He is a former two-term governor of Ohio -- the man who turned that state's flailing economy around and, oh yeah, pardoned country singer Johnny PayCheck of "Take This Job and Shove It" fame.
He headed up the Peace Corps and served as the United States ambassador to India.
Fourteen years ago, he landed on the short list of potential candidates for president of the United States.
But Richard F. Celeste, whose current single mission is to make Colorado College the best liberal arts college in the nation, doesn't rest on his laurels. To hear him tell it, he's a pretty simple guy.
"I'm someone who loves to run things," he said in a recent interview. "I've been fortunate to have interesting opportunities cross my path and I have developed a rule in life: When something interesting presents itself, go for it."
Into the firestorm
And go for it he has. In 30 months, the 67-year-old Celeste has energized the small private liberal arts college just north of downtown.
His entrance came in the midst of a political firestorm and a media circus. Within weeks of being hired as president of Colorado College, influential cleric Rabbi Bruce Dollin, of the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council, had already called for Celeste's resignation. Newspaper columnists and prominent state politicians, including Gov. Bill Owens and the Republican leader of the state Senate, John Andrews, were outraged at him.
At issue was his decision to allow Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator who once worked for Yasser Arafat -- and then had resigned in protest over some of his policies -- to speak on campus a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The faculty had invited her, and Celeste backed their decision, which was part of a weeklong lecture series meant to give students a better understanding of a world changed by terrorism. Ashrawi was the "co-keynote" speaker, along with Gideon Doron, a former member of the Israeli national security team and a prominent Israeli political scientist.
Having co-keynoters wasn't good enough for Andrews and other lawmakers, who wrote a letter calling Celeste's decision a "totally inappropriate slap in the face to the memory of all who died and have suffered as a result of 9/11."
Celeste didn't buckle under. Instead, he welcomed hundreds of protesters and supporters onto the campus to see what the commotion was about.
"We had Porta Potties on the quad for everyone," Celeste said. "I was an old demonstrator. I knew what people needed. They needed microphones and places to relieve themselves."
Celeste gets a little prickly when reminded about the controversy.
"We want people to understand democracy in the Middle East," he said. "We want to imbed democracy in Iraq. We want to insinuate democracy into Iran. We're not going to let Hanan Ashrawi speak on a college campus in the United States? Give me a break. Shame on those people who feel that way. Shame on them."
The controversy has been a good barometer of Celeste's fortitude. He doesn't cave to the whims of the day.
Behind the headlines
He has also recently been critical of KRCC, the college-run radio station that provides a wide array of music and National Public Radio programs. The station, Celeste says, doesn't provide enough local journalism.
But rather than bellyaching about it, he provided seed funding for a professional news program and staff. The program will be up and running next month.
"My feeling is the more in-depth news coverage we can provide for this community and southern Colorado the better," he said. "Often stories get a wink and a promise and you never hear more the next day. You don't get the follow up. You don't get to hear what's behind the headline. So hopefully, we'll see what goes on."
He also continues to support speakers who aren't known for mincing words. Eric Schlosser, the investigative journalist who wrote Fast Food Nation, an expos that reveals the dark side of multinational, commercial fast-food culture, delivered the commencement address to students this year. Some parents were mortified. Most students loved it.
Last month Celeste hosted a public lecture by Richard Florida, the controversial and best-selling author of The Rise of the Creative Class, which argues that economic success requires cities to be diverse and welcoming to all.
Florida maintains that cities can generate more jobs, better salaries and more high-tech growth if they develop policies that nurture diversity, tolerance and inclusiveness -- a direction that gay rights advocates and progressives say Colorado Springs has failed to take.
All the debate is part of Celeste's goal to make Colorado College the best liberal arts college in the nation. He says the broader the array of experiences provided by the college, the more intellectual curiosity that is kindled in students. He also says the college must prepare students for a lifetime in a work world that is constantly changing because of technological innovationsamid an evolving global culture.
