Sneak Preview: How John Gardner Became “Kind of a Father Figure”

"Conversations With and About Mike"
GSE Centennial

John Gardner speaking with Mike in Stanford’s Cubberley Auditorium during a Children at Risk Conference, 11/17/1988. (Credit: Ed Souza /Stanford News Service)


January is a time to look back, reflect, and look forward.

We begin, then, by recalling the basic purpose of the Mike Kirst Biography Project: “to make a fascinating man’s life and accomplishments come alive…for all who care about America’s schools….”

This past year I’ve received hundreds of comments from the more than 1,000 subscribers to the biography’s series of multimedia installments. Some in Mike’s academic and policy circles have advised that I find a publisher for a more traditional form of written biography—and I do plan to do that this year.

Voices from Outside Policy Circles

Graham Fleming (on the podium) for Calvin’s Nation Ultra Cyclists’ Challenge, 1st Place finisher in the 90-Year-Old-Plus category, 2018

Some friends and colleagues who care about American schools from vantage points further away from education policy have advised the inclusion of additional types of content.

For example, 94-year-old Graham Fleming, with whom I cycled coast-to-coast one summer in the 1990s,  commented that “Mike strikes me as someone who is ultra-practical and very intelligent” and whose most important trait is that “he seems to be guided by the maxim that ‘Best is the enemy of better.'”

Graham found the installments which “humanize” Mike to be the most memorable for him and believes that “Surely Mike has some flaws but we have not heard about them in the initial installments.”

Another long-time colleague, Keith Shahan, former head of the John Burroughs School in St. Louis, who has commented on several installments, noted about the most recent installment comparing Mike to John Gardner, “I enjoyed it, but also found it too abstract.” He encouraged me to give more “concrete examples” about and from Mike.

Our 12th Installment: “The Wendy Factor”

Wife of Mike Kirst, Wife of Michael Kirst

Wendy Burdsall Kirst

We take such observations into account in the next installment which focuses on a key relationship in Mike’s life with John Gardner and how that relationship developed into what Mike has called “a kind of a father figure.”

A clip below from the upcoming installment “The Wendy Factor” will give you a sense of how such advice from Graham and Keith will be heeded.

Let’s listen in:

Audio Clip 1:  “Wendy: That was really the contact”

In this clip, Mike reveals that Wendy’s previously working for Gardner in D.C. at the Urban Coalition and Common Cause and becoming friends with his wife Aida are what made the two couples “really gel.”

The Living Room of the Gardner Home. Photo from PBS documentary, John Gardner: Uncommon American.

Once they became neighbors on the Stanford campus, their relationship as couples became quite close, having frequent dinners in one another’s home, sharing holiday and other celebrations, and even helping take care of the others’ home when they were away.

We’ll hear from both Mike and Wendy about how this intimate relationship developed and matured, even after Gardner’s death in 2oo2.

We’ll also hear about Mike as a father from his two grown children, Chip and Anne.

Mike’s Early Policy and School Finance Work

In our subsequent installments, we will take a deep dive into Mike’s early policy and school finance work in Oregon, Florida, and Texas as well as his research, teaching, and administrative roles at Stanford.

These multiple roles laid the foundation for the major reforms that he helped Brown push through in his final years as governor; however, they also resulted in some “complications,” more than “flaws,” that came with the territory of his becoming an “uncommon academic.”

So, stay tuned, all!!