Establishment of the L.T. Jordan Institute
Jim Reynolds, former MSC director, gave a speech from this script at the L.T. Jordan Institute’s 20th Anniversary Celebration on February 24, 2006. Subheadings have been added to aid readability.
Acknowledgement of Honored Guests
OTHER SPECIAL GUESTS
Mrs. Jordan always professed that she did not like to speak in public. She described herself as a gabber—not a speaker. However, when given the podium or just an informal opportunity, she spoke very well-and often at great length. At one point in the mid-1980’s, I calculated that I had spent almost six months of my life listening to Mrs. Jordan’s stories; and of course, I loved every minute of it. Tonight it is fitting that I attempt to emulate her style; but I will try not to emulate her length. If my presentation sounds like just gabbing, it is in honor of my good friend Jessie Jordan.
The Phone Call
On a Monday afternoon in late spring of 1983, I received a phone call at 3:17 p.m. from Bob Rutledge, President of the Texas A&M Foundation. I remember the exact time because I was dreading what I thought was to be my next phone call and watching the clock.
Mr. Rutledge explained to me that he had just received a call from Jessie Jordan in Lufkin, Texas. Mrs. Jordan had told him, very straightforwardly, that if Texas A&M didn’t find something that interested her, she was going to give her estate to the Angelina County Historical Society. Mrs. Jordan had instructed Mr. Rutledge to be at her home the next day with a proposal. Otherwise, she was going to meet with her attorney and finalize her estate plan—not to include Texas A&M University.
A Proposal in Jordan Time
Now, for those of your who remember Jessie, she could be very forceful and very persuasive—like an Ml tank! When working with Jessie, you always operated on Jordan time, not central standard or daylight savings time. Jordan time, essentially, was whenever Jessie wanted something done.
As Mr. Rutledge began to explain a bit about Mrs. Jordan, I recalled that I had heard a story from my predecessor, which sounded much like the same lady. I glanced over to the memorabilia wall in the MSC Director’s office and picked out a photograph of Former Texas A&M President, Jarvis Miller, receiving something from a rather sprightly-looking lady, obviously in the lady’s home. After the conversation with Mr. Rutledge, I looked at the back of the photo and indeed found that it was Mrs. Jordan handing President Miller a copy of the Kuwaiti Oil Company magazine.
Mr. Rutledge explained that the Foundation, and various University administrators, had been in communication with Mrs. Jordan for more than ten years, but no one had been able to determine what it was that she wanted to do for Texas A&M—other than to donate a collection of art objects and memorabilia from her home.
I asked Bob Rutledge for more details or insights, and he told me that he had shared with me everything that he knew about Mrs. Jordan. He did say, that if the MSC had a proposal, we could ask Mrs. Jordan for up to $500k. Since I had no experience in fundraising, I could hardly conceive of asking anyone (especially a widow lady in Lufkin, Texas) for half a million dollars.
Mr. Rutledge then went on to give me the bad news—he needed my proposal by 8:30 a.m. Tuesday morning; since Mrs. Jordan had summoned him to have lunch with her in Lufkin the next day. Remember —— Jordan time!
I should have been totally overwhelmed by this “opportunity”, but a combination of naiveté and commitment to the MSC’s long term goal of helping Texas A&M students to expand their international horizons, caused me to assume that this was a doable project.
The Need for International Awareness
Let me digress for a moment in order to explain why creating a proposal of this magnitude in a few hours was not as daunting a task as it might seem. The first director of the MSC, J. Wayne Stark, had recognized during the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s that one of the few deficiencies of Texas A&M graduates was their lack of international travel and awareness. When I got to A&M in 1978, I actually overheard a student referring a trip across the Red River into Oklahoma as being an international travel experience. Wayne Stark, lacking resources to do otherwise, depended on the Experiment in International Living organization, and the generosity of a few A&M Former Students to help a few Aggies engage in international travel. The numbers were small, but the results were spectacular!
So the MSC had long recognized the importance of international awareness, and Wayne had challenged me when I came on board, to focus on that issue. In fact, during the 1980-1982 time period, the MSC managed to send groups of students to live and work in the Dominican Republic and to tour, under the All China Youth Federation, major cities and cultural sites in the People’s Republic of China. Both were excellent programs, but were done on a shoestring and without an infrastructure or a financial resource base to sustain those efforts. By the Fall of 1982, the MSC essentially had given up maintaining a long term, comprehensive international travel program—at last until resources could be obtained to support such programs.
