Mike Cleary '86

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  • Brenna Ross
    Brenna: Now we're recording.
  • Mike Cleary & Brenna Ross
    Mike: Okay.Brenna: First thing, you can just say your name, where you currently live, and your class year.Mike: My name is Mike Cleary, I live Manassas, Virginia, and I graduated in ’86.
  • Brenna Ross
    Brenna: All right, so going down the list of questions, how did you first come to Grinnell?
  • Mike Cleary
    Mike: How did I first come to Grinnell? Like any typical high school student who wants to go to college. I wanted to go, and I guess I heard about Grinnell through some of the marketing literature. They talked about the Grinnell experience. Maybe I was a sucker for that, but I fell for it and it seemed to be the right choice. Part of the appeal was that it was halfway across the country and financial aid helped. I was trying to get away from my parents. First rule I had about going to college was, I’m not going to go to a school in Pennsylvania, where I lived. As a corollary I was not gonna go to New Jersey, and so Grinnell was far enough away.
  • Brenna Ross & Mike Cleary
    Brenna: So what’s your first memory of being on campus?Mike: My first memory of being on campus. Probably had to do with moving into Norris, and getting acclimated there, and trying to make friends in my own awkward way, and making unnecessarily strong impressions. Moving stuff in, that’s about it I think. Just, college was new.
  • Brenna Ross & Mike Cleary
    Brenna: How was that transition from high school to college?Mike: From high school to college, I think it was OK. I mean, I was on my own for the first time and I wasn’t really on my own because, y’know, you’re part of the school and you already had a structure. You had classes to go to, they told you when your meals were so y’know you- regimented life. But, no parents, so in that sense I was free. It was just a matter of managing your time. It worked out OK, I think.
  • Brenna Ross
    Brenna: So was there a certain professor or student or staff who really influenced you while- during your time here?
  • Mike Cleary
    Mike: That’s hard to say. I- I heard there were three professors who were the really hard ones. I managed to take two of them during the course of my time here. I waited a semester to take Ira Strauber’s PoliSci intro, and I’m glad I did! The guy was hard, but he was a fair grader and he really, definitely, he flunked me on my first paper. I think I got a B for the course, maybe an A- if I’m not inflating my own grade. And, but he taught me how to write. He taught you to really, how to get to the point so that was valuable to me because ultimately I did go on to become a newspaper reporter, and, well I never really learned to write until about ten years ago.
  • Mike Cleary
    Mike: Around, by the year 2000 I pretty much had it nailed. The seeds were laid here, I’d say. So, but as far as other professors, I’m not so sure that I would say any of them had an influence on me, at least none that I can detect. I mean, Jenny Erickson, I think, she was my German advisor and my advisor because I took tutorial with her. She was good, but, y'know. I can’t pinpoint here’s how my life charted because she set me in some direction, so I don’t know about that.
  • Brenna Ross & Mike Cleary
    Brenna: So what are some of your best memories of Grinnell?Mike: My best memories of Grinnell. Could I talk about my most striking memory of Grinnell?Brenna: Go ahead.
  • Mike Cleary
    Mike: OK. It was my freshman year, like I said, I was out to make friends and maybe I overdid it at times. I also came from a pretty suburban, white neighborhood and we had one black kid in middle school and high school. Token- His name was Tony. He was just like one of us. Not quite the same as really meeting Jewish students, black students, Asian students in any volume, Hispanic students. When I got here, there were a number of black students. Some from Chicago, and these were new people. This was a new animal, I’ve never dealt with people like this before. I really didn’t know what I thought, y'know, typical, white liberal, "Fine. OK they’re just like you and me." But there was one incident where I really botched it.
  • Mike Cleary
    Mike: We were in the Quad dining hall in Main, and we were at one table, it was a bunch of white students, and we were sitting and next to us was a group of black students at another table. At some point along- along the line, Kathy complained about how she wanted the salt shaker – they had salt shakers with rice in there to absorb the water. So she wanted the salt shaker without the rice. She felt that that kind of made it less pure, whatever, y’know? No difference as far as the salt was concerned. Well me... I jumped up and I went to the next table where the black kids were and I picked out one of the salt shakers that didn’t have any salt without asking and I took it, and I gave it to Kathy.
