- Glenn Sonnenberg
Musings from the Bunker 6/11/20
Everyone has their heroes. Top of my list, of course, are my parents. Everyone has other heroes, be they political leaders, sports figures, mentors, or great writers. I’d like to tell you about one of mine, from the Greatest Generation, and how his life intersected with the growth of our city.
John Randolph Hubbard, whom I met at the ripe old age of 19, was president of USC through my undergraduate and law school years. Contrary to popular myth, USC’s rise to greatness didn’t just happen when Steve Sample (a great president in his own right) emerged from Buffalo. There was greatness at USC before that and if one is looking for the seeds of its growth, one needs to look to Jack Hubbard (building on the works of his predecessor, Norman Topping). During Hubbard’s tenure, USC positioned itself as an international university and improved in any number of academic disciplines.
“Cactus Jack” (as he was called, admiringly be friends and derisively by foes) was a three-time alum (BA, MA and Ph.D.) from the University of Texas and endlessly delighted in telling “Aggie Jokes,” at the expense of the archrival Texas A&M. When I asked him whether his enmity toward A&M was genuine, he responded that ‘They are a damn fine institution. I hate ‘em.” Sort of like how I feel about UCLA…
Jack served in the naval air corps during World War II, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and four air medals. He was the first U.S. airman to land in Tokyo, following the surrender on the USS Missouri. He was commissioned by Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. in a special ceremony, in which the only other officer being commissioned was Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. But for his death in the war, Joe Jr. would have been the Kennedy running for president and not JFK.
THREE IMAGES OF JACK
In my mind’s eye, I see Cactus Jack in three contexts. The first, Jack speaking before the faculty and students, sharing his vision and demonstrating his openness to collegiality and openness. He loved to host important people at his university and showing off his adopted city. Among his proudest moments was hosting Gerald Ford during the 1976 campaign. [I had the honor of introducing the President at the University-wide convocation, but that’s another story]. Jack knew—and had stories about—so many great people he had met, including JFK, the Shah of Iran, FDR, Pat Brown, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dwight Eisenhower, RFK, Richard Nixon, Golda Meir, Nehru, and Indira Gandhi.
The second image is Jack prowling the sidelines at USC football games. To him, USC’s prowess in football was a visible way to celebrate the university and gain national notoriety—nothing seemed to thrill him quite as much as hobnobbing with John Robinson and talking football.
The third, image is that of Jack as raconteur. He was a phenomenal teacher, but not only in his class, which he taught throughout his presidency and post-presidential years (without being paid). Long after the glamourous lifestyle of a college president, when Jack’s walk slowed to a shuffle, Dennis Mulhaupt and I were lucky enough to share a series of dinners with Jack until his death at 93 years of age in 2011. In those years, he regaled us with stories of UT (including his friendship and political rivalry with John Connolly, to whom he lost in an election for student body president), his time serving as the our country’s chief educational liaison to India and later as Ambassador to India, his belief in public service, and his love of teaching.
OLD LOS ANGELES
Jack loved talking about the Los Angeles of the 70s and 80s and how his Board of Trustees were civic leaders who helped shape the City. He described his board as a tough group of bastards (his words, not mine), which included a “who’s who” of old L.A.—Leonard Firestone, Asa Call, Justin Dart, Bob Fluor, Walter Annenberg—to name a few. He would complain how they held his feet to the fire and how his board meetings consisted of a high pressure questioning and demands of performance. While bristling under the pressure, he said they made him better. This is a great insight to anyone running a non-profit these days.
Jack would wistfully describe how things got done in Los Angeles in those days. The board of USC overlapped with civic and corporate leadership in the heady days of the growth of LA in the 60s through the 80s. When Jack needed something benefiting the university or the area around it (he was among the first to realize that USC was forever tied to its surrounding community and the betterment of that community), all he needed to do was call a couple of board members and they would help cut through the bureaucracy.
He lamented about how Los Angeles, once a place of big ideas, had become a place where things didn’t happen anymore. We had become a city of competing interests, without a core of powerful civic leaders to pull us all together. [Side note: I’m not defending the fact these civic leaders were all white men; certainly in this day and age, the make-up of that group would be more diverse.] In many ways the days when the guys in the smoke-filled room made sure things got done don’t sound that bad.
Jack believed in the quaint old ideas of service—to one’s community, to one’s country, and to big ideas. In these tumultuous times when seemingly every level of government is broken, perhaps it’s time for a little political selflessness and service beyond self-interest and party-interest. Government has got to stop being a college debate tournament, with a winner and a loser. The only “victories” voters should reward are those that result in action.
POST-COVID AND BIG IDEAS
When we dig our way out of the pandemic, Los Angeles is going to need a lot of tender loving care. Many of things that make us a great city will not return; some will return unrecognizable; some will require a lot of work to get back on their feet.
In the 60s, back when civic pride was a real thing, Los Angeles’s leadership from the politicians, business leaders, and the arts world joined together to pursue dream of audacious magnitude—the Los Angeles County Music Center. To be a great city, they reasoned, required being at the forefront of the arts. The Music Center, sitting at one end of Grand Park, is a tribute to Los Angeles’s emergence as a world class city. These venues and the magic I witnessed inside were a formative part of my youth. Through our own children’s experience and seeing the outreach of the arts organizations to schoolchildren across our city, we have seen what the arts can do to enrich lives. When we are ready again to enter into darkened spaces to be lifted up by music, theatre and dance, these venues and their resident companies will require a new commitment of civic support. Hopefully we will have the will to help. When things open up, I can’t wait to go back. You should too.
MORE 1930s ARCHITECTURE
After discussing the WPA, I’ve had several people indicate their support for such an effort in today’s economic environment. I’ve also had several people ask about whether certain buildings are WPA-era. One of the most interesting questions is about the Hollywood Bowl. The answer is that the Bowl itself was not WPA built. However, the iconic sculpture at the from Highland, called “Muse of Music, Dance, Drama” is a product of the Public Works of Public Art Project, part of the WPA program:
For those who love art and architecture of the early 20th century as represented by WPA projects, check out the site, “The Living New Deal,” with easy ways to navigate by type of project (roads, bridges, public art, etc.) and geography: https://livingnewdeal.org/about/
Another famous fountain is located in Beverly Hills. While the “Electric Fountain” is not a WPA project, it is iconic and evocative of the era, nonetheless: