John Rowe biography:
John W. Rowe is Chairman Emeritus of Chicago-based Exelon Corporation, an electric utility serving Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, DC.
Rowe led Exelon from its formation in 2000 through the completion of its acquisition of Constellation Energy in 2012. Rowe previously held chief executive officer positions at the New England Electric System and Central Maine Power Company, served as general counsel of Consolidated Rail Corporation, and was a partner in the law firm of Isham, Lincoln & Beale. Rowe is a past chairman of Edison Electric Institute. He is the former non-executive Chairman of the Board of SunCoke Energy and previously served on the boards of Northern Trust, Allstate, UnumProvident and Bank Boston.
Civic and Charitable Commitments
He is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and the Advisory Council to the Oriental Institute. Rowe is a former chairman of the Commercial Club of Chicago, the Chicago History Museum, The Field Museum and Illinois Institute of Technology. He is a member of the boards of Artis-Naples, the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, the Northwestern University Settlement House, The Pritzker Military Library, and is a past president of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. He is a co-chairman of the American Business Immigration Coalition. The Rowes have founded two Professorships of Architecture and a Chair in Sustainable Energy at IIT, as well as the Rowe Chair in the History of American Politics, the Rowe Professorship in Byzantine History and the Rowe Professorship in Greek History at the University of Wisconsin, the Rowe Center in Virology at the Morgridge Institute, the Curator of Evolutionary Biology at the Field Museum and the Rowe Professorship in Egyptian history at the University of Chicago. The Trust co-founded the Rowe-Clark Math and Science Academy and the Rowe Elementary School. The Rowes have served as patrons of the Pope John Paul II parochial school.
Awards and Recognition
The Rowes have been widely recognized for civic and professional leadership: including the Chicago Humanities Festival Humanists of the Year presented to John and Jeanne, Henry Townley Heald Award from IIT, the Bertha Honore Palmer Making History Award for Distinction in Civic Leadership, presented to John and Jeanne, the “Hat’s Off” award from the Building & Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO, The Spirit of Shakespeare Award from Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the Misericordia Heart of Mercy Award, the Edison Electric Institute Distinguished Leadership Award, election as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce’s Daniel H. Burnham Award for Business and Civic Leadership, Illinois Holocaust Museum’s Humanitarian award, University of Arizona’s Executive of the Year Award, the Union League of Philadelphia’s Founder’s Award, the American Jewish Committee’s Civic Leadership Award, El Valor’s Corporate Visionary Award, the City Club of Chicago’s Citizen of the Year Award. In 2013, he was elected one of the six regents of the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Education & Family
Rowe holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Wisconsin, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and the Order of the Coif. He has also received that university’s Distinguished Alumni Award. Rowe holds honorary doctorates from the University of Wisconsin, DePaul University, Illinois Institute of Technology, Drexel University, University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, Bryant College, Thomas College and Dominican University.
Rowe and his wife, Jeanne, reside in Chicago, as does their son, William.
7 July 2021
Rowe: –during the Depression. Even though as farmers they didn’t have a particularly horrible experience. But it seared their brains. And I’m not saying that critically. They both graduated from high school. But neither went to college. My mother had six months of what was called teacher training in those days. And then she taught for a number of years in one-room schools around southwest Wisconsin.
Now my wife’s family is interesting. Her mother had a high school education, but her father dropped out at sixteen because his father lost his hands in a factory. And part of the “compensation” in quotes was giving the son the job. So he left high school after his sophomore year and my wife always remembers that when people ask her to talk about white privilege. Her parents’ family were Italian immigrants on the father’s side.
Tortorice: Oh, isn’t that interesting.
Rowe: On the mother’s side, they were French Canadian immigrants. But fifty years earlier on her mother’s side. My parents were Welsh and Cornish. Where I grew up in Dodgeville at the time, there were three kinds of people: Irish Catholic, Welsh and Cornish Methodists, and Norwegian Lutherans. And nearly everybody fit in one of those three boxes. And there was no color to discriminate about. So we discriminated about religion with great glee. But it was fascinating because the whole family was upset when one of my cousins wanted to marry a Catholic boy. It turns out she’d have been a lot better off if she had, than if she’d married the guy she did. But it took forty years for the older folks to accept that.
But these weren’t hate, these were issues of just fear of the difference. You know, we had friends across religious lines. It’s just that when you dated across the line, you got a leery eye from your mother. But my father was a pretty successful farmer. But successful farmers aren’t rich. They work like dogs and they’re pretty good businessmen. So my parents died with some money, but mostly because they didn’t spend any their whole lives. And 00:03:00 they wanted me to go to college. Because I have asthma and I’m clumsy. So my future on the farm was not promising. But higher education was a mixed bag for them. They felt badly that they didn’t have it, and somewhat envied people who did, but they didn’t want anybody to be judged by having it. It was very much a comme ci, comme ca thing. But it was always accepted that I would do that.
On the other hand, when my youngest brother, there are three of us, was a freshman in college, Dad wanted to sell the farm. And said, “Well, if you want to come home and slowly take it over, I won’t. But if you want to finish college, I will.” Too much pressure for a nineteen-year-old. But that’s the way it was.
Tortorice: Was your brother at UW at that time?
Rowe: Yes. Both my brothers went to UW. But I’m the one who loved it. I mean, I’m not saying that they didn’t have a good time or learned a lot. I’m just saying, I’m the one who loved it. I went to a one-room country school for eight years. My middle brother did, too. I think my youngest brother went there three years and then it closed and then he quote “went to town school,” unquote. But again, that’s a formative thing. I mean it’s not a very good way to get an education. Town school did a much better job. But there are some kinds of education that come with, just the crackers, please. When I was in seventh grade, there were no eighth graders in my school. So I had the sole authority to spend the twenty-five-dollar book budget for the school. And at that time, for twenty-five dollars from the school catalogs, you could get eight or ten books. And I was into Scottish history at that point. So I think the Holyhead Elementary School and the best collection on William Wallace and Robert the Bruce of any school.
Tortorice: John, I have one question. You said your father came from a Cornish background. Were they, had they been there for a long time?
Rowe: Long time.
Rowe: My father was Welsh and Cornish. My mother was all Cornish. And those identities are much stronger in southwest Wisconsin 00:06:00 in my day than they would be nearly anywhere. What happened is, lead miners came to southwest Wisconsin and northwest Illinois and Missouri from Wales and Cornwall. And then the farmers, which is what my family were, came because there were people like them there already. The classic path.
My grandfather on my father’s side was not a very good farmer. But he was a very good small-town politician. My father always said my grandmother really ran the farm. My grandfather was very much part of a [Robert M.] La Follette (1855-1925) organization. They weren’t an important part, but a committed part. And you learn over life what the implications of that were. First he was very jealous of anyone in business. He was very big on co-ops. My father despised them. My grandfather always used Pioneer seed corn. I didn’t know as a kid why we used that brand. I asked my dad and he couldn’t tell me. He did it because his father had. Well, his father did because it’s the Henry Wallace (1888-1965) seed corn.
And the magazines we had were all from rural populations. Not that I knew it when I was in high school, but they were.
Tortorice: Was he a supporter of Henry Wallace in his 1948 campaign?
Rowe: He might have been. I wouldn’t know.
Tortorice: Because that was quite far left. George actually was a supporter of his in 1948.
Rowe: Oh, really?
Tortorice: But in Iowa. But I don’t think it was realized how far left he was at that point.
Rowe: Maybe Wallace himself didn’t even realize where he was at that point.
Tortorice: Yes, I think that’s probably right.
Rowe: But my grandfather stayed a high church progressive all his life. My father moved from very much part of the Roosevelt coalition to being much sharper and shriller right. And it was kind of an example of the politics of envy. I think he always felt that he bled for what he had, and why didn’t other people? That was the organizing attitude.
Tortorice: Which is what most people feel. (laughs) It’s kind of a human—
Rowe: Yes. And maybe I’m a little that way myself. 00:09:00 Except I’ve worked a lot with poor kids. So you know, I’m a product of that beginning. The farm, physical labor, animals that die. I mean, you’re allowed to name a cow, but you’re not supposed to take it seriously, because it will die or be slaughtered. My father was, for farm families, very protective of his kids. Like I didn’t drive a tractor till I was eleven. We had neighbors who had five-year-olds driving tractors. Which is insane, but they did.
So anyway, in the fall of 63, I went off to Madison.
Tortorice: Well I wanted to ask, when you were in Dodgeville and you came from a hardworking family, some resources but not by any means rich.
Tortorice: Did you have any teachers when you were in grade school or high school that really had an impact on you?
Rowe: My high school chemistry teacher had that kind of effect. He was a strange, irascible man, generally considered by the kids to be a tyrant. But if he thought you were really interested, you were adopted. His name was Ted Prideaux Had a very good math teacher. I had English teachers who cared but it took me a while. I didn’t learn to write until philosophy classes in law school. But Ted Prideaux and Gertrude Johnson, the science teacher and the math teacher, were big influences on me. But you know, it’s strange, because they were influences as teachers. They weren’t really mentors. I’ve had some, but not at that stage. My mentor was still my father at that stage.
Tortorice: But it sounds like you were destined for a university education. And it sounds like there was an understanding that you had access to UW Madison.
Rowe: Oh, yeah. But there were two choices. UW Madison and what was then the State College of Platteville. 00:12:00 And every mother wanted their kids to go to Platteville, not Madison.
Rowe: And the reason is, kids who went to Platteville stayed in southwest Wisconsin. And kids who went to Madison went God knows where. And Mother knew it. And to both of my parents’ credit, they never tried to limit what I could do. They had preferences. You knew what they were. They weren’t shy. But like in my summer after my junior year, I got a chance to work for the state Republican Party for the summer. Paid almost nothing. But it was a job. They’d have rather I was home working on the farm. But they knew I wasn’t going to stay there, so they thought well, maybe I would meet people and learn things that would be good for me. And that’s how they were. But there were only two choices as to college. And you either went to the state college or you went to UW. And fortunately, UW was a good choice.
But I remember distinctly a girl in one of my history classes from the east saying, “I came here because UW has a great history department. Is that why you’re here?”
I said, “No. In-state tuition.”
Tortorice: So you arrived in Madison in 1963.
Rowe: Mm hmm.
Tortorice: The fall of 63, a momentous semester, because of course President Kennedy (1917-1963) was assassinated (22 November).
Rowe: Everyone remembers where you were when that happened, or when you heard about it.
Tortorice: Yes. So you were a freshman. Where were you when that happened, John?
Rowe: I was walking up Bascom Hill when somebody told me. I don’t know which class I was going to, but all of a sudden everything else seemed irrelevant that day. It was one of those days. And then you scurried back to your dorm as soon as you could, and watched it on the television what was happening.
Tortorice: So you lived in a dorm when you first arrived. I suppose most students did. And it was a fairly rigid, regulated dorm life? Compared to what came later, I guess.
Rowe: Oh, sure. But that’s a very relative thing. It wasn’t a constrained life. I lived in a place called Henry Rust House, which was on Orchard Street, called a scholarship dorm. And it was for poor kids. I got thrown out for my senior year because UW decided my parents 00:15:00 really weren’t poor. They looked at the assets instead of the income. Oh, was Mother mad. We’re poor, damn it! Mother wanted to be rich and poor, both the same day. But the room and board was five hundred dollars a year. And you had to take care of your own room. You had once a week duties cleaning up the halls, and twice a week duties helping in the kitchen. That’s it. And it was a whole bunch of bright kids from all over the state, but mostly small towns. Kids who paid a lot of attention to grades. Our grades for each semester would be posted on the dorm wall. We were probably more awkward with girls than the average boys. (laughs) But it was still a time when girls had hours.
Rowe: But boys didn’t. So, except for having to get a date home, yes it was regimented compared to today, but it didn’t have much effect on how you actually lived.
Tortorice: I recall there was a Dean [Theodore] Zillman at that point who was in charge of, he probably was the dean of students. And then there was a dean of women, also, that was a separate position, Martha Peterson, who went onto—
Rowe: Oh, I remember that name.
