He did not like “to turn the camera on himself.” That’s what we heard in the previous installment about social activist John Gardner in clips from a 2001 PBS documentary, John Gardner: An Uncommon American.
Mike “turns the camera” on Wendy
That’s true about Mike Kirst as well, especially when asked to talk about himself. Let’s listen to how Mike responds to Nancy Mancini’s inquiry in 2018 for Stanford University’s John W. Gardner Legacy Oral History Project, about how he and John reconnected in California.
Audio Clip 1: Mike Kirst: “Wendy: That was really the contact.” 1
Mike immediately turns the camera on his wife, Wendy Burdsall Kirst, explaining that from early on, it was Wendy who “knew the Gardners.”
Despite Mike’s interactions with Gardner in the ’60s when he led the education component of President Johnson’s White House Fellows program, Mike insists to Mancini that “Wendy was the real contact.” Wendy had become very close to Mr. Gardner as one of his secretaries when he headed the Urban Coalition—and later Common Cause—in the mid-’60s, and it was Wendy who “had a very close tie with John and Mrs. Gardner, Aida, as well.”
He elaborates that his close relationship with Gardner developed some three decades later when Stanford recruited Gardner back to his alma mater as a “consulting professor.” Then, according to Mike’s telling, the two couples became neighbors on the Stanford campus—separated only by a small park—and their relationship “really gelled” with them “at least once a month” having “dinner at one place or the other,” and watching over each other’s houses. He elaborates that Gardner’s wife Aida “called on Wendy for many things,” especially when the Gardners were first settling into life on the Stanford campus since Aida was new to the area and had known Wendy in D.C.
Mike as a “broker” in Gardner’s move to Stanford
Before beginning his multifaceted career, Gardner had earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology at Stanford in 1935, after becoming a Pacific Coast freestyle swimming champion. A year later he earned a master’s degree from the university. Later he served on Stanford’s board when he was President Johnson’s Secretary of Health Education and Welfare and then founder of the Urban Coalition.
In the late 1980s, Don Kennedy, Stanford’s then president, and provost Jim Rosse tasked Marshall “Mike” Smith, dean of the School of Education, to recruit the school’s now-famous alum and previously long-serving member of Stanford’s board of trustees (1968–1982). At the time Gardner was transitioning from Independent Sector, a national membership organization for nonprofit leaders and funders that he had co-founded in 1980 and then led as its first governing board chair.
As John Gardner transitioned to Stanford, Mike had conversations, including over dinner at his home, with Smith about what role Gardner might play at the university.
Let’s listen in to how Mike talks about his role as a broker with Smith and Gardner:
Audio Clip 2: Playing “broker” for John Gardner’s transition to Stanford 2
Smith had never met Gardner in person before going to Washington to meet and try to recruit him. When interviewed by the John W. Gardner Legacy Oral History Project in 2017, Smith notes Mike as being an expert in knowing of Gardner’s work when part of the Johnson administration.
Smith recalls his first in-person meeting with Gardner as being “a good chat” and at the end of that conversation saying to Gardner, “You know, we’d love you to come out. I know you’ve got many ties to Stanford.” 3
The university had established the funding for this appointment as the first endowed Miriam and Peter Haas Centennial Professor in Public Service, “awarded to an inspired and inspiring public scholar and teacher who exemplifies the integration of research and teaching with engagement in social and public service.” 4 It was to be a joint appointment in the Graduate School of Business and the Graduate School of Education (similar to the joint appointments held by both Kirst and Smith). Gardner accepted the offer, Smith notes, “with no negotiation” once it was internally approved. 5
This is just the first of many instances documented in some detail in the subsequent installments where we will witness the brokering, coalition-building, and interpersonal skills of Mike at work—more often than not working behind the scenes and with the camera focused on others.
