On a warm night during the spring reading period of 1954, Donald P. Hodel ’57—a freshman living in Wigglesworth E-11—received a welcome distraction that became a valuable lesson.
A protest beginning near Dunster House had wound its way through the upperclassman houses and the group of students, chanting and yelling, arrived in the Yard. Hodel recalls watching his classmates flock to join the demonstration.
“The protest was to free Puerto Rico, I believe,” Hodel says, “But I would say that about half of one percent of the students knew what was going on. They just wanted to go charging and running about. After that experience, I came away with a very jaundiced view of demonstrations. It seemed as if they could be more for the lark of stirring people up then anything else.”
Hodel preserved this attitude in his approach to what became a successful career in Republican politics, remaining wary of “spectacle” and choosing instead to lead quietly.
Indeed, Hodel came into one of his significant positions—state chairman of the G.O.P. in Oregon—only because “no one wanted the job,” he says. “I had just finished my term as county chairman in 1966, and was looking forward to spending more time with my family,” Hodel remembers. Then politics came calling.
Hodel had developed an interest for public service long before he arrived at Harvard, beginning with the influence of his father.
“My parents were naturalized citizens and my father particularly got across a sense of obligation to give back,” Hodel says. “At an early age I got the idea that if I went into politics it would please my father. That was the beginning of it, although, there were a lot of other things along the way.”
During his years at Grant High School in Portland, Oregon, Hodel served as student body president. But James J. Damis ’57, a classmate at Grant, remembers that it was an interest in law, not politics that brought the Oregonian to Harvard.
“I can’t say Don had political ambitions. When we entered college, we had plans to go law school,” Damis says.
Damis and another Grant graduate, Donald H. Pearlman ’57, were Hodel’s freshman year roommates, although “we were more rivals than friends in high school,” Hodel says.
Politics played a part in the trio’s relationship even then.
“We both used to make fun of Don Pearlman because he was a supporter of Joe McCarthy,” Damis says. Pearlman later served as Hodel’s executive assistant during his tenure as Secretary of the Interior and Secretary of Energy.
Damis—the “apathetic” roommate and now a Democrat—have also remained friends.
“We ski together occasionally. We always start out the same on top, but then I go down the left slope and Don goes down the right,” Damis jokes.
While Hodel concentrated in government, he also found other outlets for his energy at Harvard. He began dating his wife—a student at Wellesley College at the time—his sophomore year. The two married before Hodel’s senior year and celebrated their 50th anniversary in December.
The other love of Hodel’s life was the Harvard Young Republicans Club. Early in his freshman year, Hodel stood in line to register for the club with John R. Thomson ’57. Both men would serve as president of the organization.
Before being “unanimously chosen” as president in the March of 1956, Hodel played a crucial role in a Young Republicans membership campaign. “He was a key part of the effort,” Thomson recalls. “We were able to build the club to more than 500 dues-paying members. When we started there were about 65.”
That ability to transform an organization would later come in handy when, as Secretary of Energy, Hodel shifted the department’s focus on energy use. “When I first came in, the mantra was that we had to choose between an improving environment and an adequate energy supply,” Hodel recalls. The department pushed for a mixed energy supply—and soon, both political parties were working balanced energy into their platforms.
As Secretary of the Interior, Hodel, far removed from his freshman dorm, came face-to-face with another protest movement sweeping some Western states—the Sagebrush Rebellion, a group which demanded that federal land be turned over to individual states. This time, Hodel was an active participant–trying to put an end to the conflict.
“Don had the smarts,” says James G. Watts, who served as Secretary from 1981 to 1983. “I knew what to do and he knew how to do. We were able to satisfy every single governor of the Western states who had been furious under President Carter.”
“We were able to turn that around and put an end to it by instituting a good neighbor policy,” Hodel says.
Years after leaving Cambridge, Hodel is a supporter of a practical rather than an academic education, especially in politics.
“When people are in college, they’re not usually engaged in an extended way with the political scene in the outside world,” Hodel says. “I would encourage students to get their education, but also get out and get experience.” After all, the formula has worked for him.
—Staff writer Gracye Y. Cheng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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