Our Capital Gaels

Story by Barry Shiller


Despite its many imperfections, politics has always been a noble discipline. Aristotle called it “the master science of the good.” Noted 20th century philosopher Mortimer Adler declared Justice, Freedom, and Equality—the foundation of much political thought and discourse—to be among his 102 “Great Ideas.”

Given its liberal arts and great books traditions, and its seminar learning model which engages students to study such “big ideas,” is it reasonable to suggest that Saint Mary’s College students are uniquely suited to careers in public life?

Apparently so. In California, Saint Mary’s alumni are well-represented in the judicial, legislative, and executive branches of government—as elected legislators, legislative staffers, policy advisers, and political advocates. They also serve in federal posts in Washington, D.C. and in local posts throughout the country.

To those who contribute to awakening and sharpening students’ sense of civic citizenship, this is encouraging, perhaps even validating—but not surprising.

“Cicero regarded the study of liberal arts as a noble public purpose—training students to think critically while preparing them to be responsible citizens,” says Steve Woolpert, dean of the School of Liberal Arts and former chair of the Politics Department at Saint Mary’s. “We are focused on developing thoughtful human beings.”

Heightened interest in public citizenship and civic engagement are specific learning objectives in many liberal arts departments. And, seminar students participate in what might be considered ‘political laboratories.’ “The seminar—groups of students coming together to examine big ideas from varying perspectives—is similar to the practice of politics,” Woolpert notes.

And, as the following profiles of Gaels in Politics reveal, Saint Mary’s seems to unleash in many students a passion for public service.

A reception in Sacramento this summer to honor new Saint Mary’s President Brother Ronald Gallagher offered the chance for a few of our Gaels in the state capital to come together and reflect on how their experiences at Saint Mary’s have shaped their career choices.

Guy Houston ’82
State Assemblyman

Guy Houston came to Saint Mary’s thinking of a career in sports. He left with a passion for public service.

“I came on an athletic scholarship,” