History Summit 30 Years Later

By Denis McCauley, ’79

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    The 2010 History Summit participants included Laurence Bellom (1981), Paul Doty (1988), James Holmes (Professor Emeritus), Kevin Killeen (1986), Michael Kopa (1982), Brian McCauley (1975), James McCauley (1973), Denis McCauley (1979), Bert Ruiz (1973), and David Weinstein (1982).

February 1980: Ronald Reagan won the New Hampshire Republican primary; Soviet troops cemented control of Afghanistan’s cities after their recent invasion; and Dyson College faculty, alumni and students held the first “History Summit” in Buck Hill Falls, Pennsylvania, on the topic of leadership in the 20th century. This was the first of 13 History Summits held over the next two decades on themes ranging from the world’s great empires to the American presidency.

Summit veterans gathered once again over this past Presidents’ Day weekend, at Choate House in Pleasantville, in order to mark the 30th anniversary of that inaugural event. Present were 10 Pace history alumni, all graduating between 1972 and 1988, as well as one eminent retiree – Dr. James H. Holmes, who inspired countless Pace history students over his quarter-century at the University. Taking a nod from the very first gathering, the topic of discussion at this 14th History Summit was “Leadership 1980-2010.”

Over the two days, participants reported on books they read about their chosen leader, and discussed several other leaders as well. While most of these were political figures, a few came from religion, business and other arenas.

The group had a lively debate about who deserved to be counted among the world’s great leaders since 1980, using as a frame of reference for the discussion, the principal attributes of an “outstanding leader”: vision, superior communication, the ability to inspire others and to lead them by consent (not coercion), a propensity to action, and – as a result – the bringing about of significant change. Achievements over a leader’s entire tenure were considered (for example, the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the papacy of John Paul II) as were instances of leadership at important junctures in history (for instance, Helmut Kohl and the reunification of Germany).

The group determined that the failures of some celebrated figures overshadowed their undoubted achievements and excluded them from the group of “outstanding leaders”. These included Alan Greenspan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. By contrast, many years of helping to bring about fundamental change earned Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and the Polish Pope inclusion in the list. Helmut Kohl earned the same for his role in German reunification, as did the technology titans Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Lesser known figures such as Robert Moses (the controversial New York urban planner, albeit from an earlier period) and J. Michael Abrashoff (a US naval commander) were also acknowledged as outstanding leaders in their fields of endeavor.

There were few unanimous votes – each leader’s failures and failings were also brought squarely into the discussion. There was not a single voice of dissent, however, when the group came to select as the “greatest leader since 1980,” Nelson Mandela of South Africa. Although incarcerated for most of his adult life, the figure of Mandela was instrumental in the ending of apartheid. More remarkable than this, however, was his achievement, as the country’s president, in overseeing the orderly dismantling of the hated system and peaceful transition to black majority rule.

Present in spirit at this year’s Summit were other inspirational history professors from Pace’s past including John Buchsbaum, John Norman and William Michaelsen. Each have passed on but have left indelible marks on the lives of their students. As a mark of tribute to them and Dr. Holmes—all our mentors—this year’s Summit participants have vowed to continue the tradition and meet again in future years.

The 2010 History Summit participants included Laurence Bellom (1981), Paul Doty (1988), James Holmes (Professor Emeritus), Kevin Killeen (1986), Michael Kopa (1982), Brian McCauley (1975), James McCauley (1973), Denis McCauley (1979), Bert Ruiz (1973), and David Weinstein (1982).