Richard Couto Oral History Interview


Parts one and two

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SCARPINO: So, as promised when the recorders were off, I’m going to start by reading a little statement. Today is Friday, January 29, 2016. My name is Philip Scarpino, Professor of History at Indiana University–Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI). I’m Director of Oral History for the Tobias Center for the Study of Leadership Excellence also at IUPUI. I’m interviewing Dr. Richard A. Couto at a hotel near his home in Mechanicsville, Virginia. This interview is a joint undertaking by the Tobias Center at IUPUI and the International Leadership Association.

We will include a more detailed biographical statement with the transcript of this interview. For now, I’ll provide an abbreviated overview of Dr. Couto’s career.

Richard Couto has had an impressive career as a civically engaged leader and as a scholar of leadership. He earned his PhD in Political Science from the University of Kentucky in 1974. He has held a number of university-based appointments, including but not limited to the following: Vanderbilt University, Director, Center for Health Services, 1975-1988; University of Richmond, Founding Faculty Member of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, 1991-2002; James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership, University of Maryland, Senior Research Fellow, Higher Education, 1996-1998; Antioch University, Founding Faculty Member, PhD Program in Leadership and Change, 2002-2008.

He was a creator and promoter of service learning and public scholarship before those practices became widespread. Dr. Couto has practiced leadership and studied leadership and empowered others to be leaders. I spoke with several of his colleagues as part of the research for this interview. To a person, they identified him as an inspiring and motivating teacher and mentor. One of his colleagues with whom I spoke told me “I smile when I think of his name.”

Richard Couto has been prolific as a scholar. He has published 14 books and 73 articles and book chapters between 1975 and 2015. His first book was Poverty, Politics and Health Care: An Appalachian Experience (1975), and his most recent is Political and Civic Leadership: A Reference Handbook in two volumes, (2010), for which he served as editor, author of four chapters, and co-author of two more. Political and Civic Leadership was the winner in 2012 of the Leadership Book Award for Scholarship, presented jointly by the University of San Diego School of Education and Leadership Sciences and the International Leadership Association.

In addition to recognition for Political and Civic Leadership, Dr. Couto has won numerous awards for his work and his scholarship. A sampling of these include:

First Recipient of the Servant Leader Award of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies of the University of Richmond. (April, 2002).

Winner in 2002 of the Virginia A. Hodgkinson Research Prize of the Independent Sector for Making Democracy Work Better (University of North Carolina Press).

Winner of the Outstanding Book award presented by the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights in 1992; and finalist in nonfiction 1992 for the Lillian Smith Book Award of the Southern Regional Council for Ain’t Nobody Gonna Turn Me Round (Temple University Press).

So, with that as background, I’m going to ask your permission to do the following: I’m asking your permission to record this interview, to transcribe this interview, to deposit the recording and the transcription in the IUPUI Special Collections and Archives where they may be used by patrons, including posting all or part of the recording and transcription to the website of the Special Collections and Archives, and also to deposit the recording and transcription with the International Leadership Association and the Tobias Center where, once again, all or part may be posted to the organizations’ websites. Can I have your permission to do that?

COUTO: You have my permission to do that.

SCARPINO: Okay. Now, just for the sake of anybody who uses this interview in the future, I’m going to start by asking you a few basic demographic questions. I’m going to follow those questions with some more in-depth questions about your youth, aimed largely at providing users of this interview with insight into a single question, which is: Who is Richard Couto? After that, I have some broad questions to pose to you. When we’re done with those, we’re going to work our way chronologically through your career, and that probably won’t be in this recording session.

So, let’s get started. I’m going to ask you the basic demographic questions about your childhood. When and where were you born?

COUTO: I was born on December 31, 1941, in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Lawrence is a textile town on the Merrimack River about 25 miles north of Boston. Lowell, Lawrence and Haverhill dot the Merrimack River as it flows from New Hampshire, Lake Winnipesaukee, into the Atlantic Ocean.

SCARPINO: Lowell of course is another famous textile town.

COUTO: Very famous textile town.

SCARPINO: Do you have any brothers and sisters?

COUTO: I have a sister and I have a cousin/brother. He came to live with us when his mother died and so he was in the household as long as I can remember.

SCARPINO: Are they older or younger?

COUTO: Older. Well, my sister used to be older, but she’s my younger sister now.

SCARPINO: (laughter) Oh, okay.

COUTO: That happens with age.

SCARPINO: I’m sure it does. And who were your parents?

COUTO: My father is Anthony Couto. He died when I was 11 in 1952. He worked the naval yards during World War II and was a welder, sixth grade education, quit school to help the family. He worked on stoves a lot as a kid and was known as a very strong man who could carry stove parts; we’re talking about these cast iron stoves, up two and three flights. I remember as a kid going with him to service some of those stoves, mainly old people in their homes, and never took any money except for parts. We spent a lot of time together. He would take me around after church on Sunday, and church was a big part of our life. He would take me to the bars where he had bought into the baseball pool to see how he did. He told me that he—remember, I’m younger than 11 now—he explained to me that he took me there to keep people’s cursing down. He knew that there would be less cursing in the company of a kid.

SCARPINO: Did it work?

COUTO: As best I can remember. I do remember his taking me to one club, again, Sunday morning. He said “Mac” (he always called me Mac) “Mac, I’m going to take you in here to show you the kind of places you should avoid when you get older.”

SCARPINO: (laughter) Good advice. You said that he was in the baseball pool. So, even in those days, you knew somebody who was betting unsuccessfully on the Red Sox.

COUTO: (laughter) Yeah, well they just drew teams and so it was a matter of chance, but yeah, we followed the Red Sox pretty closely. The Braves were still in Boston, also.

SCARPINO: I remember that. And the Brooklyn Dodgers.

COUTO: Yes. And my mother is Beatrice Couto. She kept home until my father died and then started working in different jobs, in retail. She then got a job at New York Toy Factory and essentially became the floor manager. She worked for minimum wage and would leave the house at 5:30 in order to make sure the place was open and running by 7:00, I guess. Then she got out at 3:30. She walked to and from. Her shop was in one of the mills that had been deserted and the factory moved in. She finished her high school at night. She was a very determined woman to get her education. She had left formal school in about the sixth grade in order to, again, support the family.

SCARPINO: So she was working minimum wage even though she was managing the floor.

COUTO: Absolutely, yeah. All my grandparents came from the Azores Islands. My grandmother and grandfather on my father’s side came from the same village, Vila Franca do Campo. The story in my family is that my mother’s mother would make a pilgrimage to the top of a hill where Our Lady miraculously appeared one time to pray that her daughter and my grandfather would not get married. It didn’t work.

SCARPINO: (laughter) Our Lady didn’t listen!

COUTO: I guess she listened, she just said “no.” And part of that was class. My father’s mother, her family took care of the property of a wealthy Portuguese person in Lisbon. So they had land, they farmed it, etc. My father’s father came from a fishing family and land was always better than fishing. Even though they were thousands of miles apart in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the people back home still realized that there was a class difference between these folks and they didn’t want to see that broken.

SCARPINO: So Couto, then, is a Portuguese derivation?

COUTO: Yes, very common in Brazil, but fairly unknown in the United States.

SCARPINO: When your family moved to the United States, did the Portuguese/Azores heritage remain important?

COUTO: Oh, absolutely. We lived just one block away from the Portuguese/American Civic Association Club. The weddings, the church festivals, we had all kinds of events there. There was a bar just below ground where I could always find my grandfather in the afternoon. A lot of special events; the one I remember most distinctly, was the time my father won a turkey in a raffle there. It was a live turkey, and we walked it home with a string tied to its leg and walked the block or so to our house and kept it there until it was time to prepare and serve.

SCARPINO: Which is what people did in those days.

COUTO: Yes. My mother’s mother lived with us and listened to the Portuguese radio hour from Lowell every Sunday. She spoke Portuguese as her preferred language and she thought I was pretty hopeless, not being able to speak the language. The adults in the house spoke Portuguese in order to keep secrets from the kids and so there wasn’t all that much incentive to learn.

SCARPINO: As you grew up and went on with your life, did growing up in that kind of extended family and Portuguese culture have a continuing impact on you?

COUTO: Absolutely. It gave me a sense of being both—a special set of bonds, but also being other. Lawrence was a very ethnically divided community. I took it for granted, but in my neighborhood, my neighbor upstairs—we lived in a three-decker tenement apartment—the neighbor upstairs was Italian, the neighbor downstairs was Polish, across the street was Irish, and then next to him was, we called them Syrian, but I’m pretty sure they were Lebanese. Then the rest of the neighborhood would be Irish, Lithuanian, Italian, German. This is in a one-block area.

SCARPINO: But most of them probably had their own churches, didn’t they?

COUTO: You could not fall out of the shadow of the steeple of a church in Lawrence without stepping into the shadow of another steeple. Are you Catholic?


COUTO: As I said, we were very Catholic at that time. I was very Catholic at that time. On the Thursday before Easter, you can visit seven churches and get plenary indulgence; all your sins are forgiven. It wasn’t a tough road in Lawrence. You could be done with that whole thing in 15 minutes. I walked past an Irish church to get to the Portuguese church or I could walk close to the German church to get to the Portuguese church, and reaching the Portuguese church was about the same distance as reaching the German or the Polish church, French Canadian church, the Irish church. South Lawrence was very Irish. My grandmother grew up disliking the Irish a great deal. It had to do with the language groups in the mills, and speaking English meant you had one up on all the other groups. The workers of these very early were organized into language groups. My grandmother grew up disliking the Portuguese foreman, who turned out to be the dad of—this is getting thick into the woods—the dad of the woman who married my uncle later on. My grandmother was not okay with that. She regarded an Irish-Portuguese wedding, or even an Irish-Italian wedding, as a racially mixed marriage. She had her prejudices.

SCARPINO: But you grew up in an environment that was ethnically divided and where there were significant prejudices present, and so on.

COUTO: Yeah, but a lot of it was taken for granted too. I think for the most part, I noticed the differences, but without the prejudice. Wonderful Lebanese bakeries, the foods were just terrific.

