Steve A. Stone
Dear Friends and Patriots,
All is not lost. Take heart! Try to steel yourselves for hardships to come. We have no real idea of what that might be, but we do have our imaginations, don't we? Perhaps we should all take a break from those nightmare scenarios and let our minds rest a bit. If we end up in gunfights later on we won't have any time for any reminiscing or humorous anecdotes. I say, let's all take a sanity break from the madness we've been focused on for the past few days. Allow me to spin you a yarn. It's a true yarn, though you might not think so. If you challenge me, I have a list of witnesses, people who were there. Hold on, this is one of my long tales.
This story occurred in the first week of November, 1998. I was enrolled in Indiana U., in an exported master's degree program paid for by the Navy. I went though that program with a group of senior managers who were from Navy installations all over the country: Newport, RI; Panama City, FL; Bath, ME; Keyport, WA; San Diego, CA; Norfolk, VA; New Orleans, LA; Pascagoula, MS; and several from Naval Sea Systems Command headquarters, which was then located in Arlington, VA, just up the road from the Pentagon. Several people in the class already had a master's degree in one or another engineering discipline. There were two among us who already had their doctorates in their professional fields. We gathered, usually three times each year for four years to work on our Master of Public Affairs degree. There were only three people in the class with business degrees. I was one of those. There were only two who worked as logisticians. Again, I was one. All the rest of the class had one or another of the many BS degress in an engineering discipline. In all there were 18 people in the class at the time, if my memory serves me. I was one of two from the Supervisor of Shipbuilding office in Pascagoula. The other was a man I worked with all my 25+ years in Pascagoula – King Dobbins, an Ocean Engineer. (Sort of reminds one of that song, The King and I, doesn't it?)
Our classes were usually preceded by a lot of homework. Our books were sent to us two months in advance, along with our assignments. The assignments were usually of two flavors – individual and team. A major focus of the entire program was teamwork. That wasn't easy in those years, especially from a backwater place like Pascagoula. King and I (there, see what I mean?) were at a disadvantage in computer and library resources. We were expected to overcome those disadvantages any way we could. How we did it was left up to us. It was truly difficult, but both of us pulled it off.
The logistics of our class convenings was a bit arduous. All of us who weren't locals of the Washington D.C. area had to fly or drive in on Sunday and check in before 10 p.m. We met at a place then-known as Xerox Document University (XDU), a beautiful campus just east of Leesburg, VA. XDU was run by Xerox as a place to train all its sales representatives, managers and even its field technicians. They had excess space there, which they leased out, often to government clients for off-site training retreats and conferences. All our classes in that master's program were held at XDU.
The building was unusual. I have no real idea of its general shape. It seemed to be arranged in some kind of oval fashion, with all the dorm rooms in three stories around half the perimeter. The other half of the perimeter was classrooms and conferencing facilities. To me the architecture seemed to have a heavy Japanese influence. There was a very large atrium, with a full-service cafeteria, study and lounge areas, and a full service bar. XDU had all the features of a 4-star hotel, except I don't think it had a pool. It did have a gym, a fitness trail that wound though the woods, and a free laundry room. The dorm rooms were very spartan, almost military in their presentation. They had no TVs or radios. If there was a TV in the place, it might have been in the bar, but I don't recall it. XDU was not the place to binge watch movies or one's favorite TV reruns. Then, there were the class and meeting rooms, a seeming endless series of those. I have no idea of the total number. The walls were color-coded so you'd know if you were in the right "neighborhood." Red, Green, Blue, Yellow. Just learning how to be in the right place was an experience. Each door was uniquely identified. As an example, R2031 identified a classroom in the Red neighborhood, second floor, number 031. Between each neighborhood was a break area that was always stocked with soft drinks, hot and cold water, coffee, tea bags, snacks of all kinds – all part of the deal. We all came in on Sunday evening, and we stayed until the class was over on Friday evening. We slept there, we ate there, we studied 14 to 20 hours every day there, we took breaks to walk in the woods and feed the semi-tame deer that were always mooching apples. We did everything there. Once in we didn't leave until we were done. We all enjoyed that place through our first year. It was in the second year we all started getting the feeling we were locked in some kind of luxury prison. Toward the end of that second year and until we all graduated, by Thursday we'd had it. That place drove us a bit nuts.