"When you graduate from college with a degree in fill-in-the-blank, you're going to have nine different jobs during your career these days," he said. "So anybody who thinks 'I'm going to study this course because it's going to get me the job that's going to take care of me for life' is making a huge mistake.
"What you develop are skills. You develop a set of tools for how you think about work, problems, tough decisions. You learn critical thinking; you learn how to bring facts together across disciplines and across boundaries. You learn how to manage time because time is a hugely valuable resource. You learn how to focus on a project and get it done."
Up the ladder
Political cartoons satirizing some of Celeste's actions as governor adorn his office walls. There's also a large, black-and-white photo of his Italian-born father, Frank Celeste, the former mayor of Lakewood, Ohio, shaking the hand of John F. Kennedy.
"He sort of vacillated between making money and losing it, which is, I think, very much the American way," he said, grinning. "Sometimes we would go off on a vacation to Key West, Florida; other times we would go to the sand dunes in Michigan."
Born and raised in a Cleveland suburb, Celeste graduated from high school in 1955 and went on to become a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. He graduated magna cum laude from Yale in 1962 with a degree in teaching. The next year -- a prelude to his own later role -- he served as the executive assistant to the U.S. ambassador in India for four years.
He then returned to Ohio and was elected to the Legislature, serving from 1970 to 1974. During the next four years, he was Ohio's lieutenant governor.
In 1979, then-President Jimmy Carter beckoned Celeste to Washington to head up the Peace Corps. While there, he broadened the role of women and minorities in the corps and developed a training plan that gave volunteers a broader understanding of the world they were going to serve.
Three years later he was elected governor of Ohio. When he walked into the governor's mansion, the state was in the midst of economic catastrophe. Ohio was 50th in terms of job creation and the unemployment rate was a monstrous 14.2 percent.
"When I left office we were number five in the country in job creation and we had a 5.4 percent unemployment rate," Celeste said.
'The one person who lost'
He also helped the state recover from a $500 million deficit, balancing the budget before he left office.
But it wasn't all rosy in Ohio for Celeste.
He faced a savings and loan scandal that was linked to Marvin L. Warner, a supporter and a wealthy financier who ran the state's powerful Home State Bank. Warner was one of Celeste's top political contributors, donating easily, Celeste recalls, $100,000 to his campaigns. He also headed the Ohio Building Authority, an appointment made by Celeste.
In 1985, Warner's house of cards came crumbling down after a securities firm he had loaned hundreds of millions of Home State dollars to became bogged down in fraud charges. Warner's bank closed, setting off panic among depositors around Ohio.
Celeste responded by temporarily closing 69 state-chartered savings and loans to prevent a run on funds. He asked the state for -- and got -- $110 million to prop the banks up so they could reopen. Later, every penny was returned to the state, and Warner was convicted and spent several years in prison, much of his millions gone.
"He was the one person who lost," Celeste said.
For his part, Celeste was faced with the task of turning over documents to a grand jury in Cincinnati for scrutiny. The Legislature investigated but no evidence linked him to the scandal.
"The big lessons there were, no matter how much you think you know about state government, it's big enough and diverse enough that there's always going to be a surprise in it," he said.
During his tenure, Celeste gained the controversial reputation of being one of America's most lenient governors. He commuted the sentences of eight Ohio death row inmates to life, including two given the possibility of parole.
The pardons came just as Celeste was preparing to leave office, after a series of requests from public defenders and other individuals who said there was a racial bias in sentencing.
Perhaps the most well-known pardon was that of Johnny PayCheck, the Ohio country singer who in 1977 scored a hit with the workingman's anthem, "Take This Job and Shove It."
PayCheck, who died last year, was imprisoned from 1989 to 1991 for assault after pulling the trigger of a gun in a 1985 barroom shooting, grazing the head of a patron.
PayCheck's lawyer asked Celeste to review the case because the country singer was his family's sole source of revenue.
"He actually shot a hat off the guy, see," Celeste said. "He didn't hit the guy, but he could have. They were both drunk as skunks. Johnny is sitting at home wearing this guy's hat when the police came and arrested him and he'd been in bar fights before. ... His victim didn't want him to stay in jail."