Wendy as Gardner’s home purchase advisor and more
In 1980, five years after Mike and Wendy were married, Wendy put her commercial real estate expertise to work when they purchased their home on one of the highest points on the Stanford campus where Mike and Wendy still live.
Wendy had stuck with Mr. Gardner through organization moves as what she called his “secretary number two,” noting “for a couple of years, through whatever organization John Gardner was then attached to or head of, I was along for that ride.” 6 Let’s listen to how Wendy’s role developed further, and with it, the relationship between Mike and John.
Audio Clip 3: Wendy advises John Gardner on the purchase of his Stanford home 7
At the outset of this clip, we hear Wendy’s delight when she finds out that Gardner is planning to come to Stanford.
“Well, that’s fabulous,” she recounts with glee to Nancy Mancini (who interviewed her as well as Mike for the John W. Gardner Legacy Oral History Project) at the thought of her former boss and his wife coming to work and live out his septuagenarian years at Stanford. Wendy then recounts her conversations with John about his upcoming house purchase, noting, “real estate wasn’t John’s forte.”
Wendy even tutored him on the possibility of competitive bids for their new place, near the Kirst home across from a small park.
These accounts show that Wendy was the foundation for Mike’s close relationship with John Gardner in three ways even before their relationship deepened at Stanford: she had been one of Gardner’s secretaries in the ’60s; she had been a close friend of his wife during their days in D.C.; and, she had advised John about his house purchase after becoming a real estate agent in the Palo Alto area.
Mike’s comment about Gardner parallels what others say about Mike
Mike explains that John’s reaching out to Wendy was part of Gardner’s pattern of developing lifelong relationships. Let’s listen in:
Audio Clip 4: Mike on Wendy being in Gardner’s “Lifetime Protectorate Program” 8
These comments from Mike offer an important context for Gardner’s relationship with Wendy in a new role as he was moving to California. They also apply to Mike himself, in his relationships over time with former graduate students, colleagues, and collaborators, as we will see and hear in upcoming installments.
Kirsts’ and Gardners’ deepening relationship at Stanford
After helping Gardner purchase and redecorate his Stanford home for Aida’s arrival, Wendy helped build connections for them on campus. According to Wendy, “Aida didn’t know anybody when [her husband] came out here to Palo Alto, except her two daughters and their children who lived an hour or more away in Mill Valley.”
And once Aida arrived, Wendy and she would regularly share a glass of wine either in the park between their homes or at each other’s places, becoming “really good friends.”
The close relationship of the two families developed for almost two decades, including as we heard in Mike’s earlier comments for holiday celebrations such as Thanksgiving. The Kirsts also became close to the Gardners’ two daughters, and especially his daughter Francesca (“Checka”), who remained in the Bay Area with her children, John and Aida’s beloved grandchildren.
Wendy also tells us about John Gardner’s 80th birthday party, which she and Mike hosted at their home in 1993.
Let’s listen in:
Audio Clip 5: Wendy on hosting Gardner’s 80th birthday in the Kirsts’ backyard 9
Wendy’s voice falls to a whisper when she relates her exchange with Checka about keeping Gardner safe as he makes remarks at the party from a raised platform.
Mike describes, as well, the growing intimacy between the two families as they enjoyed “fireside chats” over drinks at the Gardners’ home during the last 13 years of John’s life. Again, let’s listen in.
Audio Clip 6: “Right away, we began seeing them socially for dinner, and we went up to the children’s house….” 10
Mike offers insights into “all these occasions where we’d have cocktails before dinner” at the Gardners’ home. He and John would “sit by the fireplace…and we would talk shop, and have a lot of conversations about the state of the world…and what he was thinking.”
Our next installment winds the clock back to portray Mike’s own transition to Stanford from D.C., noting his pioneering finance and governance work in several states, including Oregon and Florida, and how those experiences led to the reform policies he advanced when becoming Jerry Brown’s chief education confidant and president of California’s State Board of Education for over half a century.
So stay tuned and join us soon for Installment 13!