Saturday, December 19, 2020

TRIBUTE TO A GREAT AMERICAN-DON FOWLER

A few years ago, I received an honor from my alma mater, the University of South Carolina College of Arts and Sciences. I was particularly grateful that Don Fowler was in attendance. In the ceremony, I reflected on my time at USC. I talked about my great professors, and especially Don "who combined the best of academia and a keen real- world understanding, and who encouraged my involvement in campaigns and political organizations". Even after leaving South Carolina for DC, it was my good fortune to continue to cross paths with Don. He was not just a wonderful professor but had a long list of other accomplishments including service as the Chair and Executive Director of the SC Democratic Party, National Chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and CEO of the Democratic National Convention in 1988. He had a distinguished career in the military (Colonel- US Army Reserve) and was also a successful business owner (government affairs/communciations). Despite his own amazing career and powerful positions, he had a unique, God given ability to make whomever he was with (including every student he ever taught) feel important and valued. He regularly called me about some student of his who wanted to work in DC. He would give that student a glowing reference and ask if I could meet with him/her to give career advice, help with their "networking", and help with their job search in DC. Of course, I always obliged, because Don did the same for me, and for so many others too. He was "linked in" personified well before "Linked In! He was always generous with his time, and was an inspiration in his willingness to help others on their paths in life. He was a mentor to me from the mid-70's all the way up to his recent passing. In fact, I needed some of his advice/guidance just two weeks ago . I emailed him and we also talked by phone. He said he was weak from the chemo treatments. He said: "I don't get around much these days" and the leukemia had "required a reordering of my life." Don, who was always positive, then added: " I still can do a lot of things" but he was disappointed that he "had to drop my classes at USC". He then reminded me that he had been at "Carolina since 1964."
I thank God that I had the opportunity at the end of our call to tell him how grateful I was for all he had done for me, and what he had meant to me for so many years. He was a great educator, a wonderful, loyal friend, a distinguished military leader, and an eternal optimist who always looked for the good in people (even Republicans!). We lost a great American this week, but his positive impact on the lives of so many will continue for many years to come. I join many others who are giving thanks for the life and significant contributions of Don Fowler.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

REFLECTIONS OF A FORMER SENATE GOP STAFFER

                                                                                                                                           November 2020 

                                                                                                                                            (revised Jan 2021)

 

 

 

 

                        REFLECTIONS OF A FORMER GOP STAFFER

 

For nearly ten years, I served as a Senate GOP staffer (Committee counsel, Legislative Director and Chief of Staff) and had the opportunity to get a close look at how President-elect Biden interacted with my former bosses, and GOP staff, too.   I have a lot of friends who are strong Trump supporters, especially from my home state of South Carolina.  They believed Trump’s narrative about the election and are frightened about the prospects of a Biden Presidency.  Since the election, and for those friends who were willing to listen, I have tried to recount some of my own personal observations of the President-elect and his character in the hopes that it might allay a bit of their anxiety about the future. Surprisingly, I have received some positive responses.  With his inauguration coming up next week, and in wake of the tragic violence at the Capitol, people of good faith should do whatever we can to contribute to the healing of divisions in this country.  Maybe in a small way and without partisan rancor, these reflections might help serve that goal.

 

I understand that many progressives won’t like to be reminded of Joe Biden's friendships with Republicans.  Die-hard Trump supporters will also dislike anything positive said about the President-elect.  Cynics will think that these are thirty-year old, pollyannish remembrances, and “that Senate” does not exist anymore. I am an optimist, and refuse to believe that the hyper-partisanship we have experienced in the last few years has to be the norm. I believe our new President looks for the good in people-including Republicans. His approach is timeless, effective for legislating, will be a refreshing change, and most importantly, might help to heal our nation---precisely what we need right now. 

