I am honored to be part of this celebration of the life of Tom Wolanin.
Donna, Andrew, Peter and other members of the family, you have the sympathy of everyone in this room.
All of us knew Tom during his long career. We admired his talents. And, today, we salute him for his accomplishments.
Tom was proud of his family, and he was also proud of his Polish heritage.
In the early 1970s, I met Tom when he had a fellowship on Capitol Hill, and I was working for Congressman Roman Casimir Pucinski. Tom knew everything about Pucinski’s life, and he knew as much about every other member of Congress of Polish descent.
Being Polish was an integral part of Tom’s personality.
Last year at our house, we talked over dinner about Poland, its history, and its food. Tom insisted that he would cook a Polish dinner for us. Some months later, we had that dinner at Tom and Donna’s house. Although he was weakened by his treatments, he cooked his specialties for us, and added iced Polish vodka. Tom wanted everything to be authentic, the food and drink, as well as its presentation.
That same commitment to detail and determination to succeed were Tom’s hallmark on Capitol Hill. For decades, Tom was the congressional expert on post-secondary education. I believe that he was also the foremost individual in the nation with the greatest understanding of this area.
He was unique on the Hill because he combined a first rate academic background with a keen political sense. Too often in politics, people gain power because of political skill but they don’t fully understand policy.
Tom was different: he could swim in both seas.
On the academic side, he had a PhD in political science from Harvard, taught at prestigious universities, and wrote a book, Congress and the Colleges, which is considered a classic in the field.
On the legislative side, Tom with his sharp political sense guided to passage the major post-secondary education bills of 1980, 1986, and 1992. He also had a major influence on other legislation in the 1970’s and later 1990’s.
All these proposals faced huge challenges before becoming laws. President Reagan and political conservatives wanted to eliminate federal programs. Financial institutions tried to increase their profits from their involvement in the programs. President Clinton sought to expand aid for students from middle class families, and advocates for students from low-income families feared that those students would lose assistance.
Tom dealt with all these strong forces and succeeded in creating and strengthening aid programs that continue to this day.
When Tom worked on a bill, he would bring to bear both his academic and political skills. He would assemble the staff of the Democratic and Republican members of Congress, and educate them on the issues they would face. Then, he sought bi-partisan agreement on the bills. Sometimes, I would sit in the back of the room as he conducted his “graduate seminars,” and marvel at his skillfulness.
Tom did not work in Congress just for the political sport of it. Tom wanted to help people who sought to improve themselves by gaining further education. As a result of Tom’s work, millions of Americans today have a better life.
Tom never forgot that he came from a blue collar background and that he succeeded because someone in his high school helped him to see his potential. This help included securing financial assistance that enabled him to go to college.
As the first in his family to attend college, Tom wanted others to have the opportunities that he had had. He would become angry with people who had advantages in life and didn’t care about those who did not have the same opportunities.
Tom was a respected colleague when we worked together on the Hill; and after we both retired, we became good friends. We did as older people do: we would talk about the past, especially about the political battles we had fought.
Having watched Tom for nearly 50 years, I thought I knew him pretty well. But, sometimes you think you know someone and they surprise you.
After Tom and Donna built this beautiful home, we were invited over for dinner. Tom took us on a tour of the house which included looking at his large assemblage of military weaponry: knives, sabers, bayonets.
I was startled and said: Tom, what’s all this? You give money to anti-gun groups. You have a Harvard PhD. You live in Arlington and are supposed to be a knee jerk liberal. What gives?
Tom laughed and said that this was part of his interest–or hobby–of understanding wars and military strategies. I told him that this shook the image I had of him and Donna.
I had imagined them on a cold winter night in front of their beautiful new fireplace, with Donna reading the latest studies in linguistics, and Tom concentrating on the Harvard Journal of Political Science, possibly reading an article on the voting patterns of Polish-Americans in Cincinnati in1924.
Those weapons changed my image. The new scene continues with Donna reading about linguistics, but Tom is paging through some military-oriented magazines. One article that catches his interest is The Future of Bayonets. Another is Are Hand Grenades As Good As They Used to Be?
Well, Tom, however you sharpened your skills, it worked. And, we are thankful that you used your talents to help others to do better in life.
You used your time here not to attain fame in academic circles, not to plot out how you would become rich due to your political talents. No, you used your abilities to help millions of Americans to achieve their dreams.
These people do not know your name or what you did to help them. But, on their behalf, I say thank you.
Tom, thank you for everything, including your friendship.
Delivered by Jack Jennings At the Event Celebrating the Life of Tom Wolanin
Cosmos Club, Washington, D.C., April 23, 2017