When I think of him, I remember the consummate political operator.
Gary Sherrer’s life seems a quintessential Kansas 20th century success story, bordering on Alger-esque. Hardscrabble, working poor upbringing on the mean streets of Topeka, father dies when he’s in high school. Mom wants him to stay home, but a debate scholarship at what today is Emporia State University changes his life and offers, what in hindsight, can only be described as a trajectory.
A professional career teaching debate, then private sector marketing, culminating in state government service at the highest level. After he retired, Sherrer also served on the Kansas Board of Regents.
He likes to remind his grandchildren that in college, he debated and defeated Laurence Tribe, who today is an American legal scholar and Harvard professor emeritus.
“My grandchildren are not impressed.”
As a volunteer interviewer for the Kansas Oral History Project, I sat down with Sherrer in his old Lt. Governor’s office digs at the Statehouse and reflected on his life. The project is a nonprofit that seeks to preserve the voices of those in Sherrer’s generation, integrate them into our cultural life and in so doing, sustain the democratic values essential for a vibrant and healthy society.
Sherrer is 81, lost his wife in 2010 and lives in Johnson County. He still plays tennis three times a week. Still enough of an operator to find a way to subtly remind his interviewer that he still plays tennis three times a week, knowing it’ll add a splash of color to any reflective column that may follow.
One of his debate students in Salina was a young Bill Graves, for whom he would become a lifelong friend and mentor. It was Sherrer who, after Bill Graves, Sr. sold the family trucking business, steered Graves the younger to public service with the admonition that to those whom much is given, much is expected.
Our paths first crossed when Sherrer was an exec with what was then the Wichita-based Fourth Financial Corporation. I was a Statehouse reporter, he was lobbying for multi-bank holding. We later became colleagues in the Graves administration. Sherrer serving as Commerce Secretary and later Lt. Governor, me as the Governor’s spokesperson.
Graves would decide the direction, Sherrer would design the strategy, I would communicate it publicly.
“(You) train yourself to think and to understand there are almost always two sides to an issue,” Sherrer said this scaffolding allowed him to sort his way through obstinance, thorny disputes, anything that stood in the way of an acceptable outcome. “So, you’re trying to sort your way through and see the advantages on both sides and make a decision. You get to understand logic, reasoning, and then communication.”
He’s a founding father of Leadership Kansas (Sherrer designed the original program template and curriculum).
The sprawling economic development in the southwest guadrant of the I-70/I-435 interchange in Wyandotte County, the governance of higher education in Kansas, can all be traced upstream to Gary Sherrer.
None of that happens without leadership, creativity and innovation. None of that happens without first visualizing the path to success and anticipating counter-arguments.
“I do have a concern about our open-mindedness and about being ignorant,” Sherrer recalled more than once, encountering the obstinance of the “grumpy old men at the café.” “Ignorance isn’t a problem. It’s the reluctance to learn and understand that becomes a problem.”
Today’s café is social media and it seems like the grumpiness is no longer contained within 20th century boundaries of age or sex.
“We are so ignorant sometimes and so reluctant to be educated. There’s just no progress with a combination of ignorance and reluctance.”
As the arc of his life bends toward sunset, Gary Sherrer reflects on obstacles overcome, minds changed, gaps filled. From the tennis courts of Leawood, he unfolds today’s equivalent of the daily newspaper, hears echoes from the past and reflects on a life as a problem-solver.
From Gary Sherrer, I learned subtle nuances involved in mentoring, that plausible deniability is the spokesperson’s best friend and that if you want to effect change — the structure and process of building an argument is quite often more important than the actual argument.
“It’s not enough to have an idea if you can’t get it to other people.”
Check out the complete interviews of the Kansas Oral History Project at www.ksoralhistory.org.