I came here in 1985 to work for Senator Strom Thurmond, a strong GOP conservative. He was already 83, and there were Senators and staff who (offensively, in my view) made light of his age and even his mental acuity. Senator Biden was the opposite. He was respectful and gracious to Senator Thurmond --always. Not only in public, when the media was watching, but also behind closed doors when it was just Biden, Thurmond and a few top staff. They certainly did not agree politically on much of anything, and it well documented that Thurmond could be strident in his views. However, when dealing with Biden, he was softer and was more willing to reach an accord.  I think especially in his later years, when I worked for him, Thurmond wanted to leave a more constructive legacy on race and other matters and was more willing to compromise—especially with Biden, whom he liked and trusted.  Before Thurmond died, and his funeral arrangements were being planned, he asked his friend to be one of his eulogists. I am sure Thurmond wanted
to show that he had garnered the respect of both Republicans and Democrats during his life. Biden could have easily said "no", which was the more expedient political choice. Instead, he was willing to be a friend.  His eulogy for Thurmond was memorable and moving.

 
Later I worked for Senator Al Simpson (R-Wyo) as his Chief of Staff/Chief Counsel while he was the GOP Whip. In my job, I spent much time in the Senate Chamber where Senators assembled to cast their votes. Then as now, the GOP leadership staff sat on one side of the chamber (in the back) and the Democratic staff sat on the other. Only one Democratic Senator regularly came over and sat with us GOP staffers, often just to chat, to ask how we were, to find out about the voting schedule, etc. That was Joe Biden. He had an impressive ability to greet us lowly staffers by our first names. Most Senators (on both sides of the aisle) didn't treat staff of the other party so courteously. Biden stood out for us GOP aides.  He and Simpson had a very warm personal relationship. They trusted each other and regularly worked together on legislation. A few years ago, then Vice President Biden personally asked his friend Simpson to co-chair the Bipartisan Commission to reduce the Federal Deficit (Simpson-Bowles). Fast forward to today-- Senate GOP Leader McConnell (who was also in the Senate then) also has a long standing, positive relationship with President-elect Biden.  I think they trust each other, and that is a basis for optimism. 

After the mob violence of last week, instigated by divisive rhetoric and resulting in bloodshed, death, and members of both parties huddled together in fear for their lives, maybe what is called for now is a bipartisan reaction—a concerted commitment by Members of Congress and the new Administration to lead by example-----to show that our democracy endures, and to help heal divisions. Maybe they can practice some of the values of civility, graciousness, a willingness to listen, and even to compromise occasionally, all of which are a part of President-elect Biden’s DNA.

 

 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

        Eulogy for Stella Tongour- Fifth Anniversary of her Passing

This was posted on my blog previously, but somehow it got deleted.  Re-posting it now. Church of the Holy Apostles, Barnwell, SC. Delivered on February 8, 2012





                                          
                                  







It’s  so very hard to adequately capture the fully led life of such an amazing  person as Stella Tongour in just a handful of minutes.  When I look back on her life, I am sure that she helped keep me fed, gave me rides to activities, sewed on Scout patches, and did all those  things that mothers often do: cook, chauffeur, nurse, tailor, etc..  But it is not those things which will keep  mother’s memory alive.  She will continue to inspire my family and me and shape our lives, and hopefully shape the lives of others whom she touched,  in the variety of ways that made her life so extraordinary.  
To her, life wasn’t about business ambitions or budgets or those kinds of practical things which tend to consume   so much energy every day.  Instead,   she was a life-long student, a life- long teacher, a deeply spiritual person, a lover of books, art, theater, history, and poetry.  She was a linguist. She had so much compassion for others, and manifested that by being a lifelong volunteer to adults who had learning disabilities, or to the frail in the nursing home, or to shut ins.  

I will always remember that her tradition was to bring what she called her “famous   pecan pie” to a family who had lost a loved one or to someone who was sick.  Dad used to say that if you see Stella coming with a pecan pie, pray that it’s not for you.   