SCARPINO: So, just to remind people who might be listening to this interview in the future or reading the transcript, again Lawrence is in eastern Massachusetts. It had a long industrial history based on textiles, which as I understand it, was mostly wool. It was a scene of considerable labor strife. The 1912 textile strike comes to mind, but after World War II, Lawrence, like many other cities in that area, entered a period of industrial decline and not only did the industry go away, but the people did too, and the population fell. Why did your family stay in Lawrence in the 1950s under such dire circumstances?

COUTO: Let me go back to the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912. My grandmother was working in the mills. So, like every liberal progressive, I wanted a story of my grandmother standing next to Mother Jones and Big Bill Haywood and singing the old Wobbly songs, Union made, etc.

SCARPINO: Industrial workers of the world, for anybody listening.

COUTO: But that wasn’t her story. First of all, growing up, you never heard of the strike. It took an article from the Village Voice. A guy came up to Lawrence on an anniversary of the strike and started interviewing people and discovered that people had completely—it was erased from history—and people were afraid to speak about it. That encouraged me to talk to my grandmother. My mother had just been born in late December 1911, and we were very Catholic. So, here’s my grandmother who is not 20 yet, and she has two children now, and she’s going to baptize my mother. Now, to baptize my mother, you rented a horse and a cab, and the horse had its mane pleated and ribboned. This was a big deal. And you made a special garment for your daughter. That’s a real cash outlay for someone who’s working in the mills. It turns out that her husband had a drinking problem and the cash that they had for that got drunk up. So, there she was, without money, but she was determined to have this baptism, so they went ahead and had it, but there was no way that she could go on strike. She walked past the pickets during that strike, for the most part, and she still remembers being screamed at, and “scab,” etc. But it was her sense of responsibility to people from whom she had borrowed that money that came before any class solidarity. And she borrowed that money because her daughter was going to have the best that she could provide, again, in a church-centered, Portuguese-centered community. Believe me, when I was in high school and heard the Brothers and my teachers talking about the area where my grandparents and my mother grew up, which was Valley Street—they would call it Dry Gulch—it was just known as a place that everybody stayed out of except for your ethnic groups because it was so rough.

SCARPINO: That’s where they grew up and raised their families.

COUTO: Right.

SCARPINO: So the reporter from the Village Voice came up to Lawrence on the anniversary of the 1912 strike, and found out that people didn’t talk about it out of fear.

COUTO: Right.

SCARPINO: So, later on in your career, you wrote about memory. Did that suppressed memory that you learned about when that reporter showed up have any influence on you when you worked in that area yourself?

COUTO: What a great question. Until this moment, it never occurred to me, but yes. One of the primary reasons I write is to give voice to people who I think have a very interesting story that touches on the heart of who we think we are as Americans. I give them access to the printed page, such as you’re doing with me right now. And a lot of it was oral history, and a lot of it was done with respect, if not reverence, for their experience and to state it exactly as said. The profound wisdom that you come across in those instances—I wanted to hold that up and let other people see and admire these folks, as I did. Your memories, and how people hold on to those memories is such a fascinating question and a question of power and how we lose power.

SCARPINO: Can you talk a little bit about power and how we lose power?

COUTO: I forget her last name, but there was a young woman in the mill, and her hair got caught in one of the belts and it ripped the hair and the scalp off. The people at the mill said “go to the hospital.” So she walked to the hospital and that left a huge scar in her scalp. She testified to Congress about that incident and it was taken as an example of poor safety, poor medical care, etc. Her daughter used to brush her hair every night, so many strokes, etc., and always came across that scar, always came across that scar, and never knew where she got it. Here was a mother who had been part of a national struggle to change working conditions in a mill, and here was her daughter, touching upon the primary evidence of that experience, without even knowing much of it. Her memory of that was not passed on. And it was only when this reporter shows her the testimony, etc., that she got a sense of how powerful her mother was and pride in that, which can’t help but affect you.

So, we talk about lots of forms of power, especially in leadership; power over, power with, but it’s the memory that gives us the power within, and sometimes we can’t even share that. Sometimes, the locus of that power is in our mind and sometimes you feel it’s safe to share, sometimes we feel it’s not. So, a lot of these folks in Lawrence had that power within—they remembered that strike, they remember what they achieved—but they also remembered that it wasn’t safe to share after a while. I never learned of the Lawrence strike until I was in college. And then generally, it was a line about labor unrest in places such as, there was a New Jersey strike, and then there was the Lawrence strike, and that was it.

SCARPINO: So, the participants were unwilling to talk about that out of fear for losing their jobs?


SCARPINO: Adverse impact on them living in a community that was still controlled by people who ran the mills?

COUTO: Right.

SCARPINO: The woman’s name was Camilla?

COUTO: Yes, Camilla—I think the last name begins with an “F.”

SCARPINO: That’s all right. And she was a participant in the strike?

COUTO: Yeah.

SCARPINO: We’ve talked about what your mother did and what your father did. Can you talk a little bit about what your family life was like growing up in Lawrence?

COUTO: We lived on the second floor of a tenement. We had a gas-burning stove. My father was in the gas delivery business, big barrels downstairs, and we would run it up and put it into a burner and heat the house.

SCARPINO: He was delivering those great big cylinders of bottled gas?



COUTO: Range oil, you know, fuel oil. So a great big truck, and you would run the hose out and then fill up the tanks, and I helped him on the weekends especially. I really enjoyed that. So, he had that job on the weekends and then he was also a welder. We had no car. Our transportation was when he could borrow the pickup truck of his company. We were working class. So on holidays we would have lobster and my suits were tailor-made, which I protested; I wanted them bought off the rack like everybody else (laughter).

SCARPINO: (Laughing) Every teenager wants what he can’t have.

COUTO: My uncle would bring home bolts of fine wool from the mills, and we’d go to a tailor and snip-snip every Easter, and a hat. So, I was pretty well decked out. A lot of that changed when my father died. My father had a wonderful sense of humor. My cousin once dared him to do the vaudeville thing with the chocolate cream pie. So my father picked it up and pushed it in his face (laughing) and then we sent out for another one. He had a sense of humor like that. There was a strain between my mother and her mother, who lived us, and that was the cause of the strain. My mother had wanted her own home and didn’t want a mother looking over her. But my father got along with her very, very well and she had a wicked sense of humor also. It was good to see them argue because it would be so funny. They would get disgusted and impatient with one another. My sister was very, very studious, very successful in school. My cousin won all kinds of awards and was very athletic and I was somewhat envious because he exceled in his sports. I tried to imitate and had the curse of his name and all those expectations and I couldn’t stand under a fly ball long enough to catch it. We spent a lot of time at the beach, renting a house for two weeks, getting back and forth to the beach by this pickup truck. My grandfather, my father’s dad, loved fishing; probably some salt in his blood from the Azores. We would go to Rye Beach primarily in New Hampshire. He would rent a row boat and just stay out there for six hours, come in with lots of flounder, which we would fry up right there. You just can’t imagine the wonderful time. I’d go out with him also.

SCARPINO: Did he go out for the bluefish runs?

COUTO: We’d go out for mackerel runs. He was very successful at that. I mean, people would just wonder how this guy could be standing in a boat, nobody’s catching anything, and he’s up in front and he’s got two lines and he’s bringing in one and then bringing in the other. I think those were his happiest moments. My grandmother, his wife, would be there to cook the fish right there, just as fresh as can be. She was a very, very loving person. I could do no wrong. I could do no wrong! Then, the other significant person in our lives was, well—there’s actually two. (I need to take a break.)

SCARPINO: Queue is back up and we should be good to go. We’re back on again. I had asked you a question about your family and you answered that. What I wanted to follow up with is the kind of family experiences you just described, as you look back on it, how do you think that shaped the man you became? If we were trying to figure out who is Richard Couto, what role did that family experience play in the adult you became?

COUTO: I think my father’s death had a very profound experience. Well, I’m 11 years old, so how much do you realize at 11 years old? He was, I think, 39, and I thought he had lived a full life at 39.

SCARPINO: When you’re 11, you would think that, yes.

COUTO: Yes. So, I was standing with my daughter at his gravesite—I visit the family gravesite in Lawrence whenever I’m up there. And I was standing with my daughter at the gravesite and calculated the years as I always did, and realized that I was older than he was at his death, and I didn’t consider myself an old man, but I did consider every year since then as a gift. He had 39 years and I think I was maybe 42 at the time or something like that, and every day after 39 for me was a day of grace, given to me that wasn’t given to him. So, that was profound.

Burns criticizes the youth-centered suburbs as almost being too nurturing and too supportive, and that there seems to be in many leaders’ lives this traumatic disruptive experience that instills in them the lesson that life doesn’t go along a path, that sometimes things come along, you rode the path, shift the path, put all kinds of obstacles in the way. I think my father’s death was that. And that profoundly affected my mother too, who was always concerned about having enough resources, which I think in some ways made me insecure. Whereas my father—I talked to my father once about wanting to be a copilot when I grew up and he said “why not a pilot?” Those are the kinds of questions my father would ask. When I was teaching and standing in front of a class, I could picture my mother standing there and asking me, “Who do you think you are?” (Laughing) So, at one time that kind of eroded confidence, but as I grew older, I thought of it as an anchoring statement and a question worth asking. So, I became more appreciative not only of that question, but all that she did in shaping who I was and what I thought of myself.

Let me mention two other people who were very formative; my father’s sister, Mary, who was a nun, who was this heroic figure in all our minds because she belonged to the Grey Nuns of Montreal, and they were missionaries in Canada. So she spent her time at the North Pole. All we knew was that we had this Sister Mary who lived with the Eskimos in the North Pole. Then she came back to Lawrence and we saw a lot more of her. Then my Uncle Fred—my father’s older brother—who lost his wife, my mother’s sister—so my father and his brother married my mother and her sister, who were very close. Chrisellina had tuberculosis and Fred had a touch of tuberculosis, so they were both in the sanitarium, which is why my cousin came to live with us. My dad was larger than life and consequently Fred was smaller than life, until my dad died; and then I realized what a strong, loving man my uncle was. There are a few times in your life that you can remember word-for-word, a touch, just a presence. And when my father died, my mother sent Ed over to get my uncle to come to the house. They didn’t have a phone. My Uncle Fred came into the house and sat on my bed, and that was the only time I cried during this time, which is a shame. And he held me and said “Go ahead, cry. He was a wonderful man and he is worth your tears.” It was those kinds of insights, at times like that, that he provided me. He was a really, really good man.

