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Five Who Make a Difference

The 1996 Charles Frankel Prize Winners

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, January/February 1997 | Volume 18, Number 1

A poet laureate, a best-selling historian, a Montana mayor-philosopher, a catalyst of our Hispanic culture, and an essayist of public television are the winners of this year's Charles Frankel Prize. The awards, now in their eighth year, go to individuals who have stimulated and expanded public understanding of the humanities. President Clinton made the 1996 presentations at a White House ceremony in November.

Rita Dove

"As a child, I fell in love with language," poet Rita Dove explains. "It could be a good joke or a good story, just so it was well told. I had wonderful elementary school teachers who encouraged me, and I wrote for my own pleasure." She especially remembers her eleventh grade English teacher, who introduced her students to all kinds of extracurricular activities, including a memorable visit to a book signing by John Ciardi.

As a poet and a teacher herself, Dove has brought literature to a large audience, not only through her books and her classes at the University of Virginia, where she is Commonwealth Professor of English, but through her appointment as Poet Laureate of the United States and Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress (1993-1995) and her work with children and the general public. Dove recalls, "I cannot tell you on how many occasions I have read poetry in a church basement or high school classroom, only to have someone come up afterwards and exclaim, "I never knew poetry could be like that -- why, that was fun!"

In 1987 Dove won a Pulitzer Prize for Thomas and Beulah, a collection of poems loosely based on her maternal grandparents' lives. Among her other books of poetry are The Yellow House on the Corner (1980), Museum (1983), and Grace Notes (1989). She has also written a book of short stories, Fifth Sunday, a novel, Through the Ivory Gate, and a verse drama, The Darker Face of the Earth. Mother Love (1995) is a series of poems based on the ancient Greek story of Demeter and Persephone.

Although race plays a part in her writings, Dove remarks that "There are times when I am a black woman who happens to be a poet and times when I am a poet who happens to be black. There are also times when I am more conscious of being a mother or a member of my generation. It's so hopelessly confused that I don't make a big deal out of it."

In her role as poet laureate, Dove says that she considered herself as a spokesperson for poetry and literature and also as an activist, who would "go out and practice what I was preaching." Not confining herself to college campuses, she traveled (and still travels) to libraries and public schools, "to show by example," Dove says, "that it's cool to be a poet."

Dove brought eight Crow Indian students to the Library of Congress to read the poems they had written about their world and to visit their representatives in Congress. She arranged to have students in the District of Columbia come to poetry readings at the Library of Congress. "The audiences were huge," Dove recalls with some pride. "The students brought their parents and friends to hear them read their poems. For many, it was the first time they had been in the library, even though it was in their home town."

Dove likes to use television to spread the word about poetry. "The mass media is not hopeless in this cause," she says. She has been on Sesame Street, for example, and she mentions a series of brief poetry spots read by their authors that appeared on a cable television channel in place of a commercial message. She also recalls a satellite town meeting in poetry which went to more than three hundred communities in western Virginia; students wrote in or called in their questions. "This showed that long-distance learning could be done in the arts. It was loads of fun," Dove says. A tape of the town meeting has been made available through the Virginia Center for the Book.

"Poetry is not elite," Dove explains. "It speaks to the soul." She continues the work she began as poet laureate, "to celebrate art for all people, to raise all voices in the community."

-- Ellen Marsh

Doris Kearns Goodwin

Doris Kearns Goodwin, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in history for her biography of the Roosevelts, finds herself in the position of a scholar who has become a familiar face on television.

She branched into television in the early seventies while she was teaching government at Harvard and working on a book about President Lyndon Johnson. She did commentaries on politics and presidents for WGBH and other Boston stations and became moderator of a Sunday morning discussion show. In recent years her venue has been PBS's NewsHour, where she and other historians talk about the state of the presidency. During the 1996 presidential campaign, she explains, "We told the stories about history that were relevant to current events."

The path to her work in political biography began in 1967 when Goodwin, then a graduate student at Harvard, was named a White House fellow. At a party at the White House to welcome the young scholars, Goodwin found herself with a distinguished dancing partner, Lyndon Baines Johnson. The timing couldn't have been more awkward: Antiwar activist Goodwin had just co-authored an article for the New Republic titled "How to Remove LBJ in 1968," which was to appear the following week. Despite the brouhaha, the acquaintance survived. Goodwin kept her fellowship and was assigned to the Department of Labor; a year later Johnson brought her to the White House itself, two doors away from the Oval Office. When LBJ decided against running for a second term and left Washington, he invited Goodwin to Texas to help with his memoirs.

Goodwin's own version of the events of that time, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, was published in 1976, followed by The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga in 1987. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II appeared in 1994.

"I had gotten interested in the war during my work on the Kennedy family because of Joe Kennedy's involvement in Britain," Goodwin explained in a 1995 Humanities interview. She learned that Roosevelt's leadership of the war at home had not really been examined in depth. "And then, once I got into it, Eleanor's critical role as his partner in making sure the war was a vehicle for social justice came out.... It was a great added treasure."

Goodwin writes for a general audience, but her scholarship is meticulous. "I do a kind of research that is solid and disciplined, and I buttress the book with footnotes. In that way, the book becomes valuable for academics, and the facts become the foundation of an interesting story."

In addition to her writing and television appearances, Goodwin has a heavy lecture schedule. "I give one or two lectures a week during the academic year," she says. "It's a way of getting back to teaching, which I loved." She speaks at colleges, public libraries, and historical societies. "Many in the audiences have read my books or seen me on televison. I answer questions and we talk," Goodwin explains. "The interaction with people is terrific."

Goodwin has a short-term project in the works, which she describes as a book "about growing up with the Brooklyn Dodgers" -- a side of her life she talked about in the Ken Burns documentary, Baseball. The book is an homage to her father, an ardent baseball fan, and tells the story of her first fourteen years. "My mother died when I was fourteen, which was the end of my childhood."

Goodwin has also decided on her next presidential biography, which will be about Abraham Lincoln. "Historians," Goodwin muses, "are drawn to Lincoln like Captain Ahab to Moby-Dick." Her book will concentrate on the years 1861-65. "James McPherson, who wrote Battle Cry of Freedom, noted that most scholars have focused on Lincoln's presidency and his relations with his generals, with little emphasis on Lincoln and how he mobilized the home front," Goodwin says. "This follows the same topic as my book on the Roosevelts and the war effort." The Lincoln book will be a five-year effort, four of those years devoted to research. Goodwin emphasizes: "You need the foundation."

-- Ellen Marsh

Daniel Kemmis

Daniel Kemmis is that rare breed, a philosopher-politician. The humanities have shaped his ideas of civic virtue and community life, ideas that he has tested in real-life situations as a Montana legislator and mayor of Missoula.

As a boy -- "a hopelessly reclusive" child, Kemmis describes himself -- living on a small family farm in the high, arid plains of eastern Montana, he developed a fascination with politics, perhaps inspired by the example of his uncle, who served ten terms in the Montana legislature. Young Kemmis read political biographies of the Roosevelts and the Adamses, and determined, like them, to attend Harvard University. That was the key to political success, he thought -- even though the East was like a foreign land to him. He would be the first in his family to attend college.

Kemmis was graduated from Harvard in 1968 with a degree in political theory. All the action in politics, it seemed to him at the time, was on the national level. However, while on a visit to the Montana state capitol one weekend, Kemmis experienced a kind of epiphany: He recalls that the architecture of the rooms, the paintings on the walls, and the sense of history that seemed to permeate the building combined to give him a clear feeling that "This is where I belong."

Kemmis enrolled at the University of Montana law school and received his degree in 1978. By this time he had already become a member of the Montana House of Representatives, where he would serve for eight years, eventually becoming minority leader and speaker of the house. In 1988 Kemmis was elected to the Missoula city council and subsequently served two terms as mayor. Currently he is director of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana.

Kemmis's first book, Community and the Politics of Place, was published in 1990. The Good City and the Good Life appeared in 1995, and he is at work on another, this one about the West. "The Civil War closed off serious exploration of regionalism," he says. "I hope my book will reopen this topic."

His contention is that region, place, and locality ultimately mean more to people than the more abstract concept of nation. He likes to quote the preamble to the Montana constitution, which reads, "We the people of Montana, grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of its mountains, the vastness of its rolling plains, and desiring to secure to ourselves and our posterity the blessings of liberty for this and future generations, do ordain and establish this constitution." Kemmis explains that, to the authors of this document, the place they inhabited was an essential part of "we the people." This is true for all of us, he believes: The landscape, the topography, and the environment of our cities influence our civilization and quality of life.

The sources of Kemmis's thinking range from Thomas Jefferson, Plutarch, Machiavelli, Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, and Jane Jacobs to the poets Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot. Kemmis likes to explore the relationship of words relating to city life: civility, citizenship, and, most important, civilization, which Kemmis defines as "a good city, one which enables its inhabitants to live good lives together." He draws a distinction between "taxpayers" and "citizens." "Taxpayers," he says, "pay tribute to the government and receive services from it." But so do the subjects of totalitarian regimes. "What taxpayers do not do, and what people who call themselves taxpayers have long since stopped even imagining themselves doing, is governing." As a politician and as a citizen of the West, Kemmis wants to encourage communities to learn from one another and to work together, to govern themselves.

-- Ellen Marsh

Arturo Madrid

His family has been on American soil since 1603 -- before the Mayflower landed -- but he has spent much of his life insisting on access to the American mainstream. He is Arturo Madrid, an educator for the past thirty years and a Latino who refuses to let himself be deflected by others' expectations or by the Spanish language.

In a television interview some years back, Madrid reflected on the situation minorities face, a situation he calls "defining out": "It meant that by virtue of the fact that my name was not Smith or Jones, my presence had no validity in American life, that what I had experienced and what my family and the people around me had experienced was marginal to what took place in the larger society. We were not seen as part of the American nation but as an accretion to the American nation."

Madrid, whose family had migrated from Spain to Mexico in the early 1500s, is the third generation to have a college education. "In the 1860s, 1870s my great-grandfather got hold of a Spanish-language bible along the Santa Fe trail. That was rare and the Protestant missionaries became interested -- Hispanics were supposed to be Catholic. His second son -- my grandfather -- went into the theology seminary to become a minister, but that never happened. He became a schoolteacher instead."

Madrid has followed in the teaching tradition. He grew up in New Mexico and was graduated with honors from the University of New Mexico. He earned his Ph.D. in Modern Languages at the University of California. He taught at Dartmouth and Minnesota and, after a hiatus in Washington, D.C., as director of the Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, he returned to Minnesota.

In the spring of 1984, a friend and colleague, Tomas Rivera, died, and Madrid was called to take over an institute for policy studies Rivera was just beginning in Claremont, California. Madrid would remain there for nine years, turning what became the Rivera Center into a gathering place for Hispanic writers and scholars.

These days Madrid is the Norine R. and T. Frank Murchison Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Trinity University in San Antonio and happy to be back in university life -- "I died and went to heaven." He teaches two honors courses, and each summer he escapes back to his native New Mexico to write.

The business of language and, more important, the business of literacy continue to concern Madrid. Too many Latino kids, he says, still wind up in unattractive, overcrowded schools with teachers who resent being there. The youngsters get the message very quickly, he says, as did he.

"The signals are that you're not wanted in the institutions of the society, that there's room for only so many folks in the society, and that particularly people of a different national and linguistic background don't belong."

While the eighties have made the Latino community more visible -- he ticks off the names of Gloria Estefan, Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras, Julio Iglesias, Ruben Blades -- Madrid wants to see a presence in all facets of American life. He sees the issue for the younger generation as lying not so much in bilingualism as in literacy. His concern is for what he calls "literacy connected to the understanding of institutions." It is a problem, he says, not just for the Latinos but for Anglos as well. "There are an inordinate number of illiterate people whose only language is English." He reflects: "For my great-grandfather becoming a literate person meant he could defend himself in the institutions of the new society."

Meanwhile, Madrid continues to speak out. "If I have a public voice, it's not simply because I'm a literate person. I feel that it's important for me to participate in the larger life of the society, and I've found ways to get the larger society to listen. I become stronger, and my voice becomes more compelling, because I can draw on two different experiences, two different cultures, two ways of knowing and being. If I were to be denied one or the other, I would not feel as empowered."

-- Mary Lou Beatty

Bill Moyers

God and Politics. A World of Ideas. Creativity. A Walk through the Twentieth Century. Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. Genesis . . . The titles roll off the tongue, as sonorous and stately as the ideas themselves. They are the work of Bill Moyers, who tilts at the central questions of our civilization on public television.

In a television career spanning twenty-six years, Moyers has won more than thirty Emmys as well as an honorary doctorate of fine arts from the American Film Institute and the Nelson Mandela Award for his work. He was elected to the Television Hall of Fame in 1995.

Moyers has talked to poets, to philosophers, to sports heroes, to evangelists, to mathematicians, to music makers, to zealots -- to people in all walks of life -- as he pursues his search for a symmetry in life, a meaning.

"This is a country that's always struggling for its soul," he has said. As a young man in Texas, he earned a theology degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and although he never practiced as a minister, the cadence and philosophical framework still come naturally to him. He grew up in the small Texas town of Marshall; at sixteen he became a cub reporter on the Marshall News Messenger; at twenty-one, an honors graduate of the University of Texas. After the seminary Moyers took another path: to the Peace Corps, then to the Lyndon Johnson White House, newspaper publishing, and television.

Moyers served as President Johnson's special assistant and press secretary in the midst of the Vietnam war. In 1967, he left to become publisher of Newsday. He jumped from print to television three years later to do the Bill Moyers Journal and has never looked back.

In the introduction to his TV-series-turned-bestselling- book, A World of Ideas, Moyers writes that "in the laboratory of the scientist, the vision of the poet, the memory of the historian, the discipline of the scholar, the imagination of the writer, and the passion of the teacher . . . I found a kingdom of thought, rich in insights into our times."

Moyers sees the necessity for philosophical input into public life. "Democracy," he has written, "with all its risks, must be a public affair. Ideas cry out for an open hearing, and the true conversation of democracy occurs not between politicians or pundits but across the entire spectrum of American life where people take seriously the intellectual obligations of citizenship and the spiritual opportunities of freedom."

He welcomes computer technology as still another way of opening up the country's thought process; in fact he sees a democratizing of the creativity itself. "Every time you get more technology and more access to people, they are creative with it. Take poetry. It's been taken out of the academy, and people themselves are writing their poetry, performing their poetry, with the small presses, the niche publishing, the newsletters. I think the computer will democratize communications, if we make sure that there is public access to it and it's not controlled just by a handful of powerful corporations."

As his series go on, the themes grow larger and larger. In Genesis, the most recent, the questions are of the nature of good and evil, of temptation and the necessity of free choice, of the differing accounts of the creation and what they tell us about the relationship of creator and created, of creature to creature. What subject can be next? Moyers has not yet said. But there appears to be a structure.

A few years back, Moyers underwent a heart bypass, an experience that put life into perspective. As he tells it, about six weeks afterward while he was "fragile, feeling uncertain, scared," he ran across a poem called "The Art of Disappearing" by Naomi Nye. He quotes the last three lines: "Walk around feeling like a leaf. Know you could tumble any second. Then decide what to do with your time."