Like most nights during this month of Ramadan, last night we attended an iftaar dinner at the home of Dr. Sadiq Moyhuddin. After our meeting with the board of the World Affairs Council of St. Louis, we were welcomed by Dr. Mohyuddin, and his wife and daughter to a wonderful spread of traditional Pakistani food. This dinner, sponsored by the Interfaith Partnership of St. Louis, represented the openness and harmony that is in St. Louis between the different faiths. Muslim, Christian, Jew, Quaker, and other faiths exist easily in this quiet city, which often has the look and feel often of a small Midwest town.
We met many important St. Louisans that night, including former governor of Missouri Bob Holden who was in office from 2001 to 2005. While at the dinner we questioned him extensively on the history and culture of Missouri and St. Louis in particular. A gracious, humble, and amiable man, who dressed casually and relaxed easily, he offered in particular to show us the famous arch in the morning and explain its significance. The next morning we agreed to pick him up at his hotel. Standing with a suit and briefcase on the corner, we stopped and he squeezed into the backseat with us, talking easily without a trace of pretension. Although it was my first time meeting a governor, former or current, I knew that this friendly informality was unusual.
On the way he described that the famous arch symbolizes the gateway to the West. St. Louis in particular has been home to the beginning of many voyages across the West including the Lewis and Clark expedition. It represents going beyond the comfortable and into the wild unknown. St. Louis, and Missouri in particular, are trailblazers into the future. Furthermore there is a steadfast independence in St. Louis. The American spirit of independence and self-reliance is strong here. Gov. Holden shared that his father offered to give he and his brothers, on the condition that his sons not smoke or drink, one hundred dollars and one hundred acres of land when they turned twenty-one. His brother began to smoke at twenty and quit at twenty-one.
The value placed on independence, even from one’s parents, and the bold move to strike out alone was not lost on him even in a family far different from his own—the Kennedys. The death of John F. Kennedy was tragic for all of America, but for him the loss of Bobby Kennedy was even more meaningful. He admired his compassion and tireless work for the poor, to stand up for what was right, even when he was alone. Upon his assassination, many who had looked up to him mourned the loss of a great figure. But more than that Gov. Holden mourned the loss of morality and charity in public life. This dark moment inspired him to pursue a life of public service.
Standing with Gov. Holden under the soaring the arch, he also talked of the future in America. The arch, a symbol of innovation, courage, and the pioneering spirit, should be the model for us in the twenty-first century as well. As globalization brings new challenges and new frontiers to conquer, he argues that we must face these new challenges and prepare ourselves through education and creativity. He is also a professor at the original Webster University campus which has now expanded to over 150 campuses all over the world, including China. He recognizes that competition in the global marketplace and other cultural differences may be threatening for many Americans, but the answer is rather to be open to the unknown and learn from foreign nations in order to succeed.
The governor has had extensive experience in experience culture shocks. From the farm where he grew up to the governor’s mansion and professor’s podium in Beijing, he has proven his savvy in intercultural communication. However, he remains the humble farm boy at heart, hat in hand, ready to face hardship or fortune with equanimity and determination.
His spirit and the spirit of St. Louis (pun intended) has also set us up for a wonderful departure into the unknown. Our Muslim professor is now venturing into American society and Americans into their own, many who have never been west of the Mississippi. We now take our own bold journey from this Midwest town, with many cheering us on and wishing us well.