SCARPINO: So, you grew up in Lawrence and you spent a bit of time describing what the town was like, but the question I want to ask you is how did growing up in that place—what did you take away from Lawrence when you left? How did growing up in that place influence the man you became?

COUTO: You know, I think humans are divided into two parts; those who want to stay in the place that they were raised and those who can’t wait to get away. I was one of those who couldn’t wait to get away. There was always something better out there, which is one of the reasons I think I wanted to join the Brothers as early as I could. The idea of going to New York for school and all the rest of it was very, very inviting. Then as I got older, there were just so many things about Lawrence that—I think I was looking for the things in Lawrence in other places. I think one of the central questions that inform a lot of my research, at least, is what are the social consequences of changing technologies? And, here you had in Lawrence in the 1940s incredible social consequences from new technologies in the mills, product substitution, competition from abroad. In many ways I took that question and applied it to coal mining areas, and I could apply it to Flint also. When you no longer need the labor of people in the United States, and given our economy, you no longer need those people, and you disinvest in their schools, their hospitals, their water systems, and all the rest of it because you don’t need their labor anymore, and that’s what happened in Lawrence. Everything just comes down to the level of the cost of the labor force, which has declined from what it was before.

SCARPINO: From the description that you provided earlier, it was possible when you were growing up for a working class family to have a reasonably good life. I mean, you went to the beach for two weeks in the summer, you had tailor-made suits, your house was warm, you had food on the table. Do you think that possibility has eroded as a result of the technical changes and shifts in the labor force and globalization?

COUTO: Yeah. The other thing we had was that when we went to the beach and we rented a house, it would be my grandfather, my grandmother, and then sometimes Fred. There could be two or three families sharing that cost, and that was just taken for granted. What was the other part of your question?

SCARPINO: I asked you if you thought it still possible, given the changes in technology and labor and globalization, for working class people to live like that.

COUTO: No. Lawrence is a wonderful example of community development and there’s a lot of good organizing and housing development going on; New Balance has a manufacturing headquarters there, but it’s not the same. It’s a real interesting thing to go and know the old neighborhoods, see them all razed to the ground so that there’s nothing there except the Portuguese church was standing there, and there were vacant blocks with nothing, and then to come back in another 10 or 12 years to see apartments generally for the elderly or some other vulnerable population. So it’s a very, very different town; again, international, heavy Latino population, Spanish-speaking. But it was a town where arson prevailed for a long time. People owned property that was worth more for the insurance than any other use. There were times when I’d be watching the news and see Lawrence and there’s a police line around a district that was just two blocks away from the neighborhood in which I had grown up. By the time I was teaching high school in the high school that I had attended, when we had a canned food drive, my students expected to be delivering canned foods to my mother, not collecting canned foods. She was waiting for people to come by so she could make her contribution and the kids told me “no, we bring canned foods to those places; we don’t take them.”

SCARPINO: One of the people that I talk to when I was doing my background on this interview was Steve Fisher, whose name you provided. He told me that you and he, at one point, attended a conference somewhere in the Boston area and that you took him and some other people to see Lawrence. My first question is, do you remember doing that and he said you do, but, why did you do that? What did you want them to learn?

COUTO: I wanted to share with them, first of all, we all shared the same politics. They would all know the strike of 1912, Bread and Roses, and I wanted to show them what the technology was like because I had just figured it out myself. What were the canals like, how did they turn the turbines, dump the water—have you ever been in this part of New England?

SCARPINO: Absolutely, in fact, I’ve been to Lowell several times and one of my former students works at the park. So what you’re talking about is the original water powered mills and the canals that delivered the water to the turbines.

COUTO: Right off Broadway in the Merrimack River. You can park and you can see the dam and then you can walk over to the side and see the water sifted off into the canals and it flows down the canal, but then also across to turn the turbines. It’s just hard to conceive of a river whose banks have become brick walls and lining that river for a mile or two miles, just that incredible infrastructure. Lawrence was built as utopia, at least the idea that this would be different from other places. There was housing for workers, boarding houses. Of course, the managers had the better houses, but there was a respect for the workforce that they had brought in. I also wanted them to have some of the best Lebanese food in New England at Bishop’s. I’m so glad that he remembers that.

SCARPINO: He had asked me to ask you about it. You studied with the Marist Brothers. I’m going to mispronounce this, but Esopus, New York? You went with them in your last year of high school, which I tried to figure this out, must have been about 1958 or something?

COUTO: ’58 or ’59.

SCARPINO: So, you followed that with two years in the novitiate in Tyngsboro, Massachusetts?

COUTO: Right.

SCARPINO: So that must have been about ’59 to ’61. Marist Brothers were founded in France, dedicated to educating youth, especially disadvantaged or neglected youth. I’m going to ask you about that. Before I do that, I want to ask you about your first three years of high school. What kind of a student were you during your first three years of high school?

COUTO: I went to public school for the first eight years. Then my sister, who went to a Catholic college, got this bug that they should be sending me to a Catholic school. Then, because my dad had died when I was in the sixth grade, they thought it would also be best to be in a Catholic school with male models. So, my sister put a lot of pressure on my mother to send me to Central Catholic. I did not want to go to Central Catholic. I wanted to go to Lawrence High School with the rest of my classmates. So, the deal was that if I went to Central Catholic, they would let me play football. So, I agreed to go to Central Catholic. Because I went to public schools, the assumption was that I needed to be in the dummy class, regardless of grades or anything else. I was in class with a kid who drove to school from Derry, New Hampshire. Now, in public school, in the seventh grade, I had a classmate who drove to school also, had his own car. He was a bit advanced. Then in this freshman class, I just excelled. The teacher would give us a chance for extra credit, I took them all. I built a model of the Strand Theatre in Shakespeare in Stratford? No, it was the theatre in London where he produced most of his plays. I got a 100 average on a quarter marking period, six subjects, 100 average. The next one came up, another 100 average. I made the newspaper. I was an academic star in this, got along with the teachers, mainly. My sophomore year I went into a slump. I played JV football that year. I didn’t get the encouragement to stay with football in my junior year, although I could have been successful, I think—could have been a contender. But my dad wasn’t there. I loved it. We started a newspaper in junior year and they would do two student profiles an issue. The very first issue of the newspaper, I was the student profiled. I never thought of myself as popular or anything, but evidently other people did. I loved high school, I did well at it, tried to start a hockey team. There were just so many wonderful things that I really loved about it.

SCARPINO: When you were in high school, do you remember what you imagined you would be when you grew up?

COUTO: I always wanted to be a teacher. I always wanted to be a teacher. There was a time I wanted to be a lawyer, I think, but teaching just took over.

SCARPINO: So then you did decide to study with the Marist Brothers, and… why? What attracted you? You mentioned that you wanted to travel, but was that the only reason?

COUTO: I was just really attracted to the men that I saw as Marist Brothers. They took great interest in the kids. I guess I wanted to do for other kids what I found those monks doing for me. They seemed to like one another. They seemed to have a great deal of community. I was still religious centered at that time, so it seemed to be a good way of expressing that desire to serve others. This is before the Peace Corps, this is before Vatican II or Vatican I. This is before a great deal of changes in the church, which no longer made membership in a religious order the necessary avenue to do these things. There were many more avenues to do them. I still get together with many of the monks from that period of time and we have an online network, as well as face-to-face time. 75% of us left.

SCARPINO: Those are the 75% of the people who were in class with you or that taught you?

COUTO: That were in class with me, and taught me as well.

SCARPINO: So most of them went off to actually become brothers?

COUTO: Say that again.

SCARPINO: Many of them went on and became brothers and then stayed with it; they remained brothers.

COUTO: I would say 25%.

SCARPINO: So, then you served two years as an officiate? What did that involve?

COUTO: Yeah, the first year is a college year. The second year is all religious studies. Then we move to Marist College, which was sophomore, junior, and senior year of college.

SCARPINO: Is that the Marist College in Poughkeepsie? So it’s no longer…

COUTO: It was changing when we got there. They had introduced lay students and then a couple of years after that they introduced female students as well.

SCARPINO: But at the time you attended, it was really an extension of the training and all male.

COUTO: All male. It had just transitioned, so they were bringing in non-trainees.

SCARPINO: So you attended Marist College; you earned your B.A. in 1964. You majored in history. Why did you pick history?

COUTO: I loved it. They had some of the best teachers also. They had two-credit courses instead of three-credit courses, and so you covered a lot more topics, perhaps not with depth, but I just loved history; still do. I got a little fed up with it because it just seemed to be endless perspectives on the same events and I wanted something a little more definitive.

SCARPINO: So, you spent three years at Marist College. What did you take away from that experience that stayed with you?

COUTO: A lot of learning. I just can’t imagine a better education. And everything we’ve learned about education suggests that the most profound effect of education is the cohort with which we go through. Here, you had 120 men who all were dedicated in various degrees to something bigger than themselves and they all want to be teachers, so they were all interested in learning and teaching. There wasn’t all that much competition among ourselves. This was just the spirit among us. It was a common spirit. It extended beyond the classroom too because you had to live with these guys. It was a dormitory; no rooms. I had a bed, I had a closet, there was a bed-closet; woke up at 5:30, prayers at 10 minutes to 6:00.

SCARPINO: Discipline and regimen.

COUTO: Yes. Sundays we slept ‘til 6:30.

SCARPINO: What drove you that was bigger than yourself?

COUTO: I always thought I would be part of this very dramatic narrative of—I guess redemption comes to mind—but that I would be part of making things better than I found them.

SCARPINO: Do you feel as though you’ve done that?

COUTO: Not as much as I would like, but yes.

SCARPINO: Is “not as much as I would like” Catholic guilt? I mean, you had quite a remarkable career.

COUTO: It plays a big part, doesn’t it? I’m a Unitarian now.

SCARPINO: But we did talk about memory earlier.