1998 was our third year in the program, and the November class was our last of the year. Our summer class was some kind of law course. I don't recall the name of it. It seemed to be a combination of civil and contracts law, nothing criminal. At least I don't recall anything criminal, but our professor evidently did. Our professor was a woman who had last worked as a State Attorney in Kansas. Not long after our class she quit Indian U. and hired into Cornell Law School as a professor there. I have a sneaking suspicion she's liked all of her students at Cornell much more than she did me or any of my classmates. For some reason she treated us like aliens. I mean space aliens, too. Maybe it was because every day one of us would ask her, "Why, if our degree is in Public Affairs there's no course on how to keep an affair private?" We all thought that was just odd.
My classmates were not only senior professionals in their respective fields, but our average age was pushing 40. I was 47 at the time, and I wasn't the oldest in the class. One of the guys from Bath, ME was 56. Okay, between him and me, we really bent that curve. I admit it. And, we weren't the typical campus grad school student in other ways. Because we all had the same employer we had very similar mindsets. That seems to have driven our Law Professor a bit nuts. We found out about that during the first hour of the first day of our new class.
We all had been chatting about the upcoming class, because it wasn't in the degree plan for our field of study. There had been a change made for reasons we didn't know. We thought we were going to get a course on Media Management, whatever that is, but instead, when our packages of books arrived at our homes there was a letter that said we were going to be attending V550E – Ethics. Ethics? What the heck? We were a bit confused. As federal civil servants we were all bound by a professional code of ethics already – and it was statutory. That means (for those of you who do live in Rio Linda) our code of ethic was a federal law. Breaking any element of our code had severe consequences, including fines, dismissal from our jobs, and possibly even prison time. We were a bit confused, but as good Navy people do, we never questioned the school's authority or wisdom. They wanted to give us credit for an Ethics course. Okay, bring it on!
That first hour of the first day we were introduced to our class professor, Dr. A. James Barnes. That "A." before the James meant something to me. Lawyers, especially lawyers in the South do that. If they're in practice you'll usually see a "Esq." after their names. It's some ancient custom or social affectation. I never knew which. They seem to think it's distinguishing or something. What did I know? I was just a schlub working for the Navy. But, I was sure he was a lawyer. Nothing in the pre-class homework material told us what his degree field was. He was just "Dr."
Dr. Barnes opened up by stating his name and that he was the Dean of the School of Environmental and Public Affairs at Indiana U. But, he omitted anything about his own academic credentials. Just "Dr." and "Dean." He said we could address him by either title. I thought that was a bit strange. I never ran into any university professor-type who didn't cite his academic pedigree. Have you? Then, Dean Barnes (that was what I called him) told us why he was there and why we were about to dive headfirst into the ethics ocean. Our last professor, the lady lawyer, went into Dean Barnes' office as soon as she returned to Bloomington from Leesburg and declared our class to be the most difficult and unruly pack of degenerates she ever had in any class. She practically demanded he "do something about us!" In her opinion none of us deserved to be sullying the hallowed halls of Indiana U. I somehow got the feeling she forgot she was on our territory and at XDU. None of us ever saw those "hallowed halls" in Bloomington. But, we heard they were very pretty.
So, we were "outted" by that lawyer! I never once trusted her kind. Lawyers! Ya know – What do you get if you chain 1,000 lawyers together and throw them in the Pacific Ocean? A good start! Yeah, I know, it's an old, old joke. I heard it from the former senior attorney at my command in Pascagoula. He knew every lawyer joke ever spoken, and could rattle them off for hours if anyone was willing to listen. But, I digress. The point is, we impressed our lady law professor so much she wanted the Dean to throw us out of his school. She declared us to be animals. Well, after all, we did work for the Navy, so there's part of me that's willing to concede she had a bit of validity to the points she was making. After her rant Dean Barnes calmed her down and said he'd take care of it – and us. That's why he was there. It was sort of an amazing opener. He was there to find out if we were pond scum! If he decided we were, what was he going to do – cancel the rest of our classes and refuse to let us pursue that degree? Nah, he wouldn't do that. He couldn't do that. He had a lucrative contract with NAVSEA. He had to fulfill his end or the school wouldn't get its payoff. All universities today focus on one thing above all – money. But, that my friends is a subject for another day. I think I wrote about it in my last book. You want to know, contact me and I'll fix you up for a very cheap price. Okay, that ad is over. Back to the script.