She will always inspire our family to never  be satisfied with the current state of our own education.  She believed that   unselfishly sharing your education and talent are not only gifts to others, but to yourself.    When she came to Barnwell in her 20’s she obviously didn’t have an American college degree.  The war in Europe, marriage, and children delayed that.  However, over the course of two decades she put together course work at USC-Salkehatchie, the Columbia campus at USC, and SC State University and ultimately obtained  her B.A., Phi Beta Kappa, and her graduate degree by the time she was in her  mid 50’s. 
 All she wanted from all of this work was to have the opportunity to teach others.    If she had been told that a potential job as a teacher would pay nothing, that wouldn’t matter  to her.  Her great source  of pride were her students. In her memoirs, she recounts how proud she was that students dedicated a yearbook  to her .  She always would be thrilled when   approached   by   her  former students who told her that she had made a real difference in their lives.
She also writes in her memoirs that being a student at USC Columbia was one of the happiest times of her life.  The interesting thing about that experience was that mother and I were undergraduates at USC at the same time.   Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good concept for a sit com: My Mother/My Classmate.  My mother’s love for me was powerful, and she showed  it,  sometimes, to the point of some personal embarrassment.    I recall returning to my fraternity house after class and finding “Michael’s mother”, which is how she introduced herself  to my friends, regaling my incredulous fraternity brothers on how much she enjoyed a certain  professor and although his course was challenging, she would highly recommend it to them.   Or the time when I was in an auditorium style class with at least 100 classmates, and the professor was interrupted by a knock at the door.  His embarrassing announcement followed: “If there is a Michael Tongour here his mother would like to visit with him about some obviously important matter.”   I think she had a flat tire and felt she needed my help immediately.

 Mother was always a voracious reader.  In fact, at the end, when she stopped reading, we all understood the gravity of her illness.  And what an amazing  mind she had before she  became so ill!  Yesterday, I received a note from a dear friend in Washington who reminded me of this, and I am quoting her:    “That great mind of Stella’s!  She would remember every detail about me and my extended family when she saw me – even though years may have passed between that moment and the previous time."
 
She never quite lost her European accent, and was often asked where she was from.  Her response was that she was Russian by birth, French by education, and American by choice.  Mostly, she loved her Barnwell, and the people here.  To her and to Dad, this warm and welcoming community was the place that allowed our immigrant family to live out its American dream.   In her memoirs, she writes how happy her life here was and that she wouldn’t have wanted to live elsewhere.
But that didn’t mean she didn’t continue enjoying the adventures of  travel, and the world beyond here.  Her recollections are full of wonderful details of trips abroad and to other  parts of the United States.  But for Mom, it always felt good to come back home to  Barnwell  from their travels.   She had a zest for life that she enjoyed manifesting   in this beloved town, and that included community theater (her favorite acting role was Yenta in Fiddler on the Roof), volunteering at this Church, being a girl scout leader, book clubs, discussion groups, and being a loyal friend who was always there for anyone who needed some meaningful , heartfelt conversation about  life.  She especially cherished those friends here who shared their deepest thoughts and emotions with her.
For the most part, I didn’t talk to her in that way.   In a letter I received from her 30 years ago, she expressed her regret that I was always so busy and that our conversations were too often brief and what she called “purely factual”.  She said we primarily talked about “logistics”: my job, my activities and what I was doing at the time.  Her idea of conversation, which she yearned for with me, was how I felt about things, and was I happy, etc---communications not focused on shallow things, but rather, from the heart.   I think that little snippet from that long ago letter is a real window into her life.  
She had more depth than I. I was often too impatient, too “practical” to realize  that her life and the things that she most cherished were the parts of life that make it God’s divine gift to us.    She loved her booklet of devotionals   called the “Daily Word.”  It is published by an organization called the Unity School of Christianity.  I am not an expert, but its premise is that we all have an inherent divinity which is the Christ inside of all of us. Our lives here are really daily opportunities to manifest this divinity, this light of God.   I know that Mother lived her life based on those principles, and that she was fully embraced by the source of that light early last Sunday morning.  