COUTO: Yeah, there’s a big change. I was going over my vita yesterday and, boy, there were parts of it I couldn’t even remember. But then I think, okay, what is it I take the greatest pride in? And I tell people this; when I was teaching at Mount St. Michael’s in the Bronx, and also Central Catholic, I started taking high school kids down to Appalachia as volunteers.

SCARPINO: That’s how you connected with Appalachia the first time?

COUTO: Yeah, right. So, in the first year I was down there, I worked on the dairy farm. We were clearing land. Then the next year I got down there and we built a pole barn. In my worst moments when I would think ugh, I haven’t done anything, nothing’s changed, I think of some 50 or 60 cows that are dry, that are cool in the summer, warm in the winter, and whose cottage cheese I can go and buy on a Kroger shelf from the dairy parlor. It’s not grade A, so it’s not dairy milk, but they sell it as cottage cheese. And I think, well damn, that’s something I did. And then I also had a hand in starting this program called MIOW– Maternal Infant Outreach Worker.

SCARPINO: Maternal Infant Outreach Worker.

COUTO: And the idea was very simple. We found one woman in the community; we worked with her to find four or five other women, and then they did a baseline survey, participatory action research among 30-40-60 women who were at risk for problem pregnancies. Now, that helped us locate other women who might be organized around this issue. It helped educate them about the problem. It helped us learn about the problem. Then we made small grants of about $30,000.

SCARPINO: And who are “we”?

COUTO: The Center for Health Services at Vanderbilt University. We did this in six sites. One of those sites is in Gary, West Virginia. This is where the coal wars were fought. When you think about Appalachia, this is what you think of. I was at a conference in Steve’s neck of the woods, on Appalachian studies, and the woman we first hired for that program came up to me and she said, “Do you know that we have women who are advocates for children in the public schools who were born in the MIOW program?” So we’re seeing a generation. And she said, “we just served our thousandth person.” So, I think of this guy at Virginia Tech, Mark what’s his name who received a lot of attention for the work he did in Flint, and he’s working on very, very big canvas. My work never made it to that size of a canvas, but I’m pretty sure that if it’s not a huge landscape campus, then it’s been—what do you call a much smaller painting?—it’s been a smaller painting, but in terms of the effect on people, it’s been as profound. Yesterday in the New York Times, they’re talking about… Nicholas Kristof had an op-ed piece about Republicans and poverty. He said they’re good in terms of helping low income parents with parenting skills; that’s something that we need to do. That’s what we were doing in MIOW 25 years ago. In many ways, when you ask the question, do I feel I have been part of some redemptive effort, I feel yes, but also I have this feeling of déjà vu that we reinvent solutions to problems rather than building on what others have done sufficiently. I think the home visit, for example, is key to any antipoverty program. And we proved it in this case; hard, hard evaluation.

SCARPINO: So, you were teaching high school in the Bronx and then in Lawrence, and as part of that endeavor you took your students to Appalachia.

COUTO: Right. Why?

SCARPINO: Why Appalachia? How did you end up there? If you wanted to do good work, there are lots of places you could have picked, so why Appalachia?

COUTO: Yeah, as a matter of fact, people in Jackson County asked: Why didn’t you just stay in the Bronx?

SCARPINO: (Laughing) That would have been possible.

COUTO: I got into this like I got into so many other things that I was the—people worked down to me in the food chain. So Brendan Mooney had watched this film in religion class about the singing priest, Les Schmidt, down in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, and this was the whole hootenanny thing. He was a Glenmary priest and he was standing on a swinging bridge in eastern Kentucky or southwest Virginia with his guitar.

SCARPINO: What was his name again?

COUTO: Les Schmidt. I still hear from him every Christmas. So Brendan says, “I want to do something. I want to go down there and do something.”

SCARPINO: And who was Brendan?

COUTO: Brendan at that time was a junior.

SCARPINO: So he was one of your students?

COUTO: Not mine. Not mine.

SCARPINO: Okay, so a student.

COUTO: A student. So he wants to do something. So he talks to his teacher, “Talk to so-and-so.” He talks to another teacher, “Talk to so-and-so.” And then finally he works his way down to me, and I said, “Okay, let’s do it.”

SCARPINO: And you wanted to travel anyhow… (Laughing)

COUTO: I wanted to travel. So I had gotten out of Lawrence and now I was in the Bronx, and now here’s another chance to go somewhere else. So there were five of us that first year; Paul Brown, who’s now Vice President at Notre Dame for Government Relations and Press. He had been the Press Officer for the Police Commissioner in New York. Danny DiNatale, whose father is very big in the clothing industry in New York, women’s apparel. And he eventually went home and he’s a cook in a diner and he loves it. Richard Sanchez, who, I heard from him about six months ago. Brendan Mooney, who became with Marist College and its alumni efforts. And there was one other in that group. So we went down there and we stayed two weeks and I got hooked. I brought a larger group the next year and starting staying the whole summer.

SCARPINO: And where did you take them the first time?

COUTO: Christian Appalachia Project.

SCARPINO: And that was located where?

COUTO: It had four centers, but where we reported—it wasn’t its mailing address—but it was Berea, Kentucky. I spent my time in McKee in Jackson County. Other people were further down in Rockcastle, but its mailing address was Lancaster.

SCARPINO: So, you went there…

COUTO: It’s amazing my brain is working like this.

SCARPINO: Well, but I mean, you went there really not knowing what you were going to find, I assume, and you were hooked. I’m going to point something out for the benefit of people who use this thing later on, and this is following up on a question I asked you about redemption and impact. You just recited the names of four of the five students that you took to Kentucky the first time, down to Appalachia, and not only did you remember their names, but you know what they’re doing now. That’s impact.

COUTO: Yeah. Paul Brown, he was the fifth one. No, not Paul Brown, um, Jack Meehan—it’s not Jack either. Jack is my friend and his brother, maybe Jim, was the fifth.

SCARPINO: So, one other thing occurs to me as you describe what you did. So you took these students down there, obviously it was a part of their educational experience; is that where you first began to experiment with what we later call service learning?

COUTO: Yeah.

SCARPINO: I don’t think it had a name then.

COUTO: No, no.

SCARPINO: Experiential learning.

COUTO: You know, I don’t think it had a name. Geez, there’s a lot to say about that. First of all, this group in McKee had graduate students from Yale architecture school who were down there building a summer camp; very smart guys. Most of the kids there were high school kids. But, what I said about Marist College and how you have this cohort of motivated people and common values and a sense of wanting to give, these kids were extraordinary, from all over the place. They took offense at the same racist remarks, they had the same compassion for people in poverty, they woke up at 5:30 to be out in the cucumber fields to be picking cucumbers before the heat of the day, just extraordinary kids. I wanted to be part of that. And I guess this takes a big jump because eventually it leads me to my degree work at the University of Kentucky, and then that leads me to the job at Vanderbilt where I remember getting this newsletter about experiential education. I wrote them, I said, “I don’t know where you came from, but I am so happy to have a name for something that I’ve known about for at least 10 years but never had a name for it.”

SCARPINO: I’m going to come back to that, but I want to ask you—so you earned an MA in Political Science from Boston College in 1969? What drew you to political science?

COUTO: I wanted answers. History seemed to be recurring narratives. I could study the French Revolution and come up with four different interpretations. Political science seemed to offer me a better path to perhaps narrower questions, but also more certain answers.

Interesting story about Boston College. I went to City College first in New York and prided myself because after a whole semester, I knew enough to ask a question. I did poorly there.


Okay, so we’re back on. Boston College…

COUTO: CCNY was a bust. I went to Fordham in history; did better, but dissatisfied with history. Then I got transferred to Lawrence and decided to go in political science. I made application—what was the sequence now? Um, there was a snowstorm, I know, and I was talking to the Chair as he was trying to get out of the campus, and he told me that I had been turned down. So, I pleaded my case and he said “All right, we’ll give you a provisional admission and we’ll see how you do.” So at the end of the semester, I went to him, I had an A and a B, and he said “Yeah, we decided to turn you down.” And I said, “I got an A and a B. What more do I need to demonstrate?” So, he reversed himself and I got into the program. The professor that I got a B with, I took another course with him and I got another B, and in that course on methodology I was tutoring other students who got As and I got a B. Now, I was a cleric and I wore my collar, and I’m sure that had something to do with that. Those were the only Bs I got in the program, both of them from him. I graduated with all As and passed the exams and all the rest of it very, very well. The department head later told me that they adopted the Richard Couto corollary in their admission; that they were a lot more cautious about saying no up front, given the record that I had compiled.

Then, the reason to go for the PhD was that I had a professor at Boston College, Richard Faulkner, who was much more conservative than I was. He was a scholar on the Supreme Court, the early Supreme Court, the very early Supreme Court. I looked at him and I thought, man, if a PhD does this for you, I want a PhD. By that time, I had been going to Kentucky for several years so I decided to look at a school where I could study Appalachia. I chose the University of Kentucky. Now, I didn’t know that I would get more leeway to study Appalachia had I gone to Yale than I did at the University of Kentucky. They did not want me going anywhere near the Appalachian region.

SCARPINO: Why was that?

COUTO: Because it would cast them as a regional university and they wanted to be national in scope. So they would send me to Bangladesh in a heartbeat, but they didn’t want to send me down to Knox County.

SCARPINO: So, their interest in becoming a national or international university prevented them from engaging with a place in which they lived and worked.

COUTO: Right. So, I pointed out to them that Robert Dahl, who wrote one of America’s classic studies, Who Governs?, based on New Haven, where Yale happens to be located, but I persevered with a lot of encouragement and was the first student to write their dissertation on politics in eastern Kentucky.

SCARPINO: What was the topic—or the title?

COUTO: That was the first book, Poverty, Politics and Health Care.

SCARPINO: So, your first book grew out of your dissertation.


SCARPINO: You went to the University of Kentucky, not only interested in political science, but also intending or expecting to continue your interest in Appalachia on a scholarly basis.

COUTO: Very much so. I sat down with the department chair and I listed out my first few courses, and he said “You don’t want to take this, you don’t to take this, you don’t want to take this; you want to take this, you want to take this, you want to take this.” (Laughter) Boy, I got so depressed that first month. It just seemed that this was not going to be anything like I expected.

SCARPINO: But you made it work for you.

COUTO: I made it work for me. Yes. And, when I started teaching, especially graduate students, I would give them the “days of October” talk, especially those who were in there for the first time, and counseled them that with patience they would look to other students, zone in on a few professors and make it work for you.

The Red Sox had lost, so they weren’t in the playoffs. This woman I had a crush on was seriously involved with another man, and everybody was trying to cram quantitative behavioristic methodologies down my throat, except my primary professor who was a phenomenologist, who might as well been a visitor from Mars.

SCARPINO: And his name was?

COUTO: Herb Reid. Do you know Herb?

SCARPINO: I’ve heard of him. And his name also came up when I talked to Steve Fisher. So, while you were at Kentucky, you withdrew from the Marist Brothers.

COUTO: That’s right.

SCARPINO: And why did you elect to do that?

COUTO: I was hesitant to make my final vows and I put those off for a year and then I took them - I kept thinking, I’m going to stay and change things and then I realized that these people don’t want to change. And that’s not a bad thing. Why should I take on the task of changing them if they are happy?

SCARPINO: What did you want them to do?

COUTO: Be more like me. (Laughter) Look outside the community; look outside the school. You talk about a teaching order of kids from disadvantaged backgrounds; we weren’t teaching kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, we were teaching affluent kids. Now granted, affluent kids have issues and problems as well, but I wanted to get closer to where the social problems were, Appalachia, looking right past Lawrence, and to their credit, many monks saw the problems of Lawrence and addressed them. That was one thing. Then there were two occasions that kind of brought things to a head. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were shot.


COUTO: We were in the room with a common television and one of the monks came in—a monk who I was not very close to at all—and somebody said “They shot Martin Luther King,” and he said, “Well I hope they killed the bastard.”

SCARPINO: One of the monks said that?

COUTO: One of the monks said that. Now, I’m sure he would take that back and everything else, but I was just beside myself. How can you say something like that? So I thought, man, this is something—there is something going on within this community that is really bad. And this guy has a lot of respect and everything else, you know. That was a Thursday and the next day was a Friday and we had a voluntary mass in the gym. So, without telling anybody, at the time for the sermon, I got up and I walked to the microphone and I gave a talk on Martin Luther King. There are times when things need to be said. I didn’t make reference to the monk, but that’s what inspired me. And I think it was the same day that for the offertory they arranged this plate of fruit and this was the time of the grape boycott also. And I said, “I just bet that they have grapes on this plate of fruit without any mindfulness that there’s this boycott going on.” So I found the plate of fruit, and sure enough, there were grapes. So I took the grapes and I put them down the garbage disposal and the guy who arranged that plate, another monk, God, he chased me all around the school. “I know it was you, I know it was you.” So, the priest came up to me after mass and he said, “Well, I didn’t know you were going to do that.” I said “Yeah, it was just kind of spur of the moment.” Then when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated a month later, he asked me to give a eulogy at that mass. So, those kinds of events kind of showed me I was going in the right direction in terms of leaving. And then when I was at the University of Kentucky, I just felt pretty comfortable being out of community and it just felt like the right thing to do. And I also could envision a lot more redemptive roles, if you want, within institutions, like higher education.

SCARPINO: So, after you made the decision to leave, what about that experience continued to influence you as you moved forward with the rest of your life?

COUTO: The Marist Brothers?


COUTO: A sense that my life should have purpose. I guess that is the major thing. Not so much, what is my purpose in life, but does my life have a purpose, and I would have to say I always had that sense of purpose up until the past few years in retirement, and that’s when my grandkids have come in. I was sitting with Cayden waiting for his school bus just yesterday, and we were talking about this, I said, “you know, Cayden, it’s just amazing, my dad died when I was 11, your age, and now I’m 74, and someday you’ll be sitting and you’ll be 74 and you’ll be looking back at 11 and you’ll say ‘What the hell happened between all those years and where did they go?’ and we call them life.” And Cayden is a deep thinker. So we just had a wonderful conversation about that.

SCARPINO: Obviously the Marist Brothers are a religious order. After you left, did religion or faith continue to play any role in your life?

COUTO: It played a big role in my life. When I went to Vanderbilt, I met the most extraordinary priest, Jack Hickey, Dominican, and he had chosen prison ministry. So he worked on a project called Dismas House.

SCARPINO: Dismas House?

COUTO: Dismas. They bought property near universities, houses, and they brought in three or four students and three or four ex-offenders who were in transition from incarceration to the free world and they lived communally; meals, separate rooms, each contributing to the other. They did that at Vanderbilt, University of Tennessee, and a couple of other places. He was an extraordinary man. You know when you see somebody enjoy their work, like the conductor of a symphony orchestra…

SCARPINO: With the enthusiasm of the spark…

COUTO: Yes, but no flamboyance at all. He was just deeply engaged in it and it was very meaningful to him. That’s what it was like with Jack. Deep sense of commitment to what he was doing, deep sense of commitment to Christianity. He enjoyed being a priest. He could be embarrassed by the woman trying to seduce him, straight as an arrow in that regard. He developed stomach cancer. He was in incredible pain at the last years of his life. When he died, I took off three or four days to go to Memphis where he was buried and then back to Vanderbilt for his memorial service. I was never close to the church again because I never found anybody like that. Do you know MacIntyre, the philosopher? Alasdair MacIntyre?

SCARPINO: I’ve heard of him, yes.

COUTO: Well, MacIntyre was at Vanderbilt at that time, and MacIntyre had been a Marxist and this is his Thomist period, and St. Thomas is a Dominican. So, there’s Jack. And MacIntyre would be there every Sunday. So there’s Jack preaching to MacIntyre and Jack would get self-conscious every once in a while and you could see that a little bit into his sermon, either his mother was in his head saying “Who the hell do you think you are?” or he was saying “You know, Jack, this is kind of getting like bullshit; maybe you should just wrap it up.” But he would also monitor himself by looking at MacIntyre to see how he was taking it in. That’s a big audience to have every Sunday.

SCARPINO: That would be an interesting audience to play, wouldn’t it? You said he had incredible commitment. Does that also describe you?

COUTO: Yeah, I gave myself 300% to my work and to other things that were important to me.

SCARPINO: Okay, so I’m going to ask you some big picture questions and the first one I’m going to ask you…

COUTO: I need to take a break…

SCARPINO: All right, let’s hit pause…

So I had just said that I was going to ask you some big questions and the first one’s either going to work or it’s not. So we’re going to give it a shot here. The first question I want to ask you, just to see how you respond to it, is the question that I integrated into my introduction of you. And that is: If I were to ask you who is Richard Couto, what do you say about yourself? Who are you? How do you think of yourself?

COUTO: The immediate response would be self-deprecation. A Boston Red Sox fan who has learned that life can be filled with bitter disappointments.

SCARPINO: And then comes the World Series.

COUTO: So I was a Boston Red Sox fan before the Boston Red Sox were the Boston Red Sox. Then I’ll sometimes introduce myself as having risen to the top ranks of obscure academicians. But who is Richard Couto? Um… I think primarily a teacher, a learner, a husband, father, grandfather, and a person who enjoys interpersonal contact of a kind of serious nature. Good sense of humor; I love to play; I love that my granddaughter has a sense of play. I love that my grandson has a sense of humor. We’ve done all these cow jokes based on inspiration at Chick-Fil-A. Why did the cow go to Hollywood? To be a moo-vie star. We have about 40 of them now. I try not to be—I’m a serious person, but without being—but being proportional and taking things in stride rather than getting overdramatic. I’m better than that. I think age brings that about. I’ve always had trouble with this problem and I’ve always had problems with this question. It was when I was writing my application for the Kellogg National Leadership Program, and it said “Tell us who you are.” So I sat down and I wrote this thing and I showed it to my wife and she said “You didn’t tell them who you are; you told him what you think. They want to know who you are.” So I started writing who I am and all this spirituality came out and I ended up saying who I am is summarized in the aspirations of the Sermon on the Mount. My other favorite prayer is the prayer of Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me bring love; where there is doubt, faith; where there’s despair, hope.” That’s who I am.

SCARPINO: Talk a little bit about the Sermon on the Mount because there will be people who listen to this or read the transcript that don’t really know what that is.

COUTO: Have you seen The Life of Ryan?

SCARPINO: I have, yes.

COUTO: Well, apart from that, Jesus is on the Mount and there are thousands gathered round him and it is the paradox of not only Christianity, but of life. “Blessed are the meek because they will inherit the earth. Blessed are the peacemakers for they will see God. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst, in my name”—which is not necessarily in Jesus’s name, but putting a Unitarian spin on it—for the sake of others, for some higher purpose. It just speaks to the paradox of life, which I think I’ve always been comfortable with; those who are first shall be last; those who are last shall be first. So I don’t mind going to the children’s table when there are too many bigshots and they fill up all of the spots. So I don’t mind going to the children’s table. I just think that sermon is probably the common denominator with the world’s greatest religions. I think you could sit down and come to some kind of understanding with Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, about what it means to be human, fully human, and I’ll just leave it at that.

SCARPINO: We’re going to talk a great deal about leadership in a few minutes. You know a tremendous amount about leadership as a scholar of leadership. When you think about the state of leadership today, how do most leaders measure up against that standard that you just articulated?

COUTO: Oh, very, very poorly. Yes and no. It depends upon what you mean by leaders also.

SCARPINO: It does, doesn’t it?

COUTO: When you look at people in authority, you look at the Governor of Michigan, about Flint, and you look at the mayor of Flint, Michigan, you look Rachel Maddow, there are people who approach that question from different perspectives, different positions of authority. Some are doing very, very well and some are doing very, very poorly. Mona, the pediatrician there, was the kind of leader and the kind of leadership that I try to support in my work. I was so interested in Mark Edwards’ work at Virginia Tech because, in a sense, that’s what I was doing at Vanderbilt in a number of environmental issues, but always on the side of the people. There were those who calculated the risk and those who incurred the risk. Mona was one of those people who sought to give voice to those incurring the risk. And that’s the side I would take, both directly with those incurring the risk, but also with supporting people like Mona.