The Monday class was broken up into three segments, separated by a 20 minute morning break, a 40 minute lunch break down in the XDU cafeteria, and another 20 minute break in the afternoon. Did I mention all that food was free, even the snacks. Yeah, buddy! They even had fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies twice every day. I almost lived off those babies! Oh, yeah, I'm digressing again, aren't I? My apology. But, those cookies were stupendous! Okay, I'm done now.
There was nothing extraordinary about Monday's classes. There was an "Into to Ethics" session complete with a video. There was one on ethical decision-making. Then there was one called "Ethical Dilemmas of the Public Manager." Yeah, we knew all about that one. We were public managers, even though no one would ever want any of us managing any part of the public. I guess the title is a bit misleading. What do you think?
The real show, and the actual thing I wanted to tell you about happened after our morning break on Tuesday. In the first session we discussed and debated how to deal with what we call "Troubled Employees." Don't get me started! Every civil servant I ever knew was troubled. If just being in federal civil service doesn't make you troubled, you have a fundamental malfunction. After that topic wrapped up we were shown two videos of debates held at the Harvard School of Ethics. WOW! Harvard has an entire school dedicated just to ethics! They must really have some problems there in Cambridge. The videos were very interesting. I don't recall who the moderator was, but he was a nationally famous journalist. Today we'd just point our index finger at that guy and shout, "FAKE NEWS!," but this was in 1998, well before Trump made us "woke." The panels were filled with famous people. I remember Generals and Admirals, CEOs of major corporations, some media talk show hosts, famous athletes, a few of the most famous trial lawyers in the country, and one sitting Supreme Court Associate Justice. Yes, those videos had all-star casts.
We watched the first video and had a twenty minute period to comment on it. I don't even recall what it was about; maybe the whole concept of a "just war." It was something like that. After the class debate and commentary we moved on.
The second video featured a different panel at Harvard, but the same moderator. This video I remember, and always will. The dilemma posed seemed simple. A lawyer in a small Southern town who had a reputation as a good defense attorney had a visitor one day. A man walked into his office and asked the lawyer if he'd represent him. The lawyer understood if he wanted to know what the problem was he had to decide. He asked if the man had $50. The man said he did, so the lawyer said, "Give me your $50 and tell me what you need from me." The man forked over the $50 and then stated, "You know that guy the state's gonna fry tonight for murder? He's not the murderer. I am. They blamed him, but if they'd looked a little harder they'd have known he couldn't have done it. It was me all along. Now, he's gonna die for what I did." The lawyer looked aghast and asked, "Why did you come here and tell me that?" The man responded with, "I've felt bad about what happened all these years. I did wrong, but I haven't done any wrong since. My conscience has been really bothering me, and I felt I needed to tell someone. If you'd asked me for $100 today I'd have given it to you, just to have someone to tell the truth to about it all. Now, I feel like I've done something right about it for once. I've admitted what I done." With that the man got up and left. The dilemma is obvious. What does the lawyer do now that he's heard someone confess to a murder and an innocent man is about to die?
After the second video ended Dean Barnes told us to take a break and think about the dilemma and be prepared to debate on it until just before lunchtime, when he would show us the Harvard panel's commentary. We spilled out into the hallway and went to our break area and everyone began consuming their favorite whatever. Mine was always Oreos. That was before Nabisco abandoned the U.S. and started making Oreos in Mexico – which is why I don't buy anything from Nabisco anymore. I'm sorry, did I digress again? It's a bad habit. Let's see, where was I. Oh, yeah.
I had been thinking about Dean Barnes since I saw his name in print, then heard him introduce himself. I thought there were things he omitted. As I stood in the break area I thought of a way to smoke him out. I knew who he was! I asked everyone to gather around and discuss the video before going back to class. I told them that we could learn a lot if we played it smart. I suggested that whoever the Dean called on to make the first response would give whatever answer he or she was inclined to. It didn't matter what it was. But, everyone after that first one was to understand they had to support the viewpoint of the first responder. No deviation. I told them what I expected to happen would happen would fall apart if anyone broke ranks. To my amazement everyone there agreed to my scheme. I had no idea what would happen next, but knew it was going to be amazing.