Based on that history, I quickly assured Mr. Rutledge that the MSC would have a proposal for him to take to Mrs. Jordan the next morning.
Drafting the Proposal
Most of you in this room understand that the MSC is a student/staff partnership. Philosophically, that operating style, Sir David
, came from the creation of the student union idea by students at Cambridge University in 1814. True to that philosophy of the student/staff partnership, as soon as my conversation with Mr. Rutledge ended, I called two student officers of the MSC Council and asked them to meet me in my office at 5:00 p.m. I also notified the MSC Print ‘N Copy Center that mid-evening I would have a project that had to be printed and bound by 8:00 the next morning. No, I didn’t know how many pages or if there would be photographs, or what I wanted on the cover, or anything else—just be standing by and remember that there is no margin for error in the production schedule! Fortunately, they were not unused to last minute tasks—bless them for their efficiency!
In another time-honored MSC tradition, I also called Pizza Hut for a 5:15 p.m. delivery. One of the things I have learned from students is that free food, and especially pizza, is a primary stimulator of creativity and productivity.
So the stage was set for the drafting of a proposal to ask someone about whom we knew very little, and with whom we had no relationship, and who was antagonized by her perception of neglect by Texas A&M, to ask that person for one half of a million dollars; and to have our proposal done by the next morning.
In truth, whether it was the pizza, or the pent up desire to help students to travel internationally, or the MSC’s corporate knowledge of the long-assessed need for international awareness opportunities, the drafting of the proposal to establish the L.T. Jordan Institute for International Awareness was done in less than two hours. The students, both of whom had traveled internationally with help from the MSC, quickly conceptualized the basic elements of the program—based on their personal travel experiences, their understanding of the intellectual aspects of international awareness, and their knowledge of how a comprehensive international travel program could be integrated into the Memorial Student Center organization.
Visit to Jessie’s Home
At 8:30 the next morning, Bob Rutledge came to my office. I showed him the proposal for the L.T. Jordan Institute for International Awareness. He read it, and then said, “Jim, you will have to come to Lufkin with me to explain this to Mrs. Jordan”. I was terrified, but also excited about the opportunity to accommodate a major need for Texas A&M students.
Mrs. Jordan received us at her front door (the ones hanging outside the L.T. Jordan Institute) and gave us a tour of the display cases in her home—a very thorough tour. We then moved to the sun porch for coffee, and Mrs. Jordan asked if we had a proposal for her. Bob passed the buck to me very quickly. Although my mouth was dry, in spite of the very black coffee, I managed to explain the MSC and its interest in international awareness, then handed the proposal to her. She poured more coffee for Bob and me, and read the proposal while we were sitting there perspiring. Matter-of-factly, Jessie laid the proposal aside and said, “This is exactly what I want to do”. My immediate reaction was that this fundraising business is really easy! I was to learn differently over the next two years.
After a bit of small talk, we adjourned to the Crown Colony Country Club for a delightful lunch at HER table. We then returned to 105 Muirfield Dr. and were treated to an expanded tour of the display cases, and taken into other rooms full of antiques, beautiful furniture from around the world, and other items of memorabilia.
More to the Gift Than a Check
I am not terribly astute, but I was beginning to get the distinct impression that there might be more to the gift than a check for $500k. Without ceremony Mrs. Jordan suddenly determined that the interview was concluded, and her parting words were, “I want to establish MY Institute, but we need to talk about some other things. Can you come back next week?”
Of course I could come back next week, and on an average of at least twice per month, every month, for the next two years. Every visit began with a tour of the display cases and little by little I was shown the entire house. And after our mutual trust and respect had reached a high level, Jessie asked me to help her up the stairs into the attic where she kept all of the letters that Leland had ever written to her—including the valentine he gave her when she was seven years old in which he announced his intention to marry her.
The story I am telling about the establishment of the L.T. Jordan Institute is not a detailing of the proposal, and not a celebration of the number of digits to the left of the decimal point on the check, or even a description of the hundreds of objects in the L.T. Jordan Collection. It is a story, gabbing if you will, about people; and about their interactions to accomplish something good for everyone involved.
Jessie had two primary goals. Goals more important to her than making a major financial contribution. She wanted to create a memorial to Leland—to his business accomplishments, to his accomplishments in international relations and diplomacy, to his sense of humanity, and to his devotion to their relationship. She also wanted to become a part of the Texas A&M Family; as a way of preserving Leland’s memory in her mind and heart, and as a way of helping Texas A&M to understand what one of its most distinguished graduates had accomplished.