SCARPINO: And she’s the pediatrician who did the lead research.

COUTO: She’s the pediatrician, right. And so we can focus on the failure of the authority, Governor Snyder and others in Michigan, and there’a a whole lot of them, but we shouldn’t overlook the leadership of people without authority in this case, who stepped forward and said to them, “This won’t stand.” She was the most outspoken. I was sorry to see that Mark Edwards became more of the academician, but it’s the role that we’re taught. We’re trained to do no false positives and all the rest of that. But he’s still heroic for what he did and gives people a leg up, but there’s more that he could have done in his leadership I think.

SCARPINO: I notice that you drew a distinction between authority and leadership.

COUTO: Oh, it’s absolutely key, isn’t it? That’s what Heifetz wanted to title his book, Leadership With and Without Authority, but they wouldn’t let him. It’s when we conflate the two that we get into all kinds of issues. And it’s not that you can’t have people in authority exercising leadership, but you can also have people without authority exercising leadership.

SCARPINO: Do you think that in many of the ways that we teach leadership now that leadership and authority are presented as synonymous?

COUTO: I guess the vast majority, yeah, and it depends on what venue you look at. If you look at all of the folks over here for whatever is going on, a lot of it is leadership training I’m sure.

SCARPINO: Yeah, there’s a conference here at the hotel.

COUTO: Right, the place is packed! I’m sure that there’s an assumption of authority there. I’ve come to the position that a liberal arts education is probably the best foundation for leadership and that we would be much better off with people who are willing to put their thumb into a leaking dike than wait for some big cataclysm to happen and then step forward with some kind of saving paradigm or whatever. This is the distinction between eventful and event-making people, heroes and non-heroes. I think when you look at the most profound change that has happened in this country and the world, it’s when ordinary people undertook extraordinary action, sometimes for common sense goals, but that’s always been the thing that really brought about change.

SCARPINO: I’m going to follow up on that in a minute, but I want to step back and ask you why you think a good liberal arts education is a foundation for leadership.

COUTO: Because it helps you explore your values and it helps you understand yourself, and I think that’s the beginning of leadership. I’ll give away the line here, but I was doing a consulting job in Iowa, Morningside College, and the president was arguing for a leadership program that would select 40 kids and take them through leadership, etc. And he said, “Now, this one, his person in charge of the program, doesn’t believe in that. She thinks leadership is for everybody, but I don’t. What do you think?” I said, “Well, if you go that way with the 40 kids, you have a real problem.” And he said, “What’s that?” I said, “Look at your mission statement, and your mission statement says ‘Morningside College trains students for a life of civic leadership… lifelong learning…’ It doesn’t say Morningside College prepares 40 students a year for a life of civic leadership, or whatever.” So he said, “All right, all right, I get it.” So what is leadership? I guess it had been cooking in my head for a long time, but I said, “Leadership is taking initiative on behalf of shared values and the common good.” I’ve pretty much stuck with that, and the liberal arts education helps us understand values, helps us understand those who share with others and where we don’t share, uses some perspective on the common good and reaching it, so taking initiative on behalf of shared values and the common good. So, that why I think the liberal arts—and I’ve done some serious work on this. When I was in Maryland, we worked with the federal agency, the Office of Personnel Management. They have competencies, and when you line up the competencies of successful executive leaders within the federal government and you line up the goals of liberal arts education, it’s not very hard to find that you can begin lining them up with one another.

SCARPINO: So you actually just segued into the next question that I want to ask you. As I was doing the background reading for this, I ran into numerous quotes from you about leadership, as you might imagine, just hit Google. But, it occurred to me pretty quickly that there are some common themes to those quotes and to your work on leadership. Because not everybody has done the reading, I’m going to share three of those quotes with you, and one of them is the one that you already mentioned, that “Leadership means initiating action towards shared values and purpose” or “Leadership is taking initiative on behalf of shared values” and “Any action, no matter how small, in pursuit of shared values and purpose is an act of leadership.”

Obviously, one of the themes that stands out about your writing on leadership is themes of shared value and shared purpose. I want to follow up on that. The question that occurred to me is when you talk and write about shared values, which values do you have in mind? What do you have in mind when you talk about shared values?

COUTO: For me, the values I hold most are the increased forms of social, economic, political equality. Now, I know there are people with whom I share those values. I know there are people who do not share those values. So conflict becomes part of leadership. But, let me stick on those values and who I share those with because it’s very important. I share those values with the people from the Bread and Roses Strike. I share those values. I understand the conflict that was going on in my grandmother’s head as she walked past the lines crying “scab.” She was for those values also. She wasn’t against those values, but she also had another shared value of personal responsibility for her debts and her commitment to her daughter, so that they were conflicting at that particular time. I also share those values with my grandchildren, certainly my daughter, although she’s more Independent than Democrat these days, but I share those values with my daughter as well. Sharing is not just the contemporaneous sphere, but it’s the history that we take from others and the history that we leave for others. I think you—it was somebody else who picked up on my teaching from Hesse, Journey to the East. We were teaching it at one time when one of my students had gone to Washington to protest the IMF and some of the…

SCARPINO: International Monetary Fund.

COUTO: Yeah, and some of the big wealth controllers of the world and she ended up in jail. Then they started releasing people and she refused to leave until everybody was gone. So, everybody in the class knew that Jane was in jail in Washington. It was a class of about 22. We were talking about Hermann Hesse and Journey to the East and the number of people who had gone to jail for standing up for the values that they shared. In Hermann Hesse’s book, he is sharing values—this is a guy trying to join The League, which was this collection of super-people across time with whom he hoped to share values. And then we started talking about people in that group and people who had gone to jail for their beliefs. We started talking about Martin Luther King and Gandhi and Socrates, and we started talking about all these people who had gone to jail for their beliefs. And it dawned on me, I said, “Damn, Jane is in better company than we are!” So another example of sharing values and taking that initiative and also grounding it in liberal arts, I guess. I may have strayed from your from question.

SCARPINO: You actually mentioned something about a teacher, and I noticed when I asked you who you were, the first word you uttered was “I’m a teacher” and then you went on from there. So, is it possible under your definition of leadership for people to share values that are quite different than the ones you just articulated and they would still meet your definition?

COUTO: Yes, oh absolutely.

SCARPINO: Even people that you may disagree with or find reprehensible.

COUTO: Yeah, and I forget what book I was working on, but I was writing and words were appearing on the screen and I said, “Do I really believe this stuff?” And I had that moment in finishing this paper that I’m working on. I’ll use the Montgomery bus boycott as an example, and Rosa Parks was in conflict with the bus driver. They did not share the values of segregation, but he was as much a leader as she was because he was taking initiative on behalf of shared values and the common good as she was, but they were just different values and the different vision of the common good.

SCARPINO: So, is part of understanding leadership kind of trying to come to terms with different sets of shared values, different understandings of the common good?

COUTO: That’s part of it. Another part of it is taking initiative on yours, not to be paralyzed by analysis, but to understand that this person may be coming from good will, but that the values are not yours and that there is a common good that is better than the status quo. Here’s the question that Barbara—I’ll get her name—but…

SCARPINO: At the Burns Center? That Barbara?

COUTO: No, no, this was from Union. She always talked about the New England Poet who all her writings were only posthumously published, “The Maid of Amherst” …

SCARPINO: With that much information, we can look it up.

COUTO: But, was she a leader? Was she—shared values for the common good? I mean, she just spent her time in her room writing poetry, putting it in the drawer, and then only later was it shared. So was that leadership? That’s a much more interesting question than was Hitler a leader? The old chestnut that we fall to.

SCARPINO: I’ve heard that few times. Well, I was actually thinking of a situation where a demagogue appeals to shared values, fear, anger, racism, resentment; is that leadership?

COUTO: The problem with my definition is that it does not allow you to distinguish effective/ineffective leadership, good or bad leadership. But I would say, yes. For that reason, Hitler was a leader. For that reason, Donald Trump is a leader. He is taking initiative on behalf of values that he shares with others.

SCARPINO: And then part of your definition also talks about shared purpose. How does any group identify shared purpose? Or purpose to what end?

COUTO: What I do know is that you have, let’s say in the Montgomery bus boycott, segregationists and anti-segregationists, that you’re going to have conflict between those two groups. Then within those groups you’re going to have conflict.


Are you good for a few more minutes?

COUTO: Sure.

SCARPINO: So, just some general questions on leadership because this is Tobias Center and International Leadership Association…

COUTO: How does the group come to a purpose? You have the boycotters and the segregationists conflicting with each other, but within each group there’s also going to be conflict. And I think people come to a sense of common purpose through working together, through conflicting with each other, and in working towards change. There’s this adage, “We make the road by walking,” and that can describe the goal or the destination of the road, but it can literally also describe the method, in this sense that the purpose—that we make purpose by engaging that effort and it’s always changing. One of the people that I learned so much from was Myles Horton. He led the Highlander Center which did a lot of training of labor in the ‘30s. He was way ahead on racial issues in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

SCARPINO: I was going to ask you about Highlander later, but you actually knew Myles Horton who was the founder of the Highlander Center, the original one before it was shut down and moved and everything. I’m going to back up and ask you, when did you meet him? And then tell me what impact he had on you, but how did you meet Myles Horton?

COUTO: We went out to Highlander. When I first took over the job at Vanderbilt and we were going to be working in the Appalachian region and we went out there. Mike Clark was the Executive Director there. Myles was still on the property. And there was a time when my kids thought they were on the staff of Highlander because…

SCARPINO: Your kids being your students or your actual kids?

COUTO: My actual kids. We were out there once or twice a month for the weekend. We traveled around. Myles came to Nashville and spent nights with us. We knew him pretty well.

SCARPINO: So, now could you talk a little bit about what kind of an impact—there’s a book on the history of Myles Horton and Highlander by John Glen.

COUTO: John Glen, sure, I was on his dissertation.

SCARPINO: Were you really? When the tape isn’t on, we can talk about this, but I was on the faculty at Southwest Texas with him when he defended his dissertation. I read it. All right, so, but talk a little bit about what Myles Horton taught you, or what you learned from him by association.