But Celeste also wanted to know that PayCheck would reform his legendary boozing and fighting ways. The singer enrolled in an alcohol program and when Celeste checked, the warden said PayCheck was on the way to recovery. That satisfied Celeste, who commuted the singer's seven- to nine-year sentence to time served, plus community service.
Celeste never met PayCheck, who went back to performing, but he later received a letter from him.
"He said, 'I never knew what it was like to really live until I found the program and not only did you save my wife's life, you saved mine,'" Celeste said. (Police reports and witness statements from PayCheck's arrest can be read online at www.csindy.com.)
As for the death row inmates, Celeste says addressing the death penalty in Ohio -- just as he was leaving office -- was inevitable.
"For most of my time I did not undertake that action because I felt sooner or later that one of these cases would come across my desk as governor and I should deal with it when it did," he said. "I then realized that I was likely to leave the office of governor without ever having addressed the death penalty and I felt that was wrong. ... It was clear that this penalty was discriminatory."
The road to India
After serving as governor, Celeste was expected to run for president. In a 1990 article, USA Today named Celeste among the six "best presidential bets" for the 1992 Democratic ticket. Celeste was in the well-groomed company of then-Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, and Mario Cuomo, New York's governor.
Celeste said he chose not to run because he wouldn't be able to raise the millions needed to win.
But he stayed active in politics. In 1993, President Clinton asked for his help selling one of the most ambitious plans of his presidency -- health-care reform.
"My job was to try to figure out how to convince people to support the plan," Celeste said.
Working on the grass-roots level for the Democratic National Committee, Celeste zigzagged America beyond the beltway, holding press conferences and meetings with potential supporters in the face of a campaign to derail the movement funded generously by the insurance industry.
A bumper sticker by Celeste's team summed up what the president was trying to accomplish: "Health Care That's Always There."
But the 1,300-page plan, Celeste concedes, was too convoluted, playing readily into the hands of critics who said Americans would lose their freedom to choose doctors and be hampered with paperwork rather than receive quality care.
"The only guy who could understand it was the guy who wrote it," Celeste said. "It had very good elements. It was just too darn complicated. ... It was too bad. It was an opportunity to do something."
He left the failed campaign when its focus shifted from organizing at the grass-roots level to a massive barrage of television commercials.
Celeste subsequently was selected by Clinton to be the United States ambassador to India, serving as the main diplomatic liaison between the two countries. While he was there, his key challenge was to help ease the escalating tension between India and Pakistan over the two nations' growing nuclear arms programs.
Near the end of 2000, as Clinton prepared to exit office, Celeste was contacted in India by a search firm seeking a university president. His friend, Gaston Caperton, a former West Virginia governor who is now the president of the College Board, a nonprofit membership association of more than 4,500 educational institutions, told him he'd love being in academia.
"He was saying, 'Dick, you've got to become a college president,'" Celeste said. "He also talked to some search firms about me. So my phone began to ring."
His children, who now range in ages from 7 to 41, and his second wife, Jacqueline Lundquist, were big supporters of the idea.
Celeste soon set his sights on Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where he could begin to think about retirement. But a search firm said he should look elsewhere because nobody believed he'd retire. The university would be hesitant to hire someone with his political connections -- there were fears he'd run for office again.
So he and his wife began looking beyond his home state's borders. They drew up a list of cities where they'd like to live besides Cleveland, and Washington, which is Lundquist's hometown.
"We ended up with San Francisco Bay area, Austin, Texas, Denver, maybe Atlanta," he said. "They were beautiful places to be. They were interesting places because they had diverse populations and they didn't belong to either of us. In other words, I didn't have a history there; Jacqueline didn't have a history there. It was new for both of us."
In January of 2002, a search firm contacted Celeste and asked him if he'd be interested in a city that wasn't on his list -- Colorado Springs, where he'd have a view of Pikes Peak from his office. He visited Colorado College and fell in love.
