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Union University Luncheon Honoring Pauline LaFon Gore

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Monday, April 10, 2000

President Dockery; Vice President Duduit; faculty, family, and friends:

This is a special day for our family, because Union has always been a special place for our family.

My uncle Everett, who passed away last year, went to Union. My uncle Whit's wife, Nell LaFon, taught at Union.

My mother has always said that her greatest regret is that she never actually received her Union diploma.

I'm told this is only the second time in Union's 177 years that you have granted a Baccalaureate Degree to someone who did not complete his or her coursework here.

The truth is, my mother my mother not only skipped forward to law school, she earned her Union degree through a much harder course. She earned it through a lifetime of service to others.

My mother was born into a poor family here in West Tennessee -- at a time when poor girls weren't supposed to dream.

Her parents had married when they were just seventeen. Neither of them had the chance to get the education they wanted. Her father ran a small country store in Cold Corner -- in the First District of Weakley County in Northwest Tennessee – a store that went bust during the Great Depression.

What motivated my mother to strive on was not the dream of money, but the dream of opportunity.

As a young girl, she was deeply troubled by stories my grandfather told her about his struggle to help my grandmother and my great-grandmother inherit land that was rightly theirs. Instead, it went entirely to their brothers.

Women weren't supposed to own land in those days. They certainly weren't supposed to go to college. Those inequalities made a deep impression on my mother. So she set out to change them.

She started her education in a one-room schoolhouse in Cold Corner. And in her words, “it never occurred to me that I couldn't go to college. I just knew it was up to me to find a way.”

She did find a way. She got a $100 loan from the Jackson Rotary Club – which she later repaid. She enrolled at Union in the fall of 1931, waiting tables at Miss Snipes' Restaurant in downtown Jackson to help pay her way. She insisted on bringing her blind sister, my aunt Thelma, with her to Union. She took notes and read lessons for both of them – something that would have been nearly impossible without the kindness and goodwill of her professors.

A lot has changed at Union since my mother's time. Back then, it was a small college with about 700 students, most of them from West Tennessee. Today it's a university with more than 2,500 students from all across America.

Back then, streetcars cost a nickel, taxis anywhere in Jackson cost a dime, and a year's tuition at Union was just ninety-nine dollars. Today – well, let's just say that tuition is a bit more than ninety-nine dollars.

A lot has changed in America as well. When my mother enrolled at Union, it wasn't long after women had won the right to vote in this country. The Tennessee Valley Authority hadn't even been created. Herbert Hoover was still in the White House – and millions of Americans faced crushing poverty.

There weren't many opportunities for a poor girl like Pauline LaFon to get an education.

But she dreamed of becoming a lawyer. And despite all the obstacles before her, she refused to let go of that dream. So after two years at Union, my mother came to Nashville and enrolled at Vanderbilt Law School.

This time, she scraped her way through by waiting tables at the old Andrew Jackson Hotel, working for 25-cent tips. She lived at the downtown YWCA for two dollars a week, took a trolley to her morning classes, and then rushed back to the Andrew Jackson for the dinner shift.

That's where she met my father, who had just started YMCA night law school -- even as he worked as Smith County Superintendent of Schools, and each day, had to wake up well before dawn to tend his crops.

Every night, after a long day of work and study, he faced an hour's drive to return from Nashville to Carthage on old Highway 70. So he went looking for coffee -- and he found it at the Andrew Jackson. He loved to tell the story of how the coffee didn't taste good unless it was poured by that beautiful young woman named Pauline LaFon.

From the day they met, my parents were partners. They studied together for the bar exam -- and passed it on the same day.

In fact, I remember them joking about who got the higher grade. If I interpreted the jokes correctly, my mother did.

When my mother graduated from Vanderbilt, it was virtually impossible for a woman to find a legal job in Nashville. So she left for Texarkana, and put up her shingle.

As far as we know, she was the only female attorney in Texarkana at the time; there were not very many in the entire nation. She practiced oil and gas law, and also took on divorce cases -- unprecedented for a female attorney back then.

The next year, my father persuaded her to come back as his wife. Soon after, he decided to run for Congress in the old Fourth District.

At that time, politicians' wives stayed far in the background. My father wanted my mother right up front with him. And my mother took as her role model Eleanor Roosevelt – who had made it respectable for women to be involved in a campaign. And so, in my mother's own words, “off I went, almost charting a new course.”

It was lucky for my father that she did. There will never be a better campaigner than Pauline LaFon Gore.

