What I’ve learned from cowboys, clerics, and communists

Political scientist Jane L. Curry lessons from growing up in the west, living alongside Jesuits, and studying Poland.

My scholarship for the last 40-plus years, in Poland and other hot spots of repression under communism and in its aftermath, has involved talking to and learning from people who made things happen: journalists, dissidents, and Communist Party and government officials—about what they did and why. They’ve taught me both negative and positive lessons about leadership and community building—from mistakes at the top that wore down the systems and, ultimately, brought an end to communism; and from the courageous people who changed things for the better.

These lessons built on others I’d learned while growing up in Arizona with parents who lived the values of their cowboy and lumberjack families and while coming of age as the girl next door to a community of Jesuits committed to learning from living in the “real” world. I’ve taken these lessons into the classroom and into my life as a mother, a teacher, a scholar, a friend, and an activist.


My grandparents, like many settlers in the West, left families and pasts behind, and they built new communities in places they had to make hospitable. They understood that you were what you did, and that you survived because your community survived—but that you did not accept that things couldn’t be made better. My parents lived these pioneering values in their professions and passed on simple but true lessons such as: If you don’t do what you promise, no one will trust you again.

From my mother: If somebody needs help, you help, whether or not you have the money or time.

My father was an authority on multiple use of wilderness. But he was the first to acknowledge that even if you’re an expert, you make a better decision—and get better results—if you bring competing parties together (in his case, cattlemen and sheepherders, developers and lumbermen) and let each start with what they think is right—then build to an agreement that could work for all.


Beginning graduate school in New York City in 1971, I and my roommate moved into a rent-controlled apartment in a building where, we discovered, a third of the residents were Jesuits. They had moved to the city for their last three years of theological training; in a multiethnic and multireligious environment, they learned how lay people lived. In the apartment next door to us were seven Jesuits finishing their training and two professors. I was Protestant and my roommate Buddhist, but the friendships we forged have been transformative.

Dinner was a daily event and our main class in what it meant to be a Jesuit. There were amazing graces, great food (most nights), and three or four arguments going on at once. No premise was taken for granted, no issue not worth rethinking. Those who could not handle being interrupted did not last long. Only one phrase could stop the conversation: “I have a problem.” Then we listened.

Even as the Jesuits wrote major books and completed their preparations for ordination—and I did my graduate work—they took on babysitting and pet sitting; assisted the recluse who lived in the building; and welcomed in and helped people they found on the street. Everyone worked together. Doors often were left unlocked.

All this was overseen and egged on by Avery Dulles, S.J., then a young 59. In those years and in decades since, he taught me through stories of his family and his own life—including misadventures. The stories made clear that you and he were merely human; that family is important, even during times of disagreement; and that you cannot judge situations without knowing the whole story.

In 2001, Avery became a cardinal. In the early ’70s, he was already prominent in the Church, but he never pulled rank when it came to chores like grocery shopping or cooking (at which he was a novice). He took his vow of poverty very seriously. He drove his uncle’s 1950s car until it died, and he wore clothes until they were threadbare. He was also open to others’ ideas and sought out my comments on articles about theology, though I was no expert there.

He taught me to listen. He also gave me the courage, as my research on Poland began, to call famous people there and to ask to hear their stories.


I traveled to Poland in 1967 to study Russian (which, I learned, the Poles hated) on the first exchange program behind the Iron Curtain where students stayed with families. My hosts have given me a lifetime second home. Research and teaching have taken me back time and again, with each extended stay occurring just before every one of Poland’s five major upheavals. Often there with my children, I lived almost as Poles did. In the worst of times, we queued up at 5 a.m. for meat and milk; we watched every window and line to see what there might be to buy; and we acquired goods in the most incredible ways.

Lived out, communism clearly did not bring people the good lives it promised. Failures were papered over by claims of great achievements, censorship kept anything negative out of the media, and fiascos were celebrated as what one friend called a “Mahler symphony of successes.”

The Soviet-imposed system was not one that Polish leaders could make work. But they were trapped; most feared the USSR more than they believed in the virtues of communism. Wives, children, and old friends of party leaders sometimes told them how things really were. Many of these communists weren’t particularly well off and lived in cramped apartments, but in their human hunger for knowledge, they filled those apartments with books. And they developed alternative sources of information, such as reports from western radio stations, the secret police, or the censors themselves.

Part of the problem was that leaders were surrounded by yes-men who proclaimed that everything was wonderful in order to advance their careers. When leaders did try to bring in independent thinkers capable of solving problems, few with the abilities so desperately needed wanted to ruin their reputations by joining the yes-men in government. Then, when the system crashed, the former yes-men turned on it (and their leaders) to try to hold onto power.

The way decisions were made, with no transparency or true voice for the people, fostered a culture of “us versus them.” No matter who you were, “they” were always at fault. Many Poles also spent countless hours trying to divine what was behind government decisions—often positing explanations that made the regime look worse than an honest telling would have. That alienated many Poles and made them less willing to comply with decisions. Sometimes, decisions were simply ignored. Other times, demonstrations broke out that were followed by arrests—and compromises.

With the rise of Solidarity and increasing calls for change, in 1980 the government tried to limit those demands by revealing just how wrecked the Polish economy was and how much money was owed to the West. Workers responded: “They told us how wonderful things were when they were bad. Now they are telling us lies so we will give in.”

Yet Polish communism, for most of its years, was the least draconian in the Soviet bloc. Poles had learned over centuries to work together to survive oppressive foreign rule. They lived by their own moral compasses. Men and women who could have had safe careers instead organized to speak truth to power in underground periodicals and by supporting strikers. Journalists and others dared to share their stories with me. The country’s international film festivals were beacons throughout the bloc for those who questioned. The Catholic Church had its own university and theology schools, even in the worst times—so priests like Karol Wojtyła skied to mountain huts on the border to teach Czech priests when, for them, even believing was illegal.

In the end, General Jaruzelski—the man who had ordered martial law and interned hundreds of Solidarity activists and intellectuals—realized that the system, even when it made concessions, could not go on. He initiated a turnover of power that, inadvertently, started the collapse of communism in 1989. It was a courageous decision.

When the opposition took over, they kept a crucial commitment: not to do what had been done to them. The opposition named Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a Catholic activist and intellectual, as prime minister. There was no valedictory. The old rulers and those around them, including those who had reported on their friends and co-workers, were not jailed. Instead, Mazowiecki created a cabinet that brought together dissident idealists, economists intent on tough reforms, and the very men who had interned him. The cabinet met weekly, with sessions going late into the evening, until all had their say, so the dramatic changes that needed to be made garnered support from all sides. Disagreements were allowed to be open. As a consequence, when economic reforms brought more than 500 percent inflation, popular backing remained.

Mazowiecki (who died in October 2013) and others on both sides were models for ethical leadership in times of change. Needless to say, the past 25 years have not always been smooth sailing for Poland. Post-communist politics there and elsewhere are often contentious. But, like the lessons of my pioneer grandparents and the Jesuits with whom I lived, the ideals they lived—such as “I have a responsibility to respect and do what I can for others”—are timeless.

This essay is adapted from Jane Curry’s speech as Senate Faculty Professor of the Year. Here you can read the speech in its entirety.

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