COUTO: Where I was going originally was—his estimation is that about every 15 or 20 years you have to start and begin organizing against the groups that you helped start; I guess the iron law of oligarchy that he was citing, although he was not a theorist much at all. That was one thing. He was a very simple man. Rosa Parks thought he was borderline crazy because of just the simple assumptions. People asked him, “How do you get black and white people to sit down at the table and eat?” and he said, “Well, there are three rules; prepare the food, set the table, and ring the bell.” Of course, he did a lot of oral histories and especially that one of Paulo Freire and Myles Horton. I had the great honor of interviewing Paulo Freire once, meeting with him and doing an interview for about a half-hour or so.

SCARPINO: For anybody who won’t know what you’re talking about, could you…

COUTO: He’s a Brazilian educator who inspired popular education, a Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It was banned in Brazil because of his pedagogical methods and he linked education to coming to consciousness of one’s own state of affairs. I guess if we link this back to a definition of leadership, he was a person who saw literacy as one way of people beginning to understand what shared values they have, what values that conflict with others, and what are some of the sources of those values? How are they grounded in economic, social, and political conditions?

SCARPINO: And he also had an influence on Highlander?

COUTO: Myles was the Paulo Freire of the United States, and I would say that that would be true because Paulo had much more influence around the world than Myles did.

SCARPINO: You went to Highlander obviously just because it was there, I assume, and you heard of it, but what impact did Myles Horton or Highlander have on you as you developed?

COUTO: Myles was first and foremost an educator, a teacher. That gave me a lot of confidence in teaching as an organizing tool, as a personal development tool. I have a poster on my office wall that says, “Teaching is like gardening; the fruit is within the seed, you just need to cultivate it,” and there was a beet as an example. By the time I knew him, he was a very gentle guy, and by the time I knew him, also I had run my gamut of heroes, so I wasn’t looking for a hero. I was okay with the clay feet and shortcomings; I was okay with them.

SCARPINO: Teaching as an organizing tool; does that define you as a teacher?

COUTO: My early career, especially at Vanderbilt, yes. Let’s go back to leadership. If I’m teaching, as I was at Vanderbilt with community groups, we’re very clear on the shared values. We want this pumping station to stop putting polluted water into the creek that runs by people’s houses. We’re very clear on that. We’re not doing seminars, we not doing epidemiology. We’re getting enough information to support our views and why we’re taking initiative on that. When I go into a classroom, there a much broader width of values. I have to respect the conservative Republicans in my classroom and the very progressive Democrats in the classroom, and I have to find common language that all of them can relate to because I’m not so much trying to organize them, as I’m trying to get them to come to a deeper appreciation of who they are and what their intrapersonal values are, as well as the ability to work with one another, interpersonal. But the more I taught, the more I came to understand the importance of the intrapersonal and working on that, that sense of being, first, again, going back to the liberal arts. That can be very frustrating. I do have this wonderful anecdote, well, a lot of wonderful anecdotes from teaching.

SCARPINO: (Laughing)… I can see, and will that be on the test?

COUTO: We had a discussion going on and it was going splendidly, and I generally left things up in the air and one of my shortcomings is not bringing things to closure. So, here we’re coming to the end of the class period and everyone is in small groups, the energy level of the classroom is sky high. So, I stop and I ask, “Okay, what do you guys want to do? Do you guys want to come back together and make brief reports or do you just want to continue talking in small groups?” This young woman, one of the smartest students I’ve ever had, Yale Law School, Law Review, all the rest of it, she put up her hand and she said, “Will you teach—will you just teach?” So, when she graduated, she brought me a graduation book, Teaching for Dummies.

SCARPINO: (Laughing)… We talked about your definition of leadership. Do you think that there are any essential qualities of an effective leader?

COUTO: An effective leader?


COUTO: Well, we have to start with the basics; willing to take initiative, some sense of values, some sense of the common good. Now once you get past those, what makes some initiatives effective, successful, and others not in that they are not all bound to the leader, obviously; it’s the context. Why was Rosa Parks’ effort successful and a woman six months earlier, her effort not successful? It has to do with the characteristics of the people. Mary Uhl-Bien is the person and her colleagues are the people looking at complexity and trying to understand the context of leadership as a dynamic system in which leadership is a necessary, but not sufficient, component. It’s a catalyst for change. The leadership of a particular person is a catalyst for change, not the prime agent. And I’m drifting here, so bring me back to your question.

SCARPINO: I asked you about essential qualities of a leader.

COUTO: So, the effective leader understands that their actions are part of a whole and how they have to interact with that. You know, the more you know about the leadership, the more hesitant you might be to undertake it because everybody who studies it over a long haul; Max Weber to go back to an early example, says that you know, go ahead do your best, try to bring about change, but just be aware that in most cases the change you seek bears no resemblance to what the outcome is going to be. I know that Max Weber observed that, and then Larry and Sheila Wilson, two people who lived on Yellow Creek who found that their goats were dying from drinking the creek water. When I asked him, “Would you do it all again knowing what you did?” and he said, “Probably not.” You get into it and then incrementally you keep going until you can’t stop. I guess it comes down to a question of perseverance; an effective leader perseveres. That’s one thing. An effective leader communicates those shared values well. An effective leader inspires others to take their own initiative, not follow, but to take their own initiative. Martin Luther King inspired people to take initiative that he never came in contact with and those people never felt that they were following Martin Luther King. They felt that they were taking their own initiative. Now, King could also be instructive in terms of the nonviolence and the direct action and all those kinds of things. I think the whole field of leadership studies is devoted to that question about effective leadership and, more narrowly, effective authoritative leadership, so there’s already an assumption of hierarchy and control, which is a real limit because it assumes power relationships. And I think in order to get to effective leadership, you also have to deal with that question of power within and also a sense of power, too, which brings us back to the question of shared values and the common good.

SCARPINO: What question do you think leadership programs should be asking?

COUTO: The question that we talked about some time ago, who are you? What do you stand for? Does your life have a purpose beyond success at work; if so, what is it? What makes for effective leadership, and we’ve discarded competency in the field, but I really think the OPM’s work on competency is really, really useful. It’s probably the best research done in leadership. You have a sample of tens of thousands of people over 30 years. When I went into that work, I thought, oh my God, federal bureaucrats talking about leadership, this is going to be a yawner. And then you see creativity, collaboration, conflict, just wonderful stuff that these people have identified and their ability to reflect on it, also. I think competencies, especially the work of the OPM, needs to be in there. A lot of attention to conflict, especially conflict that ends in collaboration. I interviewed some people who were exemplary community health leaders. I think there were 12 of them. Six of them would drive 80 miles out of their way to avoid conflict. Others would drive up onto your porch in order to have in order to engage in it. (Laughter) And Jackie Reed in Chicago told me she loves conflict. She said it’s the only way to clear the air and get straight what the assumptions are so that you can truly work together.

SCARPINO: Now, is this work that appeared in Making Democracy Work Better?

COUTO: No, To Give These Gifts. So, her idea and the idea of successful conflict is that it’s always a prelude to collaboration. Now, you can engage in conflict just for the sake of conflict, and you have no idea how we’re ever going to come together and work together, and that’s not the goal of the conflict. But these effective leaders, in my mind, engage in conflict as one way of reaching a sure base for collaboration.

SCARPINO: Do you consider yourself a leader?

COUTO: Geez, I avoided that term. When I received the Kellogg National Fellowship Program, we all showed up in Minnesota for a retreat, 40 of us, maybe 50. Half of us were shocked and dismayed that it was a leadership program because we had spent all of our time bucking leadership. We didn’t want to be leaders. My place in the university was as this marginal program constantly kicking the butt of the university and asking it to be more relevant to the problems within the community.

SCARPINO: So, this is when you were at Vanderbilt?

COUTO: When I was at Vanderbilt, yeah. And I went to Jepson because it seemed to be an institutional support for that kind of role. And here I was with these other people saying, “Man, we’re always complaining about leaders. Why the hell would I want to be one?” I have come to accept the fact that others view me as a leader. I have avoided authority, but I also see myself as a leader as one who takes leadership action, and that’s that definition of initiative on behalf of shared values and the common good. I wish I had taken more initiative and I wish I still felt freer to take initiative, but I think I’ve done a good share and taken advantage of those opportunities I had.

SCARPINO: Why do you think it’s important to study leadership?

COUTO: You know, I’m not sure that you could reach a fully human life without having some sense of your capacity for leadership, your capacity to take initiative on behalf of shared values and the common good. That’s because I don’t think you could lead a fully human life without some sense of what is the common good, what are the values you share with others in relationship to the common good, and when and how can you take initiative on behalf of that. That’s why I think it goes back to the goals for the liberal arts, too. A lot of it has to do with the intrapersonal development, I think.

SCARPINO: How do you balance the study of leadership with the practice of leadership? I’m thinking maybe those are not the same thing.

COUTO: I’m not sure about the study of leadership. I’m a little more sure about the teaching of leadership. When I walked into the classroom, I never thought of myself as walking into a classroom, it was always a workshop. How are we all going to come together around some understanding of the material? My best classes were when I went into a class with an index card and four words on it. These were just the central topics that we needed to get to. In that way, we were modeling a leadership that was participatory, to get away from the sage on the stage approach to teaching and get to a much more participatory, asset-driven—“All right, here’s what I know about this; what do you know about this?” So I see a very direct parallel between leadership in practice and maybe I would say teaching and learning. I think that’s where I did most of my practice of leadership, was within the classroom. The other place that I did it was working with communities. I always needed this balance, that I needed to write about what I was doing and I needed to do something to write about. If I went too long with one and not the other, I kind of lost the sense of balance. I only started teaching full-time when I went to Jepson and that gave me a chance to do some more reflection on the work that I had done, both writing and bringing it into the classroom. This balance was very important to me. Fortunately, I was able to, in most positions I had, have a foot in the community and a foot within academia as well.

SCARPINO: Was that customary for the other faculty at Jepson?

