Thomas E. Secor has been supporter of Ashbrook for over twenty years. When Secor first learned about Ashbrook, a small educational organization with gigantic ambitions, he was intrigued. Secor is himself President of Durable Corporation, a company in Norwalk, Ohio with a staff of 39 and over $10 million in annual sales. Durable makes and distributes loading dock bumpers, wheel chocks, entrance floor tiles and matting products designed for safety and fatigue reduction in industrial settings.
A public-spirited advocate for small business, Secor serves on the Boards of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and the National Small Business Association. Both organizations, he says, work to insure “all companies a fair opportunity to compete in the marketplace.”
Below, Secor explains why Ashbrook so effectively develops the capacities citizens need to be self-governing.
Why did you begin supporting Ashbrook?
Back in the mid-nineties, our state representative at the time, Bill Harris, invited my wife and me to one of the Major Lecture Series luncheons. There I met the late Ashbrook Director Charlie Parton. He was a successful businessman and, like me, a horse owner; we hit it off immediately.
Parton explained to me what the goal of the Ashbrook Center really was. He said you ask students to read and discuss the original documents of American history and government. As they work through the texts, they develop a principled conservative approach to life. I would call it a self-determined approach. Your program engages individual students, pushing them to think for themselves. Only people who can think for themselves can govern themselves.
I’ve heard this from every person I’ve dealt with at Ashbrook—board members, the three Directors I’ve known, and their staff. They all focus on the individual student. I once asked, “Do you teach only political science majors?” The reply was, “We want to educate people with a range of majors and career goals—including those who want to teach or work in business.” Because if you go back to the founding and the government they designed, the people, in all walks of life, hold the power.
A former staff member told me about riding on Steve Forbes’ private plane after Forbes spoke at an annual dinner. Forbes offered to support Ashbrook’s work. The staffer said, “We’d appreciate your financial support, but what we really want is for you to involve our undergraduate Scholars in what you do—to give them internships and open doors for them.” You’ve found allies who open doors for Scholars in a range of fields, helping each develop their particular strengths. I understand you once helped a Scholar get an internship in the Vatican Library!
You have watched Ashbrook’s mission grow and broaden over the past 20 years. What do you expect of Ashbrook in the future?
Twenty years ago you had 25 undergraduate Scholars. You had set a goal to get to 100, and people thought it was impossible. How would you find that many interested students and the financial support for them? Now you have 125 Scholars, a Masters program for teachers, and one-day teacher seminars you take around the country. Yet when I tell people you want to educate one teacher for every school in America, they say that’s impossible.
I recently attended the “Rediscovering America” weekend for Directors Club members in Philadelphia. Four teachers who’d studied in your Masters program spoke to us about the change that occurred in their classrooms when they began teaching from original documents. One (Brett Van Gaasbeek) had organized a “faculty roundtable,” using professional development time to introduce original documents to his colleagues in the history and English departments. He started with the Declaration of Independence, which some of those teachers had never before read all the way through. Yet they enjoyed discussing what it meant. They got inspired to use original documents in their own classrooms.
I’m in the business world and I enjoy competition—I think it’s what makes you better. When educators challenge other teachers to use good approaches, you have better schools. In business, the companies that engage their employees throughout the organization will succeed the most; and, ultimately, they will be imitated. Setting a goal to educate one teacher in every school in the country sounds outlandish; but creating a product that inspires enthusiasm and emulation is the way it happens.
As President of Durable Corporation, you want to engage all your employees in building the best product. That sounds like the teaching style in Ashbrook programs.
There are certainly alternate management styles that can succeed in building a lasting, profitable company. But the style that I find works the best is the one that empowers people to perform to the best of their abilities.
I don’t doubt Jefferson’s claim that God created us all equal. Yet none of us are the same. If each of us works singly using the attributes we’ve been given, we may achieve some success; but if we work together, bringing our different strengths to the task, we can all be more successful. I don’t have the talents required in a machine shop, but I can find people who have them. On this earth, presidents of companies are better rewarded; but in truth, I have no more value than the person in the machine shop; we’re both using the gifts we’ve been given.
Ashbrook teachers and professors read the same primary documents and work together to interpret them. The professors treat the teachers as colleagues, even though the professors have a much deeper knowledge of history and government. I’m sure this encourages the teachers. Listening to another person is one of the highest compliments you can give them.
Many people worried about the survival of Constitutional self-government would donate to political campaigns. Why do you support Ashbrook education?
Giving to a political campaign is supporting an ideology. Giving to Ashbrook is creating an ideology. You are funding the education of the next generation, so they will formulate sound political views and support good policies. I support candidates, but by the time I write the check, the candidate has already decided what he’s going to do. If I expected the candidate to sit down with me and talk about policy, I’d be making a poor investment.
We’re seeing so many profound changes: artificial intelligence, the algorithms that are kicking out decision-making trees, driverless cars. New policies will be needed.
I’ve never heard anyone at Ashbrook say, “You have to think this way.” They only say, “You have to read this!” And, “Once you read it, let’s talk about what it means.” You have your opinion and others have theirs. To really grasp the document, you have to listen to what others think and then try to work out what’s valid in each perspective. In most cases, as you talk it through, you will work your way back to the principles we all share, the foundation of self-government.
There are donors who would be available to you if you were able to say, “We are a conservative/Republican organization.” Another group would be available if you said, “We are a liberal/Democrat organization.” Both of those groups would want you to do the same thing: to tell students and teachers what to think. But if that’s what you did, I wouldn’t be involved in it.
Most of those who support educational institutions donate to their alma maters. You studied at Ohio State and Xavier University. Why do you give to Ashbrook?
When I buy a car, the auto dealership doesn’t say to me, “How about writing us a check for an extra $1000 so that we can give another customer a discount?” I’m fortunate that my parents paid for my undergraduate degree and my employer paid for most of my MBA. They purchased a good education for me. I hope both institutions succeed, but if they don’t, they should close.
In supporting the Ashbrook Center, I’m not buying a service just for myself. I’m helping young citizens acquire a foundation in the Constitution and the principles underlying it. I do this for my country.