By: Alan Lyles
Who or what inspired you to work in public service?
Early experiences confirmed life’s precariousness, and how few dependable options exist for children in poor, undereducated and dysfunctional families. My family was poor and often we depended on others for the basics … housing, clothes, and sometimes food.
Inspiration came from likely and unlikely sources.
From the fifth grade teacher who transformed an underachieving student, to the compassionate public health nurse who assessed and performed the x-rays for my periodic TB follow ups as a child, to the attorney who pro bono provided legal services for my mother’s escape from a violent marriage, to the police officers who staffed the Baltimore City Police Boys Club and brought bags of food one Thanksgiving when I was intermittently living with my mom in Baltimore City’s Perkins Homes (public housing), I learned that at critical junctures others would give and public services could function when the family could not. From others in similar circumstances, I also learned that this could happen to anyone. From the quality public education I received in Baltimore City, to the loans, scholarships and grants that supported my higher education aspirations, I knew that one day, when I could, I would want to give back.
From the corner pharmacy when I lived with my aunt, I encountered my first educated professional. He knew my circumstances and compassionately allowed me to read the comics without having to buy them (decades later I would become a pharmacist.)
What is something you are excited about right now?
Two primary sources:
What is your favorite class you have ever taught or took and why?
It’s a tie between (i) analytic geometry, organic chemistry, and general systems analysis, and (ii) an undergraduate course in fascism. The first set uses intricate technical elements to construct a coherent whole. The second is a tribute to the professor who was a member of the Hitler Youth during WWII (“you couldn’t be a teenager in Austria and *not* be in it”). His insights, mellow skepticism about radical movements (this was during 1969-1972), and his textured world view still influence how I analyze domestic politics, extremism, and international relations.
What inspires you during these challenging times?
What advice can you give to folks beginning careers in public service?
When I was recovering from neurosurgery to remove a spinal tumor at age 43 and reflecting on a major career change, I realized that meaning not status or money would define the ‘success’ of this change. Giving back by volunteering or serving in various roles are ways that I acknowledge the debt I have for what others before me freely gave, that I benefited from, and now can pass it on. It really is the best …
Do you have any pets at home?
A fifteen year old rescue cat who is as affectionate as a dog - we call him our “dat”.
If you could witness any historical event, what would you want to see?
King John’s signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede on June 15, 1215.
Do you have a favorite podcast, journal, newspaper, or other kind of media?
Not a favorite, but a spectrum.
Print/Digital: Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and the Fayetteville Observer (daily), The Economist (weekly), Foreign Affairs (bimonthly).
Podcasts: Alan Alda’s Clear + Vivid ; BBC Radio 4’s More or Less: Behind the Statistics; Lex Fridman’s Podcast.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
The most important things you do will never show up on a resume.
But a better answer to this question is a short article I published in the Fayetteville Observer on November 6, 2020: “We can heal, if we take time to listen. A family story.”