Tortorice: Yes. Martha went onto a great career. She probably was the only woman at a high level at UW. Very interesting.
Rowe: Well, I was on student senate. And of course all the boys and the younger girls wanted to eliminate girls’ hours. And the older girls would have these pious statements about how their younger sisters needed this protection. And it just, I mean, it would be laughable now. Most of us boys thought it was pretty laughable then. But I was on something called the Student Life and something Committee, SLIC, or something like that. And the female professor who was the chairman said, you know, “You’re awfully liberal on these issues.”
And I said, “Look, I’m a Goldwater kid.” (laughs) This makes no sense to me. It didn’t make any sense to the girls I knew, either. But it was something about the time that when the girls got to be seniors, they took very seriously protecting freshman girls.
Tortorice: They probably by that time had some experience of what was possible. (laughs) But, so what was Madison like when you arrived there? It was a much smaller city—
Rowe: Freedom. It was wonderful. Because Dodgeville High School was a jock school. I can’t put a ball in a basket to save my soul. And the athletes were nice to me. Even the cheerleaders were nice to me. In hindsight, 95% of my insecurities were internal, not externally driven. But I didn’t know that at the time. When I got to UW, I said, no matter how weird I am, there will be people like me here. And no matter how odd my interests are, there will be other people with those interests here. For some people, particularly some of the kids at the charter school I used to work with, a small school is a better thing because you can have more intense support networks. For John Rowe, a great state university was the thing. Because I could flounder around in my awkward way and find friends, find people with common interests.
One of my favorite memories, and it’s just etched, is that in 1964, in the fall, I was walking up the hill with a man whose name I remember, who was a friend from student government. His name was Dan Friedlander. And he was a professed communist and disappeared in Russia in ways that the none of the rest of us know what happened. I assume he came back, but I don’t know. And we were walking up Bascom Hill in a civil rights march. And I had my Goldwater button and he had his SDS button. And in between us, there was this very well endowed young lady. And she burbled—and it’s the only word for it I, I do not mean to downgrade her, because she was perhaps the wisest of the three—but she said, “You know, only at a place like this can two people with ideas as different as yours come together on a common effort.” Well, she wasn’t quite right. It was naïve, but not wrong. 00:21:00 And that’s part of what UW meant to me.
Oh, my mother was so shocked when I told her about several communists I know. And she said, “Well, their parents must be ashamed.”
I said, “No, no. Their parents are communists, too. Their parents have been indicted.” (laughter) Dennis and Eisenscher were at UW during those years.
Tortorice: You had all of those, what they called the red diaper babies that came to UW, I think because of, it did have a progressive and more open attitude toward political radicalism, I guess at the time.
Rowe: We used to get very upset. I still do, even though my politics, my politics weren’t there then, either. When people say Berkeley is the home of the radical university, and we Badgers didn’t see it that way. (Tortorice laughs) Pure chauvinism. But it was—this is strange, but I don’t want to forget it, so it’s out of sequence. But I am significantly more conservative than most of the faculty that I contribute to. And that troubles me. But I feel safer with the UW history department, where professors state their views candidly, than I do with most NGOs where they hide them but turn out hard left anyway. And I’m so furious with the teachers’ unions that I could become apoplectic.
Tortorice: Here in Chicago.
Rowe: And San Francisco. And the anti-Israel resolution that San Francisco adopted, and the anti-capitalist resolution that the NEA and AFT just adopted. But also that they wouldn’t go back to teach in the spring. I mean, I really care about the kids. But you know, it was a wondrous experience because one of my friends was the first Jewish person I knew. And he became a writer. And sometimes in the New York Times, his name was Harvey Shapiro (1924-2013). Very bright fellow. He was so proud of himself one day. He was asked the usual question on the causes of World War One. And he wrote, “World War One was caused by the search of the Balkan peoples for a national homeland, which they finally found in south Milwaukee.” (laughter) I wouldn’t have had the courage to do that.
Tortorice: I think that’s 00:24:00 an important question about the history department, which you have supported so wholesomely and generously and has always had a reputation for challenging the established narrative, I guess you’d say. And you know, made incredible contributions to a more nuanced understanding of our history. And maybe would have kept us out of a lot of trouble, in a way, if it had been more recognized by the establishment.
Rowe: When I was an undergraduate, [George L.] Mosse and [Michael] Petrovich (1922-1989), both of whom I revered, would have been considered sort of center left figures.
Rowe: And [Harvey] Goldberg (1922-1987) and [William Appleman] Williams (1921-1990)—and stupidly I didn’t take either of their courses, but I’ve now read their books—would have been considered doctrinaire left professors. And there were all these delicious rumors about Mosse and Goldberg hating each other. I have no idea what, if any, truth there was to that.
Tortorice: You know, I think they were friends at one time. I think they became a bit competitive for students and for student, well—
We’re just breaking for a minute.
Tortorice: I’m back with John Rowe. We just discussed your arrival in Madison and your impressions of the university, some of your experiences. So why did you decide to major in history?
Rowe: Oh, yeah.
Tortorice: So tell me about that.
Rowe: Well, first semester I took a poli sci course by a strange teacher namedThorstein I think it was Thorstein who walked out of the last class with a hangover. But he introduced me to Karl Popper (1902-1994), for which I will always be grateful. And a good economics course, which was just a good economics course. A chemistry course that convinced me that laboratory science was not for me. And an English course where the TA wrote on my first paper, “I think, at least I hope, that you can write greatly better than this.” (laughter) Got the message.
But second semester I took George’s 1815 to the present class. And some of it was familiar to me from my own reading. But the Holocaust was almost altogether new. It probably had a paragraph or a page in my high school history book. And he didn’t ever mention his own connection to it. I didn’t learn about that till later. I certainly didn’t know about the Mosse publishing family and the Mosse building in Berlin or any of that stuff. I didn’t know that he was gay, either. Those things just weren’t talked about in those days.