COUTO: No, I think I was the one who suggested service learning be a requirement, and then I was the one who suggested that we have a giant-sized internship. I worked with the rest of the university to start a LINCS program, Learning in Community Settings, where we would provide assistance to faculty who wanted to put students in community settings to work on projects related to their course work. Business majors would do marketing for nonprofit organizations, psychology majors would go in and teach modules in public schools on the brain and other things. What we found was that at least 10% of the faculty were immediately willing to take this up if they could just have the logistical support of making the arrangements with the community partners, orienting the students, helping with the transportation. These things that the faculty didn’t want to do, and we would do that with them. Not only was I unique in that, but no good deed goes unpunished, which I thought was my provost’s joke, but that was actually his philosophy.

SCARPINO: In the end, was the fact that your approach was a minority approach one of the reasons you left Jepson?

COUTO: No, that was a two-step process. The first step was when we finally got money for this program, LINCS, it was on the condition that I could no longer be in charge of it. Then the other thing that happened was we got a new president. The new president fired the dean and I took initiative on behalf of shared values and the common good and they were not terribly well-shared and I had a unique perspective on the common good, and I also made the mistake of copying the president. It wasn’t a mistake, my value was transparency, so I copied the president on a letter to the Board that I sent. And he put in a new dean with the instructions, “Keep Couto in the box, that’s your job, keep him on a leash.” There was no future there as long as he was there, so Antioch called and I thought that would be a wonderful opportunity.

SCARPINO: So, you spoke your mind on behalf of what you believed in.

COUTO: That’s right. A very dangerous thing. Oh, and I’ll tell you another thing…

SCARPINO: So, if I was one of your students, and I asked you, “Should I speak my mind on behalf of what I believe in?” what would you tell me?

COUTO: How effective will it be?

SCARPINO: Pick your battles?

COUTO: Pick your battles. If you feel this is one battle you want to deal with, just be aware of the ramifications, what can happen.

SCARPINO: We’ll come back to that. I’m going to ask you a couple of questions and then I think we should probably take a break. We’ve been talking for a while. On your resume, under current research, you mentioned a project called “Leadership and Social Change” and as part of that you are analyzing the answers to questions that were included…

COUTO: Yeah, I noticed that yesterday. I may have finished that but I’m not working on it now.

SCARPINO: So you did work on it? There were the 68 interviews with former Kellogg Fellows, so you were looking at these questionnaires?

COUTO: Right.

SCARPINO: Okay. So we’re going to talk about your scholarship later, but I actually want to try something out and see if this works. So, there’s the Kellogg Fellows program, which is actually sponsored by the Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan, and I believe Larraine Matusak had something to do with that.

COUTO: She did.

SCARPINO: Okay, and I’m going to talk to her later. So, you decided to use these interviews and you talked about the selection process because you were a Kellogg Fellow. You filled out the questionnaire and all that stuff. And you obviously do have experience as a leader. I actually looked at your Director for the Center for Health Services at Vanderbilt where you actually had all of these people you were responsible for and everything. I want to ask you the questions that they did, three of them, and just see what’ll happen. One of the questions that these Kellogg Fellows had to respond to was: How do you know your leadership has been effective? I’d like to ask you that.

COUTO: Has it made a difference in people’s lives? Is there that intrapersonal development? Kevin McDonald and his wife drove by and stopped at our house about three weeks ago. Kevin was active at the Center for Health Services in maybe 1978, 1980. We had done some exchange, but this is the first time I had seen him. He had 37 years, so it was 1978. He said I was the only faculty member he’s ever looked up. He went to Columbia. He went to a couple of other places. I’m not sure that that tells me my leadership has been effective, but it tells me that there are students who value the interaction that we had. I like to think that may be a measure of effectiveness.

SCARPINO: What keeps you going?

COUTO: Let me say one other thing about that. I took a group of Kellogg Fellows and some Foundation people around the Appalachian region and we got back to Highlander, I think was our base, and people started debriefing about what that experience was like. They said, “Well, it went this way. We would walk into this place and all the women would get up and run and hug and kiss Dick Couto.” We were going to places that had started clinics, community development efforts or whatever. Or when that person says, “When I think of Dick Couto, I smile,” I would like to think of those as measures of effectiveness as well.

SCARPINO: You touched people’s lives.

COUTO: Yeah, yeah.

SCARPINO: So what keeps you going?

COUTO: Complexity. Paulo Freire said, “We always have to problematize the future,” because if we think of the future as simply an extension of the present, things don’t look good. Things do not look good at all. So, it is our job to recognize that we can problematize the future, to say the future does not have to be an extension of the present. And not only can we say that’s possible, but we know it’s inevitable because complexity theory and chaos theory just tells us that the unforeseen in always going to happen. There are going to be new patterns and the things that we find in the patterns presently will reveal new realities that we didn’t expect, and that is our hope. Our hope is in the unknowable about the future, the problems of the future.

SCARPINO: And you just connected chaos theory to the liberal arts.

COUTO: Yes, and to welcome it and to recognize that this is what makes us human, to deal with these things.

SCARPINO: So, last question…

COUTO: Let me just say, I had conversations with Margaret Wheatley about a year and a half ago, two years, at the ILA. Talk about a downer!

SCARPINO: Your conversation with her was a downer?

COUTO: When you were in…

SCARPINO: I interviewed her in San Diego.

COUTO: San Diego. She doesn’t use the word “hope.” Do you remember that?

SCARPINO: I don’t, actually. I was there, but I didn’t…

COUTO: She had a small session of us after the Legacy Award and then she gave a talk and she kept stressing that she does not use the word hope. And, I can be discouraged, but I don’t know, there’s a resilience there that I can’t take credit for, it just happens. And after a little while, I say “I have to do something, I have to do something.” I just don’t think we can live without hope, and I think our hope is in problematizing the future.

SCARPINO: So, when I ask you who is Richard Couto, hope is somewhere in the heart of the man.

COUTO: Yeah.

SCARPINO: What’s the one piece of advice you would offer someone interested in a leadership position?

COUTO: Start where you are. Leadership and position may be oxymoron. And don’t think that you have to assume a position before exercising leadership. You exercise leadership in the classroom as a student when you come in. Do you take initiative on behalf of making this class a success, not your own grade, but the common good within the classroom?

SCARPINO: We’ve been talking for more than two hours by quite a bit.

COUTO: It doesn’t seem it.

SCARPINO: So, I think we should take a break and I want to thank you and look forward to talking to you again.

COUTO: Wow, this is wonderful. Wait until we start talking about our grandkids.

SCARPINO: It’ll be longer than two hours, won’t it?

COUTO: Yeah.

SCARPINO: All right, let me just stop the recording.




SCARPINO: And we’ve got a second live recorder. So, to orient people, this is the second session with Richard Couto. We are in a hotel near his home in Mechanicsburg, Virginia, on the afternoon of January 29th. As I said when the recorder was off, I wanted to ask you one more question about growing up and your youth, and so on, and that really comes out of something that I read in your book Making Democracy Work which you published in 1999. One of the things, in addition to the content, that caught my attention was, in the acknowledgements where you said, and I’m quoting from you, “I thought a lot about Brother Michael Kiernan, F.M.S., who taught me English in high school.” And in reflecting on Brother Kiernan you also said that he taught you, and I quote again, “the ability to laugh at ourselves, made the serious business of life manageable and success at it possible.” Can you tell me a little bit about who must have been a very remarkable man that he…

COUTO: He was, yeah, and he was the best there was about Marist education. He was from Lawrence himself and working class family like the rest of us, but reached for that intellectual life and encouraged others to do the same. Very funny, very friendly. I don’t remember him carrying a book bag, but he would carry an armful of books and put them on the desk. He had an advanced class we would call the brain class, sophomore year, and we were to read a book a week. Now, a high school kid, reading a book a week as an assignment, but that was the expectation that he had and we met it. He was the first to meet you after class and talk with you and encourage you. He was just everything you would hope for in a teacher. The bell rang, you were off to a fast start and you didn’t stop until the bell rang to end the class. And in between time it was all content and humor as well.

That reminds me of another story. I wasn’t very good in science and I had a physics teacher who was also the basketball coach. I had become involved with the basketball team somehow. So, I would go into physics class and he would call me down and give me all the clippings for our next opponent from the newspaper and it was my job, during class, to sit there and read the descriptions and summarize the box scores so that he knew who were the leading point scorers and all the rest. So, essentially, I was doing some scouting for the team every class—or, every time, we’d play two or three games a week, so as often as that. And no matter now lousy I did in physics, I always got an 88. I could not even hand in a test and I would have gotten an 88, which was fine until when I really started studying for it, he gave me an 88 and I thought I deserved better.

SCARPINO: (Laughter) When you talked about Brother Kiernan again, you said the ability to laugh at ourselves made the serious business of life manageable and success possible. So, did he teach you to laugh at yourself? Is that one of the keys to you?

COUTO: Yes. I remember we had to write a description of this picture and he read my handwritten word “lonely” as “lovely.” He took me up on it and said, “That’s not a lovely country road.” And I got into it with him, “That was a lonely country road,” and we went back and forth. He laughed at my mistake, but I didn’t take offense at it and I could come back and he would come back. He took it very seriously that we had great things within us and he was not going to let them stay there undisturbed. He was going to call them out.

SCARPINO: Do you treat your own students the same way?

COUTO: Yeah, I am often first to see something in them that they don’t.

SCARPINO: So, if he taught all of you to laugh at yourselves, to make the serious business of life manageable and success at least possible, do you consider yourself to be a success measured against what he might have imagined for you?

COUTO: I went to a reunion of the high school sometime past, and I didn’t realize it but many of the Brothers who I really looked up to—these were our intellectual leaders—they looked back and they said, “You know, it was clear that you were the marked one in class.” I never knew that. And many of them have followed my career so they know that I’ve been published and been around the academic circles. I guess for the class that we had, I’ve reached as high as you go in academia.

SCARPINO: I’m going to do something real quick here. I’m hitting pause…

I’m going to trade pens with you. The clicking…

COUTO: Oh, have I been clicking?

SCARPINO: I listened to the recording, and well, I do it too, that’s why I—I’ll sit here and… I don’t want to be rude or anything, but I just thought maybe we’d just give you a different pen.