  • Mike Cleary
    Mike: One of the black students came right back, like a few seconds later, and very calmly, very deliberately but very strongly replaced the salt shaker on our table. We were in shock. It was... we were deadly silent. Now, I look back on that now and I think, why did I do that? It was... Did it mean I was racist? It was primarily an immature act. But I don’t know if I would’ve done that to a group of white students. I would’ve handled it differently, and that’s the difference. So that made a big impression on me, as far as what I got out of it, I don’t know. Y’know, I’ve always considered myself a typical white liberal, y’know. That showed me that there’s another side to it. So that was one of the, the big learning experiences that stayed with me. I still remember the guy who put the salt shaker back. I still wanna tell him about it, so.
  • Brenna Ross & Mike Cleary
    Brenna: So, what was your dorm room like?Mike: Norris. Second. East. Close to the stairwell in the center. Sterile, functional, no air conditioning, that’s OK. I drove my roommate out within a few months. I had the place to myself. I was horrible, so...
  • Brenna Ross & Mike Cleary
    Brenna: Where else did you live on campus, other than Norris?Mike: I lived in Norris for the first two years, and then I realized I really was a southie, so I got a room down in, what was it, Read maybe, or Cleveland? I was Cleveland Hall president for one year, one semester anyway. Mid-way through my junior and senior years I took off time to go to India and that was great, so I was way off-campus at that point. But, that’s where I lived.
  • Brenna Ross & Mike Cleary
    Brenna: Very cool. So, what were some memories or images that you have of the town of Grinnell?Mike: Town of Grinnell, I still remember the Jewel Box Bank, and I’d love to go back there. McNallys, Main Street. You remember the little things about some of the stores in town, places that you went to. It seems, what was it, think we had a Franklin five and dime that used to be there, Ben Franklin? You don’t have that anymore, or you still do?
  • Brenna Ross & Mike Cleary
    Brenna: I don’t think it’s there anymore.Mike: OK. And of course the bakery runs, the Longhorn, the bar. I remember a few things. I remember the road going down to route 80, and some of the scenes along the way. But nothing really strikes me as strongly there.
  • Brenna Ross & Mike Cleary
    Brenna: Did you have a lot of interaction with people from the town?Mike: I had some, because I stayed in Grinnell just about every summer I could and I worked as a pollinator in the Cardial research farm somewhere nearby, and I detasseled corn at one other place the last year and that was a mistake. I should’ve stuck with pollinating. It paid a lot better.
  • Mike Cleary
    Mike: So, I briefly dated one of the students at Grinnell who came from the town of Grinnell. So, she lived on a house... There’s the main drag that comes up from 80. She was shortly- her house was not that far off of that road as you came up towards Grinnell. So, I met her dad. I met, one of the guys that I pollinated corn with, he set up a wine store, I guess his name is, his name was Jeff and the wine store’s still there, so I have to check if he’s still there. I had some connection with some of the people in town, not that much.
  • Brenna Ross & Mike Cleary
    Brenna: What was the dating scene like?Mike: What was the dating scene. I suspect it was a lot easier for other people than me. I dated a couple people, it was OK. I was just a bad dater, so I’m not really qualified to speak on that. But, I suspect it’s typically good. So.
  • Brenna Ross & Mike Cleary
    Brenna: All right. What was your favorite place to hang out on campus?Mike: On campus, where did I like to hang out? I liked eating lunch in Quad. Aside of that, if I wanted to hang out it might’ve been, I wasn’t big on hanging out. I was more of a studious sort, I was a bit of a nerd. So, you wouldn’t find me in the Forum Beach, you wouldn’t find me hanging out in the lounges too much unless I was studying, so.
  • Brenna Ross & Mike Cleary
    Brenna: What was your favorite place to study, then?Mike: My favorite place to study, huh. I'd probably go looking for one of the lounges inside any of the dorms, really. Whatever was open, whatever quiet place I could find, preferably alone.
  • Brenna Ross & Mike Cleary
    Brenna: Was there any specific book that influenced you during your time at Grinnell?Mike: Book. Now that triggers some things. I remember, okay, a few different books, OK. I took Existentialism from Dan Magurshak in my sophomore year, and I remember at the conclusion of that course, at the end of my sophomore year, what the lesson was, was that the existentialist that said something was wrong with the way our lives were working, but they didn’t really have a solution to the problem. I thought, "OK, that’s the best that western philosophy could do? What does the east have to offer?"
