Dare to Be 100: Dam Nation , What Would John Gardner Say?

What would John Gardner say about Stanford's dereliction in preserving this decrepit relic so that it can water its golf course?
11/17/2014 07:13 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2015

Last night I had the opportunity to check out the important new documentary film Dam Nation, that has already won honors at first-rank film festivals nationwide. It is a precise retelling of the history of American dam building which reached a fever pitch in the early 1920s. Thousands were built all over America. It seems that no river or creek was exempt. The thirst for power jaded any consideration of unintentional consequences into the future which number many, but the worst offense to me is the desecration of some of our most precious ecosystems, particularly for the fish whose existence in a healthy stream and river bed is essential.

This grim development of thousands of dams, most of which originally were well intended, but are now mostly derelict remnants, has resulted in the havoc that has cost the lives of billions of fish who were thirsty for living space.

This issue was important but remote to me until last night, when my neighborhood gathered to view the release of this wonderful film. Right there, hidden but central to our neighborhood is the Searsville Dam, built in 1892, simply to abet the water supply of San Francisco, 30 miles to the north. Not surprisingly, such intention was never fulfilled. It was subsequently acquired by Stanford. This dam which sits astride the San Francisquito Creek has languished into disrepair. Its only present usage is to supply water for the Stanford University golf course. Meanwhile untold millions of migratory salmon are obstructed from their original habitat. Their existence is held hostage to the caprice of Stanford.

Stanford University is my home church and to millions of alumni, faculty, and other neighbors and friends. All of us are immensely proud of its grandeur. One of its most esteemed members was John Gardner, who is still listed in its pantheon. John delivered the commencement address at the 100th graduation. Stanford accorded him their highest distinction that of the Uncommon Man. John served in Lyndon Johnson's cabinet as Secretary of HEW 1963-1969, and among other things brought in Medicare. Because of LBJ's embrace of the Vietnam War, John advised him not to run again. That took imperial sized balls to confront the President. John founded Common Cause and The Independent Sector. His books Excellence, Leadership, and his last, Living Leading and the American Dream are classics of immense vision and wisdom.

I had the wonderful chance to introduce John at his last public lecture at Stanford, predictably called "Self-Renewal," a favorite topic. I observed, "If we could but turn the clock back say to the Golden Age of Greece, or to the Enlightenment, or to the Founding Fathers of our nation and inject John into their midst he would become just then as he is to us today, the noblest citizen." Well said.

Shortly before he died in 2002 of prostate cancer, I had the immense privilege of introducing Chuck Feeney to John. Chuck is the anonymous billionaire who made his fortune in the Duty Free shops with the direct intent of giving it all away while still alive. In this pursuit he recruited Buffet, Gates, et al in the Giving While Living effort. Stanford has received much from Chuck. John and Chuck shared idealisms for much of the afternoon in John's campus home. Chuck was so taken by the encounter that he directed his foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies, to produce an excellent PBS documentary on John, the Uncommon Man.

I often reflect what would John have to say about X,Y or Z. What would John Gardner say about Stanford's dereliction in preserving this decrepit relic so that it can water its golf course? I am certain that John, like thousands of others, would cringe in embarrassment. Stanford, please deserve your exalted reputation in society, and tear down the dam.