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An Evening for Senator Judith Zaffirini


Several years ago, I asked Senator Zaffirini how we as a University might, in the midst of her legislative career, honor her. After some discussion, I managed to persuade her to allow us to institute an annual award to be presented to one faculty member and one student. The award would be called the Judith Zaffirini Award for Leadership and Scholarship, fundamental characteristics of Senator Zaffirini’s public service.

Leadership. Scholarship. The first term is the far easier of the two. Leaders awaken within us a vision, exhort us to make that vision reality, and then empower us to act. John F. Kennedy, in his inaugural address, famously joined the leader’s vision and exhortation in one simple, lucid thought. For Americans: “Ask not what your country can do for you---ask what you can do for your country.” For citizens of the world: “Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of mankind.” And since that cold January morning in 1961, Americans have rallied to grasp that torch President Kennedy assured us had “passed to a new generation of Americans.”

I’m sure all of us have our favorite memory of Judith Zaffirini, the leader, the visionary, the exhortor. At graduation ceremonies here, in December of 1995, in front of the Killam Library, the campus so new we were still unpacking boxes, the wind was blowing so hard that students had to be asked to hold in place flags on the stage. Senator Zaffini was in the midst of what began as predictably congratulatory remarks. Suddenly, she turned to the Chancellor and President. “At Texas A&M International University we will offer doctoral programs and I will be present to award the first PhD. And we are authorized to offer doctoral study. I wrote it in the bill.” Admittedly taken by surprise, heads gratefully nodded an assent. We are today in the second year, having admitted two cohorts of students working to complete a doctorate of International Business.

Scholarship, by contrast, often inspires antipathy or worse, indifference. At a time when quips and retorts seem to dominate discourse in public life, “scholarship” has come to signal heavy rhetoric, toplofty muddle. For most Americans, a scholar is one who thinks far too much about far too little, who pursues in isolation obscure topics and personal tics of little value. Scholars, it must be admitted, have not helped. We too often huddle in musty little redoubts easily eliminated by a bunker-buster of plain talk.

Tonight’s honoree is most assuredly a scholar, but in the muscular tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his famous essay, “The American Scholar,” Emerson explains the three crucial forces which form a scholar: nature, books, action. Nature, for Emerson, orients scholars to right thinking about themselves and the world: “Every day, the sunset; and, after sunset, night and her stars. Ever the winds blow; ever the grass grows. Every day, men and women conversing, beholding and beholden. The scholar is he of all men [and all women] whom this spectacle engages...” Nature roots the scholar in his or her proper place in the cosmos. In the life of Judith Zaffirini, Emerson’s nature manifests itself in her oft-cited trinity: friends, family, faith.

Emerson’s second scholarly attribute, books, defines Zaffirini’s abiding passion. Like Jorge Luis Borges, she would prefer to conceive of the universe as an unending library. Like Emerson, books for her transmit a past through which we imagine a future. Books are “guide,” not “tyrant.” Books are neither to pin us down, Emerson warns, nor to reduce a system to a satellite. Books make us creators. Determined to expand our own possibilities for creation and for imagining, the Senator frequently sends books to friends and colleagues. When making a presentation as CEO of Zaffirini Communications, she invariably brings at least one hundred books, to share her sources and to enlarge our thinking. Her collection of dictionaries is legion. And our library has reached its present level of excellence because of Senator Zaffirini. When we moved to this campus, the University’s holdings were separated from those belonging to Laredo Community College, and as a result we were very much in need of books. Senator Zaffirini secured a special, $4,500,000.00 appropriation for the library at this University.

Action forms the third component of Emerson’s scholar. Thoughts, Emerson insists, only “ripen into truth” with action. As in nature and in books, Senator Zaffirini continually establishes new benchmarks for effective action: her unmatched record of never missing a vote, her uninterrupted flow of legislation to transform the health and education of her border region. Cervantes’ words above that door in this rotunda summarize the truth Emerson embraced. Life and action are inseparable. “Cada uno es hijo de sus obras.” Each of us is the chid of his or her actions. Happily for higher education in Texas, no one is more the child of action than Judith Zaffirini.

How could Emerson’s scholar, whose traits Judith Zaffirini so richly embodies, have somehow become confused with the often halting ineffective behavior of contemporary academic life? Scholars think and act decisively. Grounded in a clear sense of the natural order, expanded by books, emboldened to act, they require decisive action of us. This is Mr. Emerson’s vision for scholarship. This is the Scholar-Leader, Senator Judith Zaffirini.

We should end tonight with the Senator’s own words. Those who know her best know that she chooses her words with great care, and always says exactly what she means. I have chosen four of her favored expressions, each of which captures, I think, an essential quality of her character. Those who know her will instantly recognize my citations.

First, in response to the shock and awe which greet her 4:00a.m. arrivals at the Capitol during a session: “Outwork ‘em, outsmart ‘em, outthink ‘em. And during a campaign, outspend ‘em.”

Second, her response when asked: “Aren’t you proud to be the first Mexican-American woman elected to the Senate of Texas?” “No,” she responds. “I’m disgusted. Why did it take so long? And why so long for a second one?”

Third, a favored closing, in her writing and in her speaking: “May God bless you and inspire you to agree with my perspective.” The Senator hopes, of course that what God has revealed to her He will now make plain to others.

Finally, what can the future hold for young men and women growing up in this borderland? What is the Senator’s assessment of her own record and what are her hopes for future achievement? “If Judy Pappas, from El Cuatro can do it, so can you. If I can be Senator, you can be Governor. Our children’s achievements must far surpass what we are able to accomplish.”

Ray M. Keck, III
Professor of Spanish
Texas A&M International University
5201 University Boulevard
Laredo, Texas 78041