But as I took that course, I just said, this is what I want to study. And I can do it because I want to go to law school, I can do this because I like it. And I mean, economics was important to me. I had enough credits in economics, philosophy and history for a major in any of the three. But history was the love. And philosophy taught me how to write. Not English, but philosophy. All of a sudden I realized that it wasn’t so much about grammatical rules. Writing in a way that has taut logic and appeals to the eye and ear at the same time is really hard. I give a lot of philosophy professors that. 00:28:51
But during my time in history courses, I had two of George’s classes, which were motivating. I had a World War Two and the Holocaust class from a man I think whose name was Fishman.
Tortorice: Oh, Sterling Fishman (1932-1997), who was one of George’s PhDs.
Rowe: And he was superb.
Tortorice: Yes. He was a great teacher. He really was.
Rowe: And that really, I probably took it more for the war than the Holocaust, and ended up remembering it more for the Holocaust than the war. And since then, I’ve taught World War Two and the Holocaust to two high schools classes. But it was very motivating. And I had a really good female TA who was both smart and kind. And to my shame, which I won’t hide, the thing I remember most about her was walking up Bascom Hill to class with her one day and she had the boots, the heeled boots that were popular on women then. And her boots didn’t fit. So she was constantly walking with her heels outside the heels of the boots. It’s a horrible thing to remember, but it was, she was very good. And Fishman was very good.
I had Paul Glad (1926-2018) for my senior thesis. I have nothing but good things to say about him. But we never built a relationship. I had Merle Curti (1897-1996) for one of my American history survey classes. And that was a privilege. I had Petrovich for Russian history. I had a really boring teacher for medieval history, so I hope you don’t figure out who it was. I can’t remember.
Tortorice: Probably Herlihy. David Herlihy (1930-1991)?
Rowe: Might have been.
Tortorice: He was the predecessor of Courtenay. He was a very distinguished historian, but maybe perhaps not the best teacher. He went to Harvard. If it was Herlihy. But I think in those years it was Herlihy.
Rowe: I didn’t take Greek, Roman or Byzantine, which is odd, considering what I’m subsidizing.
Tortorice: Mm hmm. That would have been [Charles F.] Edson (1905-1988) who was, you know—
Rowe: Or Barker.
Tortorice: Or [John W.] Barker (1933-2019). Yes, John Barker was there, that’s right.
Rowe: Barker sent me a note, two notes, after Jane and I funded the Byzantine chair. First one says, “When I retired, I thought the field of my interest was forever gone from UW. And I’m so grateful to you for bringing it back.” Which was kind of him. The second note said, “You may not know this, Mr. Rowe, but there’s politics in the history department.” (laughter) And he was very concerned that Bill Courtenay wanted to turn the Byzantine chair into a 00:31:50 medieval literature chair. Which I don’t think that there’s ever been any threat of doing.
Tortorice: Well, John was good at politics himself. (laughs) So it wasn’t as if he was above the fray. (laughs)
Rowe: I have not met an innocent in my life.
Tortorice: No. (laughs) But to go back to this first course with Mosse, what was he like? What was it that really got your attention about that course? I recall you writing George a letter where you spoke about him challenging a student that was reading a newspaper.
Rowe: No, it was chewing gum.
Tortorice: Oh, chewing gum. Yes. Because George, he didn’t put up with a lot of nonsense in his classes. It was a serious business.
Rowe: No, he didn’t. On the other hand, he answered that letter by saying I should be more ashamed of what I said than the girl should be ashamed of chewing gum.
Tortorice: Yes, yes.
Rowe: Because he realized he’d been utterly unkind, which wasn’t his nature.
Tortorice: It wasn’t. But he did have a temper. And that was a serious thing for him. And you know, I think it was, to some extent, that he was using this person as an example to get the attention of everyone else in the room focused on him. Because he was, he wasn’t going to go up there and just sit around students who were reading newspapers or pounding away on their computers. He wanted their attention. So I have a feeling that might have been—
Rowe: I would describe him as a lecturer, since I never had him for a small class, as profound, authoritarian, and subtle. I mean, taught us a lot about things we didn’t know without ever sounding like God had told him that this was the whole truth. He wasn’t timid. But he never acted like he knew it all and understood it all. And it had a big impact on me. And you know, he talked about what turned Weimar into the Third Reich in ways that a freshman could grasp. And I used the same analytical framework to teach the kids when I taught it.
Tortorice: Really? I’d like to hear that.
Rowe: I said, “Look, you’re not going to learn all of this in high school. But 00:34:49 Hitler came to power for four reasons: the Versailles Treaty and the deep sense of inequity; the economic collapse of the 20s; the long history of racism; and the sort of collapse of legitimacy.” All of which I got from both Mosse and Fishman.
But my kids challenged me. The dominant thing in my kids’ life was always their families. They said, “Mr. Rowe, you’re just discounting the importance of Hitler’s bad father.” I’m sure they’re right. But the interesting thing was not whether they’re right or wrong; the interesting thing is, it tells you a lot about them.
Tortorice: It does. Yes, indeed. Well, George had that authoritative lecturing style which he developed at Iowa after the war. Because he had to teach these huge classes of returning veterans. And he had to emote for a large group. And he—
Rowe: He did it superbly.
Tortorice: Yes. He learned it there.
Rowe: Oh, I would have thought he might have brought it from his own classes back in Germany. But no?
Tortorice: No, he, you know, he didn’t really have much of an education in Germany itself.
Rowe: I see.
Tortorice: Because he went to Salem, which was the boarding school that his parents helped found. Which was a progressive school. But most of his education was in England and the US. Quaker. Until he went to Harvard, his education was Quaker. You know at Bootham and I think that had a profound influence on him, actually.
But this lecture style that he developed he once said was based on Methodist preachers. Eighteenth-century Methodist preachers.
Rowe: Maybe that’s why I liked it.
Tortorice: Isn’t that funny? Because that was the era he studied. He studied such a vast range of history, as you know. Very unusual for a historian to make contributions in all the areas that he did.
Rowe: Well, I have his little book on the Reformation. Still.
Tortorice: That’s one of his biggest sellers, actually.
