Sometimes the best guide is the thing you carry with you, and Leon Panetta ’60, J.D. ’63 carried Santa Clara values far.


Like many Catholics, Leon Panetta ’60, J.D. ’63 keeps a rosary in his pocket at all times. It is a lovely thing for contemplation: silver crucifix with five sets of 10 white beads. Pope Benedict XVI gave it to him during an audience at the Vatican in 2013.

The Pope reportedly thanked the then-defense secretary for “helping to keep the world safe.” In return, Panetta asked the Pontiff, “Pray for me.”

The rosary has lived in his pockets every day since, replacing the one he’d used before. The meditations it represents were translated for Panetta into real-world morality and ethics by Jesuits and professors as he studied political science and law at Santa Clara, and by the military professionals he served with in ROTC. These small stones are also emblematic of a moral grounding, a belief in a better world, a bedrock.

“The fundamental thing about a Santa Clara education is it teaches you right from wrong—and it gives you a conscience that is there to guide you, sometimes through very tough temptations,” he says. “In politics, there are a hell of a lot of temptations.”

L1004601 Copy
Standing tall: Leon Panetta ’60, J.D. ’63 walked away from a high-profile job when it didn’t meet his values. / Image by Nic Coury

As a former congressman, White House chief of staff, head of the CIA, and secretary of defense, Panetta faced down temptations to take shortcuts or do the politically expedient thing—and that core held him true. That moral truth, that conscience, is something he thinks the next generation is going to need, too.

“I always had deep down inside of me that sense of right and wrong. And I made decisions that I thought were right, sometimes costing me my job,” Panetta says.

He is in a conference room at the Panetta Institute, a political think tank he founded at California State University, Monterey Bay, a campus born on the bones of the former Fort Ord Army base by policy he helped craft. He’s in a reflective mood.

A Choice

One such inflection point came in 1969, Panetta says.

It is the year his third child, son James Panetta J.D. ’96, was born. The year Panetta’s mother died. It found him far from his Monterey Bay home.

Panetta had moved his young family—wife Sylvia and two kids—to Washington, D.C. After a few years as a legislative assistant to Thomas Kuchel, a member of the U.S. Senate from California, he landed a position in the new Nixon administration.

By March 1969 Panetta had moved from assistant to the secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to director of the department’s Office of Civil Rights—the person charged with enforcing school desegregation laws, among other things. He was 31.

Under the 1964 Civil Rights Act schools could get money to desegregate, while those that failed to desegregate would lose all federal funding. “That was the hammer I had,” Panetta says. “I knew those laws. And I was committed to them.”

At this time, American politics were shifting. Strom Thurmond, representing South Carolina in the U.S. Senate, had made his switch from Democrat to Republican. In 1957, he delivered a 24-hour filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of that year. In 1968, Thurmond campaigned hard for Nixon—an act that reassured white Southerners enriched by generations of Jim Crow laws that the former vice president from California saw things their way, even as Nixon spoke in support of desegregation.

“We were dealing with all of the Southern states that had for almost 200 years segregated white from black children,” Panetta says. It was Panetta’s job to begin to fix that wrong, using the Civil Rights Act.

The details: The former defense secretary wears cufflinks reflecting his service. / Image by Nic Coury

Checking for Car Bombs

Nearly as soon as Panetta started that work, the pushback began. Schools in Thurmond’s South Carolina were the first to face sanctions for failure to desegregate. Thurmond and others lobbied the White House and fellow lawmakers to slow—or stop—the process. Panetta was under pressure.

“I faced a very tough decision, whether or not I continued to enforce the law as required or whether I should play politics and back off,” Panetta says. He talked to his wife.

“You have to do what’s right,” he remembers her saying, “what you think is right.” He says he thanked her for that. “I knew she would bear a lot of the brunt if I was fired from my job.”

Panetta pushed on. He remembers visiting Southern states, and some Northern ones too, to guide schools losing out on federal dollars into a more just future. In his book Worthy Fights, Panetta recalls stretching a piece of tape from his car hood to its body during those visits. He and his staff would make sure that seal wasn’t broken when they returned. “Bombs were on our minds,” he wrote.