  • Mike Cleary
    Mike: The Tao of Pooh had come out, and so, it just seemed like a natural segueway and so I picked that book up. I’ve had an interest in eastern philosophy ever since, and you could probably say that that’s the reason that I began practicing Buddhism. It started with the existentialism class, reading the Tao of Pooh, getting interested in Chinese philosophy, deciding that Tao is not quite there, but eventually taking an interest in Zen, so I would say that.
  • Brenna Ross & Mike Cleary
    Brenna: Very cool. So what sorts of activities were you involved with on campus?Mike: I primarily - I worked at the cafeteria, at Cowles, and I liked it ‘cause I’m pretty damn good at that job, refilling. I refilled the milk, the juices, replaced glasses and sometimes I worked the line although I didn’t particularly like that job. Normally I was out front, keeping things stocked up on milk and juices. Sometimes I worked the dishwasher too, so that’s about what I did. But I also wrote for the S&B and I wrote- yeah that was one of my first experiences too.
  • Mike Cleary
    Mike: Within a month, early on, within the first two weeks I decided, “OK, I’ll do a story,” and then I asked Jane for an extension who said, “What! You can’t do that, we’re depending on this! We got a hole to fill!” Well, this was early training for me for my later career in journalism. The first time I heard an editor say "You can’t delay this thing," so I managed to crank it out and I gave her, what was it, about twenty inches on, I forget what the story was. But I was an occasional news writer and more frequently, what I enjoyed more were the opinion pieces that I wrote.
  • Mike Cleary
    Mike: There were some that I really liked doing. I wrote a satire about God. I wrote a piece about discrimination and racism on campus partly to atone for the exploit that I told you about earlier. After I heard somebody say, there was a gay and lesbian protest and they wanna stop the intolerance or homophobia on campus and I thought, "We’re a pretty liberal place, how much intolerance is there?" And so that kicked off what turned out to be a pretty lengthy story. And the sad part about that was that I did this, there were a couple things that got left out of that piece.
  • Mike Cleary
    Mike: Number one, there was this one lesbian girl who was, she was really put upon at one point by some members of the- she was on the baseball team and there was no women’s baseball team so she was the only girl on the team. Probably didn’t help that she was a dyke either, OK? So one of the other guys, he said something which was deliberately insensitive and I got an exact quote, and I’m pretty confident that she caught that quote exactly, and my editor stripped it out because he couldn’t reach me at the last minute.
  • Mike Cleary
    Mike: But there was also some, I mean that was the worst of it. That was the most clear example that there was some kind of discrimination on campus, but the athletes and to some extent conservatives on campus also came in for it and they were really kind of put down because they were seen as out of step with the rest of us. So, that, I had sections on blacks, women, homosexuals, gays, athletes and conservatives. Well, the parts about the athletes and the conservatives and the ill-treatment that they faced, which was rather less than some of the others, it still existed. But that got stripped out from the story, and then that one other story about that, that woman on the baseball team. That also got stripped out which was really unfortunate, but there you go.
  • Brenna Ross & Mike Cleary
    Brenna: So, how do you think campus has changed?Mike: A lot more buildings, you've got an East Campus. You've got this Joe Rosenfeld Center, the Joe. The Science Center, that’s a rather substantial expansion. Where we had Darby now you’ve got this Charles Bear Recreation Center and this gorgeous looking pool and basketball court, wow! So you’ve got, and this Harris Center which I knew nothing about, so. The campus has changed physically.
  • Mike Cleary & Brenna Ross
    Mike: The students, it seems, I don’t know. When I was there, I always like to think of this one description. Every class non-conformist in the country applied and got into Grinnell, and that’s where they found their home. Is that the case? You tell me, is that the way the students see themselves now?Brenna: I think a little bit.Mike: OK.Brenna: I’m not, I know that a good portion see themselves as kind of a weird, oddball.
  • Mike Cleary
    Mike: I would hope so. I hope Grinnell never quite loses that. But there a was talk this morning by George Drake who was president at the time that I was a student, and he was saying how, that it’s, there’s a lot of children of academics who come here and the students are really smart and the classes are more professional. The faculty’s more professional, the classes are tougher, and so I’m thinking that there’s less room for the oddball here. We need a more competitive, serious-minded student to get into a place like Grinnell and I think that’s good. I just hope that it never quite loses that sense of non-conformism.