We all filed back into the class and assumed our seats. Dean Barnes gave a brief summary of the video just in case someone wasn't paying close attention, then pointed to one of the guys, a man named George Axiotis, and asked him how the lawyer should resolve his ethical dilemma. George Axiotis is his actual name. You can find him if you wish and ask him if this is true. George didn't hesitate at all. He started talking about the legal code of ethics every lawyer swears to in order to be admitted to the bar. He said if the lawyer told anyone of the conversation he would be breaking the code by revealing privileged information. He went on in that vein for a few more sentences before he was done. Dean Barnes didn't seem fazed. I'm certain George's remarks weren't new. But, even so the Dean said George's response seemed a bit hard-hearted to him. Then he pointed at one of the women in class and asked her. She did as she had pledged and affirmed George's position, making pretty much the same points, and said she didn't see how breaking a sworn-to code of ethics could gain anyone anything. After all, the lawyer would be disbarred and then wouldn't be there for someone who he could truly help later on. The Dean seemed a bit miffed at the response, but plowed on. He called on one of the other guys and asked for his input. I don't remember who it was, but do remember he lined up squarely behind the other two, saying he thought no matter what, they had the right position. He said it was clear to him, though it was unfortunate that an innocent man would die. Still, an oath is an oath and it must be kept. If not, it would violate the essence of civilization. What was one life compared to that? That's when the Dean began rubbing his head. He seemed a bit confused and impatient. He looked us over and asked, "Who has a different thought on this? Who among you would call the governor of the state and tell him about the real murderer? Who would be willing to sacrifice their career in order to save that innocent man?" We all just sat there. No one raised their hand. The Dean was very obviously beside himself. He said he'd never seen anything like us. He said we couldn't all be so hard-hearted, but evidently we were. He showed the rest of the Harvard video, then dismissed us early for lunch.
At lunch there were a few who had pangs of guilt. They came up to me and said they felt what we had just done was unethical. About one third of the class had a sad-dog look on their faces. I listened to them complain and ask me to undo what they had decided to blame me for. I told them, "You haven't figured this out yet, have you? Dean Barnes was playing us all along. Don't you remember what he told us about why he's here? Haven't you figured out yet that he's that lawyer. It was him those people at Harvard were talking about. Now we know what he did and why he's now at a university instead of still a defense attorney. You all need to be smarter than you are." I admit it, I was a mighty unpopular person the rest of the day. But, no one admitted to what we did. Dean Barnes rolled right on with our lessons and debate sessions through that day and the next. He continued through Thursday, which at XDU was Pizza Night!
I never had attended Pizza Night before, but I decided to that night. It was held down at the bar. When I came into that area of the atrium I found the table where some of my classmates were sitting. I noticed Dean Barnes sitting alone at the bar, sipping on a glass of beer. I approached my classmates and could tell they weren't happy. One suggested I go tell the Dean the truth of what we did, because he didn't seem to want to have anything to do with any of us. I thought that was a good idea, so I went to the bar to have a chat with the Dean.
I had to go around Dean Barnes. He was literally sitting with his back turned on all my classmates. I sat down on the stool to his left and said, "Dean, I need to confess something to you. Will you hear my confession?" He looked up from his glass and asked, "Which one are you?" I told him my name and he replied, "Oh, yes, one of those Mississippi boys. What do you want to confess to me? I'm a college professor, not a priest." I told him that I had engineered the debate on Tuesday. I told him it was my idea and that I convinced everyone to buy into it. I laid it all out to him, even the part where I had guessed who he really was. I wrapped up with, "Dean, that law professor you sent down treated us like we were freshmen. She didn't get that most of us have more experience at what we do than she has in what she does. Her arrogance collided with our refusal to kneel before her. I admit that we had a bit of fun with her, too, but she asked for it." Dean Barnes sat there and stared at me for a moment, then a big smile broke out on his face. He said, "You really did all that? That was all rigged? Gee, in all my years no one has ever done that to me. I get it now, Steve. And you're right. You all deserve much more respect than my school was giving you. I owe you all an apology." With that, we shook hands and I left Pizza Night.
The next day the Dean opened the first class by apologizing to us all for not understanding who we really were. I think the Dean enjoyed Friday's lessons. In the end we were all okay, though there were still people in the class who learned something about me they didn't much like. I have a truly devious mind.
Story time is over now, kiddies.
Steve A. Stone© Steve A. Stone
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