As he worked on, the pushback continued. Southern lawmakers told him they had an understanding with the administration, and that Panetta was out of line. He sought reassurances from the White House. But a meeting with Chief Domestic Advisor John Ehrlichman left him not feeling reassured at all.

Fired by Press

In late 1969, Panetta wrote his resignation letter. His boss, Secretary Robert Finch, rejected it. Panetta believed he would stay on and continue to fight for desegregation. But other officials had different ideas.

On Feb. 17, 1970, The Washington Daily News carried the headline “Nixon Seeks to Fire HEW’s Rights Chief for Liberal Views.” Panetta knew they meant him. Another headline, in The Washington Post, said he had quit. He remembers discussing it with Finch.

“There’s this rumor I’ve resigned,” he said.

“It’s not true,” Finch said. “Deny it.”

Panetta did. But when reporters asked Press Secretary Ron Ziegler, “Did Panetta resign?” Ziegler told them he had. “It was pretty clear that I was being fired,” Panetta says.

He was without a job, 3,000 miles from home, with three young kids—one just a year old.

To him, it was worth it. He felt there was a right way to end segregation—and it cost him his job.

Take a Stand

“I remember a Jesuit at Santa Clara who said, ‘You know God gives you life, but you have to determine whether you have a life. You have to fight for it,” Panetta says. “I often remember that because the fact is we can bless ourselves with hope that everything is going to be fine. But if, in the end, you are not willing to fight to make that the case, it is not going to happen.”

And fighting to make things fine—or better or just—is what Panetta spent his career doing. He came home. He ran for office. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from a district stretching from Monterey Bay to Gilroy to the San Luis Obispo County line, just as his son Jimmy is today.

In the hallway of the Panetta Institute hangs a Monterey Herald frontpage from when he was first elected. Panetta points to the black and white photograph next to it. “That’s my father’s truck. I still have it, repainted it and pulled out all dings.”

The wall reflects other victories. Sea Otters, the mascot for the university he helped found on the former Fort Ord—and furry residents of the bay waters he helped protect from offshore drilling—are a prominent feature. There are photos of Panetta with former President Bill Clinton, whom he served as chief of staff, and with former President Barack Obama, for whom he headed the CIA and later the Department of Defense when Navy SEALs captured Osama bin Laden.

He’s done all of that. And he believes there are still stands worth taking to build up community and defend democracy.

“There is a lot of anger out there. There is a lot of division. There’s a lot of hatred. Things that we fought throughout our history are all coming together now,” Panetta says. “And I think it is going to be a time when strong individuals of faith and value are going to have to stand up and look at people and say, ‘That’s wrong.’”

Panetta Plaza

That’s where that education and those values—truth and respect for one another brought to life at Santa Clara—matter. They are stones we all carry in our pocket—the bedrock values.

“Those fundamental values are what Santa Clara has always been about,” Panetta says as he considers the grounding of his life. “Whether you are going to get a job in Silicon Valley, or going to be a lawyer, or any career you choose for the future, those values are going to be important to whether or not you are not only a success in that career but, most importantly, whether or not you are a success as a human being.”

On another day, this time in fall 2018, Panetta stands in the newly open Charney Hall. It is a sunny building where future SCU law students will deepen their understanding of right and wrong, where they will have their meditative moment.

Outside a new plaza is named for him—Panetta Plaza.

At the building’s dedication, he stands at a podium before gathered University leaders, donors, Silicon Valley champions, and, most importantly, students.

“Too often we move to move. Not often enough do we move forward,” he says. “I think that is what the University offers: a foundation that enables the ability to advance progress while elevating human dignity.”

Leslie Griffy is managing editor of this magazine. She has reported for the Mercury News, Chicago Sun-Times, and community newspapers along California’s Central Coast, as well as for KAZU, KQED, and KALW. 

Make AI the Best of Us

What we get out of artificial intelligence depends on the humanity we put into it.

The Co-Op

Santa Clara University has long been a bastion of interdisciplinary learning. A new fund is taking cross-collaboration to new heights.

Human at Heart

How Santa Clara University is distinguishing itself as a leader in one of the fastest-growing industries in the nation.

A Campus on the Rise

New buildings on campus—count ’em, six in total—aren’t the only changes brought by a successful $1 billion fundraising campaign. Come explore what’s new.