Tortorice: I don’t know if it still sells. But at one time, it was used a lot by Lutheran parishes. Yes. But yeah, I think that he puts so much into undergraduate education. And you know, that idea that what 00:37:50 he was trying to do, of course I’m speaking for him, was to get his students to think critically of course and to break them from the ideology that they brought. Because he always felt that what he needed to do was spark a new way of thinking. You know, and that’s what education should do. It’s not there to fill you up with a certain political or cultural or social approach. It’s there to get you to think and to empower you. And also, I think history for him was very much a moral and ethical undertaking.
Rowe: Oh, I do, too.
Tortorice: And that might have come across, too, you know.
Rowe: Oh, it did. But you know, in teaching inner city kids, I’m going to say something foolish, but I think critical thinking is overrated. I’ve never met a high school kid who can’t do critical thinking. The challenge is getting them grounded in any facts.
Tortorice: Interesting. Well, there you go.
Rowe: I mean, the kids I taught, and of course I had good kids in my class. My wife had the tougher ones in hers. But they were very good at asking hard questions. They weren’t anywhere near equally good at grounding the opinions they had—and high school kids have lots of opinions—in facts. And I would give George as much credit for giving us complex facts to sort as for asking us to think critically about them. But also, he made it fun.
Tortorice: He always said teaching was, to a large extent, entertainment. If you couldn’t entertain them, they wouldn’t learn anything from you. You know, that’s interesting.
Rowe: I used to tell my kids that history is a bunch of things. At its most basic, it’s a bunch of facts. And if you don’t know them, you’ll never get it right. At the second level, it’s stories. Which aren’t exactly true or false. They’re either profound or not profound. And then I said, if you get to love it, it’s a song. And the kids would just look at me like, where does this nerd get this stuff? But I believe it.
One day I said to one of my girls, “When I was your age, I was such a nerd, I didn’t know what to do with a girl.”
And she looked at me, and she said, “Mr. Rowe, you’re still a nerd.” 00:40:50
Tortorice: (laughs) That’s funny.
Rowe: The kids love, high school kids can be both very respectful and very irreverent at the same time. And if you enjoy that, it’s a lot of fun. And if you don’t, it’s going to be nothing but frustration.
Tortorice: Well, George was very irreverent and subversive. And he loved poking the students to get them to respond. You know, to get them to think. So he was very provocative as a teacher. I don’t know if he was—
Rowe: I think that’s fair.
Rowe: Except in Ag Hall, there isn’t a lot of interchange possible. But the TAs, he had good TAs, and they did that.
Tortorice: You mentioned Burton Pines (d. 2019 at 78). Tell me about your experience of having him as a TA.
Rowe: Well, it was 1500 to 1815, which I found less emotional and more chronical. Even though that’s not fair when you think about the religious wars and all that sort of thing. But he was very careful. And very interactive. And so I just can’t remember the name of the other person. I think it also started with “B” but I can’t remember his name. Very orderly. He made it very clear that the assigned reading was only an island in an ocean of good things to read. But to this day, when somebody says what are the ten most important books you’ve read in your life, both The Heavenly City and Anatomy of a Revolution would be there. Rahm Emmanuel and I changed our most important books list. It turns out we’ve read a lot of the same ones.
But I didn’t mention John O’Connor, who I had Lawrence Veysey , who went on to California. And John O’Connor, who I have no idea where he went, for seminars. Veysey on American history and O’Connor in European. They were both very fine classes. And I don’t even remember so much about the focus, just that this was my first chance to really interact with credentialed professors, and it was fun. And O’Connor had his class, which was about four, over to his house and introduced me 00:43:50 to Grey Poupon mustard. So clearly it was a seminal experience. But he was good with us.
Tortorice: Well you know, that history department, but you were there and still, to a large extent, is so extraordinary because I don’t think you would have gotten better education anywhere, even at Harvard. Harvard it would have been much more stuffy and perhaps not as challenging an education. And I know you feel the same way about this.
Rowe: Well, I do.
Tortorice: And I felt that way, too.
Rowe: One of my favorite younger men in his early 40s, went to Williams, which he worships, and to U of C for his MBA. He didn’t learn at Williams what I learned at UW. But wonderful young man.
Tortorice: Well, so you had Mosse and Fishman. Were there other professors, well, as you mention now, Veysey and O’Connor.
Rowe: Veysey pointed out a big mistake to me. His assignment was to read Kenneth Stamp’s (1912-2009), I think is his name, and another fellow’s books on slavery. I’m repressing the other guy’s name, but he’s equally eminent as Stamp. And I read them both as narratives. And [Basey?] looked at me and said, “John, Stamp feels that the slaves built a remarkably decent life during slavery. And the other guy,” I think it was Stanley Elkins (1925-2013), I’m not sure, “thinks they were destroyed during slavery. You missed why I made you read those two books.”
Tortorice: (laughs) Oh, dear.
Rowe: And truthfully, I was so naïve that I, now I would read them and I would know. But I know the underlying issue now, too. It helps when you know the discord at the beginning. And Petrovich. I mean, the thing I remember most about him is first, he made Russian history fun. And second, in the last class he said, “Okay. I know what’s going on in the world. I don’t want to be the cause of any of my students being drafted. If you feel you’re in danger of flunking this class and it will get you out of the university and drafted, come see me. I’m not sure what I can do to help, but there must be something.” 00:46:50 And I’m not sure that was right or wrong, but I know it was kind.
Rowe: And that was Petrovich. But then you see in law school, I had [James] Willard Hurst (1910-1997).
Tortorice: Oh, yes.
Rowe: So I had another great historian.
Tortorice: Another great, yes.
Rowe: But it was—
?: Would you like anything else sir
Rowe: All of those people had an impact. But it’s
?: Any coffee? Coffee, sir?
Rowe: Yes, please.
Tortorice: Coffee and some of the cookies. The cookies. I love the cookies.
?: Mr. Rowe?
Rowe: Some mango sorbet.
?: Mango sorbet, sir? Thank you.
Rowe: But it’s Mosse who reignited a passion for history that started in third or fourth grade.
Tortorice: Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you. You had this interest in history and really a passion for reading, and reading history. And I think that’s something you’ve done all your life.
Rowe: All my life. Yes. To the absolute fury of my wife.
Tortorice: (laughs) But you know, it’s not that, I don’t know, maybe I’m being naïve, but it doesn’t seem that that is typical of a businessperson of your accomplishments.
