Erskine Bowles is in high demand. The noted political and economic figure was in Palo Alto, Calif. this week to speak at Stanford University and to serve in his role on the Board of Directors for Facebook. Next week, he'll travel to New York for a board meeting with Morgan Stanley.
But in between, Bowles, 67, will make a stop at a small liberal arts college in Spartanburg. It's a school that Bowles said he couldn't say 'no' to. "My mama would have shot me if I said no," he said.
"She really felt that Converse gave her a voice."
Bowles will deliver Converse College's commencement address on Saturday at Twichell Auditorium on campus. The son of a Converse alum, Bowles said he's thrilled to visit the campus his mother attended.
Bowles said his mother often spoke highly of Converse. Jessamine Woodward Boyce transferred to Converse College in August 1938 from Ward-Belmont Junior College, Converse officials said. She was a member of the school's Saddle Club and L'Alliance Francaise. Boyce, from Gastonia, N.C., later married Hargrove "Skipper" Bowles Jr. Erskine was born in 1945.
"She really felt that Converse gave her a voice," Bowles said. "When she went to Converse, her professors there really pushed her out of her comfort zone."
It's a voice Bowles said his mother often used on him. And she never shied from expressing that voice to governors, senators or even a sitting president, Bowles said.
Bowles is co-founder of Campaign to Fix the Debt, a non-partisan organization dedicated to putting America on a better fiscal and economic path, and co-chaired the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.
Converse President Betsy Fleming said Bowles “exemplifies the spirit of accomplishment and distinction we cherish at Converse.” Fleming will present Bowles with an honorary doctorate of the humane letters on Saturday, giving him a degree from the same school as his mother. Fleming said that connection was important to the school. “We always like to have commencement speakers who have connections to the college,” she said.
Bowles' friend, Converse College trustee Jane Boatwright Schwab, said he wasted no time in accepting the school's invitation. “There wasn't a moment's hesitation,” Schwab said. “It was an easy ask, I must say.”
“I had this nice little graduation speech, but I just couldn't do it. It's not what my mother would want me to do.”
Schwab said Bowles “epitomizes what we are trying to stand for” at Converse College and said Bowles will likely be impressed by the graduating class's ambitions and accomplishments.
Bowles said he long ago lost count of the number of commencement speeches he has made. The addresses, at dozens of schools over the years, have been tweaked and crafted into a speech full of platitudes and advice that Bowles found helpful in his life.
But Bowles won't give that speech at Converse College.
“I had this nice little graduation speech,” Bowles said. “But I just couldn't do it. It's not what my mother would want me to do.” Instead, Bowles said, he aims to push Converse graduates, to encourage them to get out and get active in their communities. “That's what she'd want me to do,” Bowles said of his mother. Bowles stops short of elaborating on the speech, wanting to save the message for Saturday's graduates.
Under the administration of President Bill Clinton, Bowles served as director of the Small Business Administration, deputy chief of staff and chief of staff. He also served as president of the University of North Carolina from 2006 until 2010. Bowles said he sometimes misses working in higher education and likes the opportunity to speak to graduates. But most visits, Bowles said, only last a day. “I normally come in and go out,” he said. “That's generally all the time I have.”
But the Converse visit will be spread over two days and will include dinner with college leaders, lunch with graduates and a tour of this mother's alma mater. Bowles said he's excited to see how the college has changed since the 1960s, the last time he visited Converse's campus. At the time, Bowles joked, he was on the female-only campus to “meet some great women.”
“I'm delighted to come back,” he said.
This story was written by Drew Brooks of the Spartanburg Herald Journal.