In her last full day, my family was blessed to be able to tell her how much we loved her, and always would.  We told her how thankful we were to her for taking the time to provide us with her memoirs, and that we would make sure that her grandchildren and those who came after them knew about her life and her contributions.   I told her that I knew that no one would ever love me more than she did.  
During our life, I did occasionally have moments when I followed her example and spoke from my heart to her.  Those times gave her much  joy.   When Lalie and I were married, and during the wedding’s “Mother/Son” dance,  I shared with my mother  that “Lalie  is a lot like you Mom.  She is smart in the very best ways, and  has a huge heart.”   I have never seen my Mother happier.  Mother  knew  then that I loved her,  and I understood the gifts she had been trying to give me, an appreciation for the things in life that really count, and that I sought out those values in my own life partner.  To her it was a validation of the way she had lived her life. 
Of course, after we were married, Lalie wound up having long weekly conversations with Mother about the meaning of life, books, and feelings .  It worked out perfectly.  I’m still not good at it. Lalie is and Mom loved  it.  She told me that the best gift I ever gave her was Lalie as her daughter in law.

She had a lot of other blessings, too: a devoted husband of nearly 67 years, two children, four grandchildren, including, our daughter, Stella who is very proud to be her namesake, many  friends,  many of whom are here, but many  have departed this world, and a strong faith .  My prayer, and one that I think is already  answered is that when mother left this world, she did so knowing that she was deeply and profoundly loved,   and that she left behind countless people whose lives are better because she  lived such a full life and that she truly contributed to the quality of theirs.

Thank you, Mother. God bless you.   We love you.


Sunday, May 22, 2016

          A Team of Inspirational Athletes and Their Coaches








My firm, the TCH Group,  is very pleased/gratified to be the sponsor of the Northwest Little League Challengers here in DC. This is a group of athletes with physical and mental challenges who enjoy baseball. Special thanks to the NWLL leadership and the wonderful volunteers (particularly Jim and Winnie). On May 19, 2016,  ABC News 7 (Erin Hawksworth) did an excellent job of reporting on these special, inspirational athletes.  Here is the link:


http://wjla.com/sports/content/league-of-their-own



















 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Alec Tongour And His Amazing Ability for Baseball Trivia: Interviews/Quizzing by 106.7 The Fan and Billy Ripken (MLB Network)

My son Alec has an uncommon strength.  He has a remarkable memory, loves sports (especially baseball) , and accordingly, can recall all sorts of baseball stats.  In 2014, he was randomly interviewed on 106.7 The FAN, the DC sports radio network.  That interview led to an article about Alec and the Lab School which he attends and which we are blessed to have in DC.  It is a school for bright kids who have learning differences.  Here is the link to that interview  (they quiz him on dates of games, scores, what happened, etc) and the follow up article:

http://washington.cbslocal.com/2014/10/09/12-year-old-nationals-fan-remarkably-remembers-game-scores-by-date-video/

Then in October 2015, we went to New York to watch the Nationals play the Mets.  (When we bought the tickets, we mistakenly thought it would be a significant series for the NL East title).  Prior to the game, we had a friend who gave us a tour of the MLB Network.  There Alec met Billy Ripken, who tried to stump him on World Series trivia.  Here is a spliced together snippet of that meeting.  Ripken is a great interviewer, and he clearly enjoys Alec! Enjoy.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Remark's on Acceptance of Dean's Award/ USC College of Arts and Sciences March 22, 2013, Dedicated to Stella, B.A. 1977

On March 22, 2013,  I was honored to receive the Dean's Award from the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of South Carolina.  Here are photos of my family: lovely and supportive wife, Lalie, our children, Jack, Alec, and Stella, Lalie's mom, Louise, her Dad, Ron, and his spouse, Barbara, and of me giving the remarks. It was a wonderful evening attended by life long friends, mentors, and family. I dedicated the award to my mother who passed away last year.  My remarks follow.  A link to the press release announcing the award follows the remarks.
       



         REMARKS ON ACCEPTANCE OF THE DEAN’S AWARD/
         DEDICATED TO STELLA TONGOUR/ MARCH 22, 2013 
       

 

Thank you, Dean Fitzpatrick. I feel more grateful to USC than I feel deserving of this award. It has taken what my former boss, Senator Alan Simpson, calls “creeping maturity” to understand that USC, and specifically the College of Arts and Sciences, was really a crucible for my life, and changed it in such a positive way.  But I didn’t fully realize that when I was younger.  In retrospect, USC provided  an excellent balance of solid academics, along with practical experience in government and politics which greatly influenced my future career.  Importantly, it was fun, and it was where I made many life-long friends.

I remember coming here nearly 40 years ago, and thinking how intimidatingly huge Columbia was.  I was scared to drive in all this traffic. But my anxieties didn’t last long.  I met students and professors from all around the country and the world, who provided a broader exposure to life.  I had great professors like Blease Graham, John Stucker, and Don Fowler, whom I am pleased is here tonight.  They combined the best of academia and a keen real world understanding.  They encouraged my involvement in campaigns and political organizations.  I was able to work at the SC State House for the legendary Speaker Solomon Blatt.  There, I observed/learned much about the legislative process. (I also learned what Old Crow and branch water was).  I learned about leadership in my college fraternity and in the IFC. I also learned that you could have a good time and also do well academically. So for these and many other reasons, I am grateful to USC.

I am also grateful and humbled when I look around this room and see such wonderful friends, teachers (like Margie Claytor and Lu Richardson), mentors from every stage of my life.   There are friends here from Barnwell, from my college days, from law school, from Washington, including Congressman Joe Wilson and his wife Roxanne, friends from Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd, and of course my family—my wonderful wife, Lalie, Furman grad (graduating a bit later than I), our kids, Jack, Alec, and Stella, Lalie’s mom, Louise, her dad, Ron, and his spouse, Barbara.  

Please don’t think my life at USC was totally idyllic.  I experienced something here that could easily have been the inspiration for a sit com. A little background:  My mother, Stella, regularly introduced herself as “Michael’s mom”.  I always appreciated her love, but she was almost too attentive. She was living in war torn Europe when she finished the French equivalent of high school, but, unfortunately,  had no opportunity to further her education. My parents immigrated to the US in 1950.  My mother’s dream was to teach.  Of course, she couldn’t without a college degree. When USC’s Salkehatchie Regional campus, near Barnwell, opened its doors in the mid 60’s, she (accompanied by her friend Mary Griner, who is here tonight) began the journey for her dream.  She took one course per semester until she finished whatever Salkehatchie could offer.  Then, you guessed it, she spent nearly three years commuting to Columbia to finish her degree. And that is precisely when things got complicated for me! Her timing was painful because those were also  three of the four years which I spent as an undergraduate at Carolina. It’s very hard to be a big man on campus when your mother seems to show up everywhere.  Imagine the embarrassment of your professor announcing to a huge class that “Michael Tongour’s mother is at the door and apparently needs his assistance with her car”.  Or coming to your fraternity house and finding your mother taking a break there between her classes, and showing your fraternity brothers your childhood pictures.  Or one awful day, going to the first day of a class, and realizing that your mom would be your classmate. On  my entry, she immediately leaped out of her desk to give me a hug. I decided to drop that class.

As I said, although I liked my time here, I was too young to truly appreciate it.  But my mother was about the same age as I am now when she finished here, and she was wise enough to know just what a great opportunity she had.  Because of her past, she also understood deprivation, which I never experienced. I don’t think a student ever loved Carolina more than she did.   Unfortunately, mom died last year.  I really miss her.

 

What I have in my hand is her scrapbook.  The title is “My College Memories”. There are pictures of her in front of campus buildings, pictures of her friends, pictures she took of her favorite professors, her  Phi Beta Kappa certificate, her President’s Honor Roll certificates, and finally photos in her graduation cap and gown.  My mom was a life- long student.  She went on to get a Master’s degree in education, and achieved her goal of being a teacher. She tutored students all the way until the last years of her life.

As a 19 or 20 year old, I guess I could be forgiven for feeling uncomfortable with my mother being such a presence in my college life. But as I prepared for tonight, I thought “what I wouldn’t give to  spend one day with her on campus.”

Most of our guests tonight knew my mother. You know she would have loved being here.  And likely, she is!

So I am pleased to accept this award, but dedicate it to the loving memory of Stella Tongour, USC, Bachelor of Arts, magna cum laude 1977.


http://thepeoplesentinel.com/node/65354