Rowe: I don’t think it’s totally unusual, but it’s not typical. There is a big social divide between business and academia. As well as a big political divide. But most of the good CEOs I have known would say they valued the liberal arts component of their education. But I know only a few who enjoy reading history the way I do. I know some who are economists. They read that.
Tortorice: It’s amazing how many CEOs have history degrees from UW. It’s really quite something. I remember reading that somewhere. And I met a few of them. It’s really extraordinary.
Rowe: Well, UW. WARF had a foolish seminar once on why young men from small Wisconsin towns have an inordinate propensity to become CEOs. And they came very close to a racial interpretation, which was chilling. They didn’t really get quite there, but I started to say, come on, guys, you’re taking this altogether too seriously. 00:49:50
Tortorice: I think it’s just the opportunity that was available to people who probably didn’t come from a background—
Rowe: And the hunger.
Tortorice: And the hunger. The ambition. Yes.
Rowe: Somebody asked me once what my organizing principle in life is and it’s staying off the damn farm.
Tortorice: (laughs) There you go. Yeah.
Rowe: I mean—
Tortorice: Off the tractor. (laughs)
Rowe: I have nothing but respect for farmers and my parents. Nothing. But it wasn’t for me. It’s a very tough, it was a very tough life. It’s very different now.
Tortorice: So what do you think that this engagement with history has meant to you personally but also in your career? I mean it, I think it’s essential, you know, to living a good, enriching life to understand the past.
Rowe: So do I, but I would lose that debate with most of my friends—
Tortorice: Isn’t that amazing?
Rowe: –who have their own ways.
Rowe: To me, well, first, I enjoy it immensely. I remember my first landmark American history book. And it started with Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), who wasn’t quite the figure in history that the landmark history book had him. But I’ve been to his grave. There’s a big church in central Portugal where kings and princes are buried, and Prince Henry is there. But I also remember my fifth grade history text for world history. And it had pictures of the Parthenon, all the usual pictures. I’ve been to all those places that were in that book. And I’ve loved every one. So there’s something about the magic that’s important to me.
Diana Eck wrote a book on the phenomenon of pilgrimage. And to me, seeing all these things is pilgrimage. My wife and I left Pompeii. I said, “Isn’t this an amazing ruin?”
And she said, “Yes, John. But since I married you, I’ve seen so many ruins that my capability for amazement isn’t what it used to be.”
Tortorice: (laughs) But you know, it’s living in history, in a way.
Rowe: It is.
Tortorice: When you interpret anything, you have this way of interpretation that brings in so much complexity.
Rowe: And you, I think if you really care, you start off by feeling that we’re not so different than they were, whoever they are. And that’s a source of value. I used to say, 00:52:50 the Byzantines used to say that you used the Kipchaks to offset the Bulgars. Well, that’s part of running a utility. You’ve got to figure out who you’re going to get for an ally to offset the people who are inherently against you.
The other thing I think is very important is history teaches you to take all of your fundamental beliefs with a little bit of salt. Like there’s a great Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935) statement is “be sure to fight for your beliefs. But remember, you may be wrong.” And both halves of that were important to Holmes.
I think I was able to survive in the utility business for as long as I did because first I knew that the government was always bigger than my company. And second, I knew that what I thought to be inalienable rights were always alienable in some way. You know, Clio speaks with much obscurity. But she does speak.
I told somebody once, I did an interview. I said, “You know, you want to know how history helps you in the job market.” I said, “It’s of almost no use in getting your first job. But if you ever get near the top, it’s of great use.” Of whatever you’re doing. Government, not for profits, for profits.
Utilities are fascinating examples because all utility property, yes, you own it, the company does. But it’s in some way mingled with public ownership and public interest. Nothing is ever clean in the utility world. If you own a dam, yes, you own the dam. But the public owns the river, whatever that means. Your wires are in ducts underneath the streets. You don’t own the streets.
I mean, first I read history for fun. And second, I think it forces you to learn about things like the Holocaust. And it’s not the only one.
Tortorice: Well, it gives you the bigger picture.
Tortorice: The larger—
Rowe: Excuse me, I’ve got to run again.
Rowe: It’s a real problem, and I apologize.
Tortorice: Oh, it’s no problem. 00:55:50
Rowe: But it will get better in time.
Tortorice: We’ll be back in a moment.
Rowe: Markets and property rights are an essential component of any kind of successful and free society, I would—
Rowe: But few of us would argue that they’re the sole component.
Rowe: That doesn’t work.
Rowe: Rahm and I have this argument all the time. Rahm says, “God damn it, John, your capitalism won’t fix inequality.”
I say, “God damn it, Rahm, inequality is no worse than it ever was.” But it’s always a friendly argument, because he knows I work with poor kids. And my wife too. Actually, it’s a split in our house. I care a lot about universities and history and higher education. My wife cares about primary and secondary education.
Tortorice: And you’ve supported both.
Rowe: Both. All three.
Rowe: And we’re going to have more than one talk before I can answer Leonora [Neville]’s latest request. But it was funny. When we did the first one, the Byzantine chair, we were talking to Tom Archdeacon. And I said, “Well, I’d like to do something. I’d like it to be a chair, but I can’t give enough money yet to justify a chair.”
He said, “You’ll find that we’re easy.” So he said, “What do you want to do?”
I said, “Well, I’d like to do the Holocaust, but somebody else has probably done it.”
He said, “Yes, Mosse himself did it.”
I said, “Well, I like American economic history. I like Greek, Roman, and Byzantine history.”
“Byzantine?” he said. “We will never meet anyone else who would fund that. That’s what we want, because we can’t get it anywhere else.”
So, he was very charming.
But my wife and I also fund the virus program at the Morgridge Institute.
Rowe: I mean, the government really funds it, but we give them the leverage. Jeanne sees that. To her, that’s per se important. She thinks history is mostly important to nerds like me. Which she would say literally. I just don’t see it that way.
Tortorice: You know, when you see the young people studying history, you see the impact that it has. Of course, not all of them, and not right away. But when you actually witness the engagement with that—
Rowe: When we got Fritzie Fritzshall (1929-2021) to come to my Holocaust classes at Rowe Clark, which is in a wretched neighborhood on the West Side, Jeanne was in tears. Our principal was in tears. And all of a sudden, the kids were 00:59:05 realizing that while they have it bad, nowhere near the worst that there has been.
There’s a wonderful little book called The Stones Cry Out by two Cambodian girls who now have a Polish surname and I think live in France. But they were part of the Pol Pot (1925-1998) genocide. And at the end, they’re free of the camp. They’re trying to get to Vietnam to a camp where they’ll be safe. And one of them says, “We were walking down the road and heard that the Vietnamese Army were coming this way. So we changed to another route, because soldiers can be cruel to girls on the road.” And it was a throwaway line, which is what made it so powerful. This is just something that any smart thirteen-year-old girl would know is you don’t get close to an army. I mean, it just searingly strong.
We had some bad experiences with the management of our charter schools. But the kids were more often better than we had a right to expect, rather than worse. And Jeanne, the thing that made her happiest on Mother’s Day, since she has no children herself, was a Mother’s Day note from one of the girls she worked with twelve years ago. But—
Tortorice: It’s so essential education, it’s so essential to the transition of wisdom and values of, you know.
Rowe: Transmission of wisdom and values. And at the same time, opening minds so you don’t take all of them as written on the Ten Commandments, which were a little subject to interpretation themselves.
Tortorice: It’s like, what is the alternative? It’s limited, in a way.
Rowe: See, Jeanne and I think that breaking the vicious cycle of poverty in the Black community in Chicago or other cities requires a number of things. Some of them are from the liberal side, some are from the conservative side, but no one of them will do it. But the one we picked where we could have the most impact was education. And we give scholarships. We tutor kids down in Florida. You wouldn’t think of Naples as a place where there’s a lot of poor people. Not west of Highway 41. 01:02:05 Go three miles east and all of a sudden you have the families of the workers. In the group Jeanne does afterschool work for, the typical father has a fifth grade education and mother, third grade. They’re from the islands. These are bad places. Nice weather, bad places.
I had this one fifty-five-year-old Haitian woman come up to me one day. She’s got pieces of three different two-year degrees. So she’s mucked it all up. She asked for help and I said, “Look, I’ll do the best I can, but I don’t have the network in Naples that I have in Chicago.” I struck out. And I called her and I said, “Look. Your daughter is a school principal. I wish I could help you better than I can. But the grim reality is, like so many immigrants, you’ve had it hard. And your kids are going to have it better. And that’s due to you.” I said, “That’s cold comfort, but it’s the best I can say.”
But one of my directors, a Mexican-American named [Tatu?] once said, “John, the Latinos will be fine in two generations. The first generation is so damn busy just surviving. They don’t have much time to get ahead. But their kids will.” That’s our experience.
Trouble is, it does not apply in the same way to the Black community. Why is that? Absentee fathers. Okay, why are the fathers absentee? Slavery? I don’t think much. Because it’s a long time ago. But Jim Crow, oh, bigger effect. But foolish welfare policies, inadequate education. There’s so many pieces to it.
Tortorice: Just the persistence of racism and discrimination. I think we don’t understand the damage that that can do. I mean—
Rowe: Our learning is that it’s all individual. You can make generalizations, but take them—one of my favorite girls graduated from Rowe-Clark. Had a Posse Scholarship to Cornell. The real Cornell, not the little one in Iowa. Only African American in her class to graduate with a math degree. Then had trouble finding a job because she didn’t take my advice and take one accounting course. But it’s fascinating to know her. She’s a got everything 01:05:05 girl. She’s smart. She’s beautiful. She’s got a Cornell University math degree. She’s decent. She’s hardworking. What’s her problem? Well, she always has a rotten boyfriend. Why? Because her father, who is half Pakistani and half Black, got his ideas on how you treat a woman, from Pakistan. So she will look at you with tears in her eyes and say, “I just don’t know what to expect.” And it sounds naïve, but it’s actually a big deal.
I have another African American girl who’s at Saint Mary’s College in Indiana, the adjunct, the old women’s adjunct. Okay? She’s talking to me about her problems on her major. Then she sends an email to my wife. Her problem isn’t with her major. Her problem is that her mother’s a prostitute and her father’s a murderer. And murdered her sister. That’s her problem. Now—
Tortorice: How do you overcome that? It’s not easy. Extraordinary.
Rowe: How do you overcome it? She’s much better than we have any right to expect. But you can’t deal with that with her unless she knows you well enough to trust you with that information.
Tortorice: I’m so impressed that you and Jeanne work in a very personal, individual way with people.
Rowe: It’s where the whole reward is.
Tortorice: Yes. That’s really—
Rowe: You don’t make enough difference so that your reward is statistical.
Tortorice: Well, but I want to ask you about, well, two things before we finish. One is, you were at UW prior to the 60s. But you saw—
Rowe: It was the 60s. I was there from 63 to 70.
Tortorice: Okay. So you lived through that period–
Rowe: Oh, yeah.
Tortorice: –of disruption. And we spoke via email once about some of the prominent people on the right that were in Madison in those years.
Rowe: The Cheneys were.
Rowe: But I didn’t know them.
Tortorice: Yes. And David Keene.
Rowe: Yes, David Keene, I did know David Keane. He was a friend. [Ward Allen?]
Tortorice: Michael Ledeen, of course, who was one of George’s PhDs. I don’t know if you know who he is. But he had a—
Rowe: He’s one of those that went off with the heirs. He went to the violent left, didn’t he?
Tortorice: He went to the far right.
Rowe: Oh, really?
Tortorice: He’s had an incredibly influential career in Washington behind the scenes. Amazing. But he was one of the students of George’s 01:08:05 that really made a contribution to his work on fascism. That was where Michael was—
Rowe: Ah. Incidentally, Stanley Payne was pretty special, too.
Tortorice: Yes. Stan’s a dear friend of mine. I’ve known him for—to me, he’s a Christian gentleman. He’s a very, he’s been very kind to me and generous.
Rowe: I asked him one day, “If you had been a young man in 36, what would you have done?”