  • Brenna Ross
    Brenna: So, what is it that you think about your class that makes it different than the classes before you and the classes after you?
  • Mike Cleary
    Mike: That’s hard to say. I mean, I wouldn’t be able to say, y'know, "Oh, we did so much better or worse than the classes before us in ’82, ’83, ’84 versus ’87, ’88, whatever. We’re just part of a continuum. I don’t think there was any big revolution going on at our time. There was a beginning of a movement towards, Reagan was in office so a more active conservative community on campus. What made us different, ‘cause we always liked to be different.
  • Mike Cleary & Brenna Ross
    Mike: We had a presidential debate. I was involved in that too. I was one of the people who kicked that off, we had a debate for the Republicans for... who was it, Reagan and Democrats for the guy that was running against Reagan, I think it was Carter, maybe Dukakis. I can’t remember who exactly. They had a, let’s see, this one guy he started, I think he was the class ahead of me but he started, so maybe it doesn’t count for class of '86 per say but he started this conservative newspaper called The Outcry which I don’t think lasted. You’ve never heard of it?Brenna: I have not.
  • Mike Cleary
    Mike: Good, it’s gone! So anyway there was that. Oh, I was on Student Government, too. I was President of Cleveland Hall. I forgot tha- oh, maybe I mentioned that too. But, political, national political issues, discussions were also making their way into student government during the time I was there. Some of those votes, some of the parliamentary tactics like, making certain votes important requiring a two-thirds majority began cropping up when conservatives to make sure liberal motions were not passed, or something like those. So you’d see some things like that, now did that make us different? I don’t know. As alumni, I think we're really standing out because we are apparently serious partiers, so. Just showing up in the past couple of reunions. I don’t know where that comes from, but that’s what I can say what makes us stand out.
  • Brenna Ross & Mike Cleary
    Brenna: All right, so, let’s see.Mike: We also have a kick-ass listserv. There was a couple of, well actually it’s toned down. It’s quieted down a bit since people moved to Facebook but we’ve had apparently one of the more active listervs. Personal disclosures, political discussions back and forth, just talking about life, as well as just the usual banter. Trading jokes that nobody really wants to hear. It’s been pretty active, and it’s been good. It’s brought me back more into the Grinnell community I would say, in some ways even more than during my time here because I was away. Go off to India, you lose touch, I came back and I was a bit disconnected with everybody.
  • Brenna Ross & Mike Cleary
    Brenna: So knowing what you know now, what, if anything, would you have done differently?Mike: I would’ve been a PoliSci major. I was a Philosophy major because I figured I had to study something that could teach me about everything. I came here for a good education, a typical liberal arts attitude, the right attitude. No concern for vocation whatsoever. That was my mistake as well. I probably would’ve gone for some internships. I wouldn’t have taken two anthropology courses. I would’ve taken at least one history course. I would, yeah, I would’ve been a PoliSci major because I would’ve had fun, so I think that’s that.
  • Brenna Ross & Mike Cleary
    Brenna: All right. So if you were writing a history of Grinnell College, what stories from your experience would you add to it?Mike: What stories would I add? I think I told the main ones. It’s. It’s hard to say without thinking way too long for this to come up with good examples. Yeah, I don’t know if I’d add anything else to it.
  • Brenna Ross & Mike Cleary
    Brenna: OK, well, let’s see. What is your favorite academic experience?Mike: My favorite academic experience. Ooh, that’s a good question. What is my favorite academic experience here? There was, somewhere in my sophomore year I think it was, somewhere along the line I audited Political Philosophy. I didn’t actually take the class, but somewhere along the line I was taking two or three courses in Institutional Economics, in Politics, in Philosophy, and I kept on seeing connections from one class to the other. That was just eye-opening. It happened again, not to the same degree, and it was just marvelous that there could be so much synchronicity between all these different classes. That was cool, that was cool.
  • Brenna Ross & Mike Cleary
    Brenna: OK, so, well I think that just about covers most of the questions on here, is there anything else that you’d like to add?Mike: Nope, can’t think of anything, but I’ll let you know if I ever come up with anything.Brenna: All right.Mike: All right.Brenna: Well, thank you very much.
Alumni oral history with Mike Cleary '86. Recorded June 4, 2011.