House and Museum for the L.T. Jordan Collection
After my second or third visit to Lufkin, Jessie announced that she wanted to build a wing on the MSC—in effect to recreate Ahmadi, their house in Kuwait City. The house then would serve as a museum for all of their art, memorabilia, and furniture; and as the headquarters for the L.T. Jordan Institute for International Awareness. She faithfully and frequently re-iterated her desire to fund the Institute, but now there was a significant new condition on the table. For two and one-half years, Jessie and I negotiated about what and how much of the Jordan’s personal possessions would be permanently displayed in the MSC. Again, the starting point was the construction of Ahmadi as a wing on the MSC.
Member of the MSC Family
In the meantime, we made Jessie a full-fledged member of the MSC Family. In three years, she never missed a home football game. One or two students (or [my wife] Pam and I) would drive to Lufkin on Friday morning, have lunch at HER table in the Club, and drive her big black Cadillac back to College Station. A group of us would go to dinner with Jessie (for which she always paid in cash), then adjourn to a lounge in the MSC for story telling. About 1:30 p.m., at Jessie’s direction, one of us would go and fetch Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla ice cream and strong black coffee. By 1:30 Jessie would retire; then at 7:30 a.m., one or more of us would join her in the MSC cafeteria. She would have two donuts and coffee, and look as if she had slept for ten hours. None of us, neither students nor staff, could keep pace with her. Jessie shared with me that throughout their lives in Venezuela and Kuwait, she never got more than four hours of sleep. I came to believe and regret that!
As the months (and years) went by, we continued to negotiate about space and objects. I finally convinced Jessie that we could not build a house onto the MSC. She then determined that she should have what is now the MSC Student Programs Office West (approximately 6,000 square feet) and had blueprints drawn for a museum room, dining facility, and bedroom for that space.
She and I continued to negotiate and the MSC students and staff continued to involve Jessie as a member of the MSC Family. She frequently spent several days per month on campus, to the delight (and exhaustion) of all of us.
Late 1985 and 1986
In late 1985, Jessie’s health began to fail. Our collective desire, both hers and ours, to culminate the gift was beginning to create tension and uncertainty. By this time, the display space issue had been negotiated to its current configuration (exactly 121 running feet of shelf space); and the only remaining issue was which and how many objects would come. On this Jessie and I had deadlocked for some time.
I had made two photo albums of all of the things in Jessie’s home, one for her and one for me. In May of 1986, Jessie summoned Bob Rutledge to her home, but instructed him that I was NOT to come. When he arrived, Jessie had her photo album and a check lying on her dining room table. She made the check out in the amount of $1 M, then instructed Bob to get me on the phone. She had him tell me about the check and then tell me to get my copy of the photo album. Jessie then went page by page through the album telling me what I had to accept in order for her to sign the check. I kept track of those items as she went from page to page, adding up the number of running feet of display space that would be required, and found it to be within the plans I had drawn for the three rooms of the L.T. Jordan Institute, and said, “JESSIE, DONE DEAL!”
That’s the story of how the L.T. Jordan Institute was established.
Summary of Lady Jordan
Jessie Wright Jordan (Lady Jordan) was an extraordinary character. She suffered a bout with polio while in middle school and was told that she would never walk—of course, she did! She earned a place in the Tulane Medical School before it was common for women to study medicine, then stopped out after a year to marry Leland and move to Venezuela. She served not only as a corporate executive spouse, but as a personal emissary of Queen Elizabeth II, and de facto as the First Lady of Kuwait. Her stories about the Emir stopping by for tea in the mid-afternoon and casually asking her to produce a dinner the next night for 100 foreign dignitaries would frighten even the most experienced catering manager.
Lady Jordan was an extraordinary human being, who lived life to the fullest; she was devoted to her husband and to the nation of Kuwait (whose ruling family she loved and respected as if they were her own); she was a wonderful storyteller (Did she really land a Kuwait Oil Company DC-3 after the pilot had a heart attack?) and loved the time she spent with Texas A&M students; she made some extraordinarily generous gifts to Texas A&M to support things in which she believed. She was a tough negotiator and a good friend, with whom I was privileged to spend many wonderful hours.
- The names at the top of this document were guest speakers who proceeded him and other honored quests at L.T. Jordan’s 20th Anniversary celebration.
- The reference to “Sir David” was for Sir David Manning, Ambassador of Great Britain, who spoke later that evening.