He said, “John, I ask that every day. And the answer is, I would have fought for Franco. I should have left the country. There were no good guys.”
Tortorice: Yes. There you go. Yeah.
Rowe: It’s what happens when the center just completely unbundles.
Tortorice: Yes. And I’m afraid we’re witnessing that.
Rowe: We’re not back to Weimar, but we’re painfully close to Spain in the 30s.
Tortorice: Yes. I think that, you know, I mean as we mentioned, I mentioned George’s main focus of all of his work was really the fate of liberalism as a system and how democratic institutions in particular are fragile. Especially when they come under pressure from the periphery. And you know, we’re facing now challenges, enormous challenges. The climate change challenge, the rapid population, huge migratory—
Rowe: Yeah, the migration challenge is, in my view, even larger than climate. But climate’s pretty big.
Tortorice: Yes. And then just this realignment of political and economic power around the world. All of these things are enormous. And you know, we’re living through a period that is so crucial to human history. Because if you have human-made climate impacts that we’re seeing, that really in human, the history of us as a species, it’s quite unique. And your work on cap and trade, I think, was so—
Rowe: Yeah. Now I’m working on carbon taxes.
Tortorice: Yes, and I think that was so prescient. I think a lot of the business community actually were on the other side, shall we say.
Rowe: Most back then.
Tortorice: Yes, yes.
Rowe: Now they profess to be the other way. But not all professions are real.
Tortorice: They really delayed dealing with this issue.
Rowe: Oh, yes.
Tortorice: And you were one of the few that came out and understood what the implications of this were. Do you still feel that cap and trade is a viable system?
Rowe: No, I think it’s dead. 01:11:05
Tortorice: It seems to be dead.
Rowe: I think carbon tax is a better hope. Because not only does it incorporate the cost into the market, which cap and trade does, too. But it raises some revenue in a less harmful way than more income taxes. Unfortunately, the words are still poison on both sides in Washington. The right wants to ignore the issue, although they’re slowly coming around. The left wants to spend goblets of money on their favorite constituencies. Both sides get a big rhubarb from me. But like when we had the cap and trade bill in the first year of Obama’s administration, Waxman-Markey, it was called, we had a cap in it of twenty-five dollars a ton with an escalator that was 2% over the CPI for every year. So by now, it would be much bigger. The California renewable standards have a cost of over a hundred and eighty dollars a ton of remove carbon dioxide. We can afford to do a lot about carbon. But just doing everything regardless of costs is no saner here than anywhere else. But it is a painful thing to say in Washington. Because when you do a subsidy, you make an ally. When you do a tax, you make a lot of enemies.
Resources for the Future, which is a very honest group, did a poll in ‘08 before the recession. It would have been different answers later. They found that something like three-quarters of Americans believed the climate problem was real. Three-quarters of them also opposed a carbon tax because they thought only industry should pay. Now it didn’t occur to them that when industry pays, they either die or pass the cost along.
Tortorice: Exactly. (laughs) They’re paying it anyway. Yes.
Rowe: But see, this is a bigger issue than history or economics or even philosophy. I had great philosophy professors. But it’s, my makeup is a combination of the farm, the one-room school, the Depression-era parents and UW. And I say it again and again. One gave me whatever character I have, the other opened my eyes and gave me opportunities. But it’s very amusing to me. My father taught me so much of what I needed to know to succeed in the world. And then 01:14:05 when success took me away from the farm, he was never very happy about it. My mother, even less. But it’s the whole collage that UW was in the 60s that really had the impact on me. At my retirement party from Exelon, I had Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) songs sung. I don’t think he was a big fan of utilities. But he was a big fan of dams. And there’s been no folk singer who’s liked dams since Woody.
Tortorice: Well, you know, the UW is so unique in the sense of this world-class university in a state, basically a rural state. It did have industry. But you know, Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932), back when he was at UW, wrote that, you know—
Tortorice: –these state universities would be the avenue for social mobility after the frontier. I mean, that was—
Rowe: Mm hmm. I didn’t know he, wrote that after the frontier thesis.
Tortorice: Yes, he did.
Rowe: Well, I go back and look at the land grant act. The things in there are a lot of what my African American kids need. They’re not so different than the rest of us. They need self-discipline. They need to learn how to foot their things. They need to learn to do work that’s useful. I had this argument with Amy Gutmann at Penn one day. At least, I think I did. Because I remember saying it, but it’s one of those things I might have thought and not said. But she said, “All students should be required to take four years of liberal arts in college before they go to professional school.”
And I either said or wish I had said, 50/50, “Amy, that’s great for my son or your kids. It doesn’t work for first-generation kids from the hood. They’ve got to get something that allows them to live a better life the first time.”
Tortorice: Well you know, you mentioned immigration and the Mexican-American community. And even my experiences in Tucson, where these first-generation families do most of the work. And I’ve had work on my house done. And my conversations with them, they believe in the American dream.
Rowe: They do.
Tortorice: They don’t want to see—
Rowe: More than a great deal of many upper-middle-class Americans.
Tortorice: Very much so. They really do believe in that. And they believe in, you know, they don’t necessarily like a lot of migration from Mexico, from my understanding. 01:17:05
Rowe: Oh, they’re split. They’re badly split on that.
Tortorice: Yeah, they’re very split. And they’re socially conservative. I mean, I think the right has an opportunity there.
Rowe: Yes, if they aren’t too damn arrogant and stupid to seize it. Which I have told most of them–
Tortorice: Yes. But I think the left doesn’t have a clue, doesn’t have a clue how to deal with that community.
Rowe: It’s –
Tortorice: Well, John, I don’t want to take anymore of your time. But it’s been an honor.
Rowe: John, I really appreciate this. And partly because it gives me a chance to learn a little bit more about George, who you know I revered. But I revered Willard Hurst in law school.
Tortorice: Yes. Yes. I knew his wife a little bit.
Rowe: Oh, really?
Tortorice: Yeah. She was great. Yeah. Really fine family. Yes. Well, anyway, John, thank you.
Rowe: Thank you.
Tortorice: Thank you for all you’ve done for the university. There’s no one quite like you. There really isn’t I wish we—
01:18:02 End of Interview Session