01/09/2014 02:17 pm ET Updated Mar 09, 2014

Betsey Johnson in Tucson

Just a few weeks ago fashion designer Betsey Johnson visited Tucson. She came via the good offices of the University of Arizona Center for American Culture and Ideas (CACI), the UA Lundgren Center for Retailing, and Tucson Fashion Week. During her visit she met with young designers, headlined a major fashion show, and showered good cheer on all who came in contact with her. She even did her trademark cartwheel and splits.

It was my job as the director of CACI to introduce Betsey to the large gathering and so I diligently prepared remarks that I thought appropriate. After sweating bullets over the composition thereof, in the event, just before going on I was persuaded by my colleague to chill and just give my comments off the cuff. Her call was the right one. But I have since reviewed my comments, and damn if I don't still like them. So this is for Betsey -- here is what I might have said to you under slightly different circumstances:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Wow, that got your attention, didn't it! Of course, while the word happiness (in this context I think) means meaning, we can all acknowledge that in this country we have the freedom to make our lives so that they matter to us, and that this can take many divergent paths.

There is an even older document that pertains to our situation as well, and that is the Jewish Bible, or as some of you know it, the Old Testament. You may remember that right at the beginning Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge, discover their nakedness, and have to find something to wear, even if that is just fig leaves.

The Center for American Culture and Ideas has as its acronym CACI, a most common material. That seems about right. We aim high, and are interested in high ideas, high culture, and high values. Yet we recognize the interaction between the high and popular that has always driven culture. We acknowledge greatness, and suggest that it can be known, appreciated, questioned, and emulated, but it should not overwhelm our desire for innovation and the new. We might listen to Monteverdi, Bach, Mahler, Copland, or Bernstein; look at the creations of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Picasso, Balanchine or Joffrey; and we might refer to Plato, the Bibles, the Declaration of Independence, or Dante, Twain and Roth. One of our goals is to occasionally remind our students of some of those elements of the past that allow us to live how we do, and of some of the things of greatness our forebears have left us.

But of course, this brings us to Betsey Johnson, and how she fits into this picture. For years, BJ has followed her own path to happiness and meaning, creating designs of imagination and beauty that have graced the feminine half of the species. I don't doubt that she has taken inspiration from many sources, old and new, during her career. In so doing she has confronted rather admirably Eve's dilemma, how to cover up, but to do so with style, wit, and allure. As a model for emulation, I hope that sometime in the future I will be able to do the splits, but somehow I doubt it. We are grateful for her presence here and her support of the University of Arizona Center for American Culture and Ideas.