primary concern to Americans, just as they are today. He provided commentary on National Security Agency surveillance of American phone records and on the tensions in Syria around the country’s use of chemical weapons on its people.
And he discussed citizenship and civic responsibility, addressing the millennial generation, “the tail end of whom are in this room” and who have the “prospect of being the greatest generation.”
The gridlock they have witnessed in Congress most of their young adult lives, the wars the country has been involved in since many of them were in middle school, have done damage. Many, Coons said, are shunning public service as elected officials. At the same time, millennials are volunteering in record numbers.
“We have to be a more engaged, a more committed and a more civil society,” Coons said. “It’s not just paying taxes, serving your jury duty and voting but it’s also knowing who you vote for and conveying your thoughts in a constructive, meaningful way.”
Coons looked around the room, at the growing “family tree” planted by Soles and the young faces of those whom will have never met him but have nevertheless been touched by him: “We need you to take up the cause of civil engagement and breathe life into the body of the Constitution.”
That’s what Jim Soles stood for.
Article by Kelly April Tyrrell
Photos by Ambre Alexander