Before Tom Vilsack was named the nation’s 30th secretary of agriculture, before he headed the fifth-largest federal department, before he ran for president and served as a governor, state senator and mayor, before all of that, he desperately wanted to get into law school.
He had eight rejection letters. A University of Iowa interviewer told him there were other career paths out there, things to pursue other than the law. Then his ninth and last letter came: Albany Law School had accepted him.
“The first person I called to tell that I got into law school was my dad,” Vilsack told a crowd of 2014 graduates and their families Friday morning.
His parents adopted him from a Pittsburgh orphanage in 1951. His mother had struggled with alcohol. His father, who developed health issues later in life, had never graduated college. Life was sometimes hard. The one thing his father desperately wanted was for his son to get a good education, the kind he never had.
“I called him and said, ‘Dad, I have some great news. Albany Law School accepted me. I’m going to law school,’ ” Vilsack recalled. “He said, ‘Well, that’s great.’ He says, ‘I don’t know how we’ll do it, but we’ll find a way to pay for it.’ ”
The next day, his dad had a massive heart attack and died.
“Albany Law School gave me the opportunity to ensure that when my dad left this world, he knew that his son was going to be a lawyer,” Vilsack said quietly, “and I will forever be grateful for that.”
Vilsack is a “shining example” of what somebody with an Albany Law degree can achieve, according to
school President and Dean Penny Andrews. The Secretary of Agriculture delivered the keynote address to about 200 students and hundreds more family and friends who converged Friday morning on the Saratoga Performing Arts Center for Albany Law’s 163rd commencement ceremony.
A 1975 alum, Vilsack urged the class of 2014 to make the most of their law degrees by remembering that they’re not just lawyers, but storytellers.
“Behind everything you do, regardless of how you practice law, there is a story to be told,” he said. “And if you understand and appreciate that story, it will make you a much better lawyer and you will learn a great deal about yourself.”
After graduation, Vilsack moved to Mount Pleasant, Iowa, with his wife and joined his father-in-law’s law practice, where he met a farmer in bib overalls and boots whose farm was facing foreclosure. It was only once he learned his story — that this father of seven boys wanted to do right by his seventh son, the only son of his who wanted to keep the farm going — that Vilsack was able to give the case his best and most vigilant work.
“That story didn’t just have an impact on his case,” he recalled. “It impacted me so much that when I had the opportunity to get into the political realm, I decided I would focus on creating more opportunities for those who lived in rural America, that great place where people are surrounded by the land, care deeply about the land. They want to do right by the land. They teach their sons and daughters that if there is something you value, you can’t just take it; you have to give back to it.”
He said he has spent his life trying to create more opportunities for people like the farmer with the seven sons.
Personal injury lawyers tell stories of justice. Business lawyers tell stories of opportunity. For patent lawyers, it’s innovation. Discrimination law is about equality. Contract law is about the value of a promise. Property law is about security and the story of the American dream.
“There is a duty for each and every lawyer to understand the value and the story behind everything you do,” he said, “because if you know the story, you will never get into a situation where it becomes rote, where it becomes just doing it for doing it.”
Sheila Abdus-Salaam and Jenny Rivera, associate judges on the state Court of Appeals, received honorary doctor of law degrees following Vilsack’s address. David Schraver, the 116th president of the state Bar Association, was awarded the Dean’s Medal for exemplary service to the legal profession.
The class of 2014 announced a class gift of nearly $10,000 for improvements to the campus courtyard.