In that first campaign, my mother would talk with any voter she could find, and speak at any club meeting that would have her.

She'd heard that in another election, the candidate had lost by just thirteen votes. So whenever she got tired, she kept thinking to herself, “thirteen votes.”

She walked the dirt roads of the district -- from Franklin County to Clay County, and all points in between. On rainy days, she'd pull off her shoes and wade through the mud to reach people's homes.

That year, a lot of people supported my father's campaign because they saw my mother's heart -- how she listened to people, how she understood their concerns, and how she could speak with anyone.

The people she met on all those early campaigns formed a powerful personal bond of friendship with her, and many of them have helped our family for decades. Some of them are helping me in this election -- more than half a century later.

It was in 1952, during my father's first race for the Senate, that my mother's political skills truly came to the rescue. Some of you have heard me tell the story before.

My father was challenging a powerful incumbent, Senator Kenneth D. McKellar, who was the Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. McKellar sought to remind the voters of his power to bring money to the state with his omnipresent slogan: “The thinking feller votes McKellar.”

My father would never allow his supporters to tear down those McKellar signs. And so my mother came up with the perfect solution. Every time we found a sign that said “The thinking feller votes McKellar,” we put a new sign directly underneath it: “Think some more and vote for Gore.” Without that slogan, he might not have won the race.

And by the way, mom -- I'm still waiting for this year's slogan.

My mother has shown that same talent and tenacity in my campaigns. She used to tell a story about my first race in 1976, when an old friend and supporter of my father's came up to her and said: “Mrs. Gore, if your son is as good as his old man, we'll be for him.” To which my mother replied that she had trained us both – and had done a better job on me, for she'd corrected some mistakes.

Of course, my mother was much more than a campaigner. She was my father's closest adviser. And when he took tough and controversial positions, such as his strong support for civil rights, and his opposition to the war in Vietnam -- positions that caused great tension among their colleagues and friends -- she always stood with him. She shared his conscience. And in all things large and small, she was his strength.

She has always believed in the power of education. After all, she had seen its transforming influence in her own life. She taught it to me and my sister Nancy -- and she taught it to my children, too. When she won a humanitarian award a couple of years ago, she used the money to set up a scholarship fund for aspiring college students from Smith County.

And I can think of no greater tribute to my mother's life and work than the Pauline LaFon Gore Scholarship that you are creating today – to give worthy students from West Tennessee the same Union education that my mother had.

She has always found ways to serve. During World War II, when my father resigned his seat in Congress to enlist, my mother helped with the war effort as well.

At that time, political wives in Washington were obliged to spend a lot of time calling on the wives of husbands who outranked theirs. The war – and the rationing of gasoline – put an end to that custom. And so my mother went to work.

At first, she volunteered for her friend and role model Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House, answering letters from those who poured their hearts out, looking for hope at a time of distress. She then volunteered at the Red Cross, interviewing young women who wanted to go overseas to help with the war effort.

She has always had that kind of energy. In 1970, after my father lost his Senate seat because he stood up against the Vietnam War, my mother picked up and returned to her legal career -- first at a firm she opened with my father, then as the managing partner at a large firm in Washington. During her law firm years, she always advised young women who were considering legal careers.

Maybe it was just her way of redeeming the struggles her mother and grandmother could never win in their time.

My mother has also been a loving grandmother – and now great-grandmother. One of my favorite stories took place about seven years ago, when Pauline LaFon Gore turned 80 years old. We were getting ready to have a big birthday party for he, and my son Albert asked her how old she was. As she has said, “I knew he would go up and down the street with my age, so I just said 39.” And at that point Albert yelled out to my daughter Sarah, “Do you know that grandmother is younger than daddy?”

It's been said that “the mother's heart is the child's schoolroom.” [Henry Ward Beecher]

I know that is true for me. For all my 52 years, my mother has been the greatest teacher I have ever had.

She taught me that through quiet dignity and determination, one woman could make all the difference.

She taught me that there are no doors that can't be opened – if you work hard enough and knock long enough.

She has passed on to me and my children a deep passion for learning – and a deep sense of obligation, to use that knowledge as a force for good in the world.

As long as I am privileged to serve this country, I will cherish the lessons she has taught me.

And as long as I live, I will be grateful to Union University – for starting my mother on her path in life, and now for granting her the diploma she first worked so hard for 70 years ago – the diploma she has earned in a shining lifetime of love, leadership, and service.

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