He knows he's an old Democrat in a city that's brazenly Republican, but says that doesn't bother him at all. First, local issues, he said, don't often cut along party lines. Second, he's philosophical about the role of political parties anyway. Party power, he says, is always fleeting.
"My sense is those things come and go," he said. "Who knows what El Paso County will look like 20 years from now?"
Although there are more than 200 such colleges around the nation that emphasize problem-solving skills in small class settings, Colorado College stands as a rarity in the West.
The college runs its academic year on eight "blocks" that are each three and a half weeks, rather than semesters, which last half the academic year. For one block, students might participate in an archaeological dig. For another they might analyze findings in a laboratory. The experiences help build real-world skills, he said.
"You can go into a company because you want to write copy and you end up working on the computer system," Celeste said. "You can start working on the computer system and you end up writing copy. You can start out as a gofer in an office and you end up doing sales."
On campus, he's not known as Mr. President. Most simply call him by his nickname, Dick.
It's not surprising the well-dressed Celeste is such an informal figure among the college's 1,900 students, who appear as a mass of tousled hair and blue jeans. Each week, he is available to talk to students about whatever's on their minds. He even invites some of them to elaborate dinners at his home.
His mantra is to provide the "finest liberal arts education in the country" by 2010.
By way of underscoring how he plans to get there, he hands out laminated cards with the college's mission statement, which he created.
On the reverse side of the card is a list of the college's "core values." They include honoring the life of the mind, practicing intellectual honesty, encouraging engagement and social responsibility at local, national and global levels, and supporting environmental sustainability.
"I'd say generally we've attracted very good students, but we're moving up, let's say, the academic ladder in terms of the students who are deciding to come here and the kind of students that we're admitting," Celeste said.
Not all rich kids
But Colorado College is a long way from the top -- at least according to U.S. News and World Report, which ranks the college 33rd in the nation. Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., is ranked at the top.
It isn't Williams College that inspires Celeste. He points to 23rd-ranked Oberlin College in Ohio as his model. Oberlin is known for its rigorous academic program and commitment to social justice issues. On a per- capita basis, more Oberlin graduates have earned doctorates than any other four-year institution, and the college was the first in the nation to accept women and blacks.
Celeste sees similarities.
"There are different ways you can look at diversity," Celeste said. "Traditionally we've thought of that as ethnicity." This year's freshman class includes 20 percent American ethnic minorities. But, he says, it's not just a matter of skin color.
At Colorado College, for example, currently 3 percent to 4 percent of students are from overseas. Celeste would like to increase that number to as much as 8 percent, "because that's part of the world that our students are to be educated about."
He added that economic diversity is just as important to the college: "People think of Colorado College as a place with a bunch of spoiled rich kids. The truth is a quarter of our student body comes from families with incomes under $50,000. That is significantly higher than most liberal arts colleges who are our peers."
The college has struggled in recent months, however, with a problem that experts say is plaguing universities around the country -- alcohol and drug abuse. The issue struck home on Oct. 21 for Celeste and students when junior Amanda Morrison, 20, fell more than 40 feet from her fourth-floor Bemis Hall room window.
Celeste immediately issued a statement: "As a parent, Amanda's death breaks my heart, and my thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends. We are concerned about the possible role of alcohol in this tragedy, and take seriously our mission to educate students to live responsibly. One of the hallmarks of Colorado College is the deep sense of community we share."
Homeowners who live near the college have stepped up complaints this year about rampant drinking among students.
In response, Celeste held a meeting on campus between neighbors, students, Colorado Springs police and administrators looking for ways to change student culture. He's even taken to prowling the neighborhoods late at night, checking in on student residences.
Last career stop
Celeste doesn't know how long he'll stay at Colorado College. Ultimately, he says, the length of his stay is up to the college's Board of Trustees.
He'd like to make his latest incarceration his last career stop, staying another eight to 12 years before retiring.
"I'm not here to use CC as a springboard," Celeste said. "My ambitions for this college are very much geared to making us the very best liberal arts in the country by 2010. That's the mission and everything else is intended to support that mission."
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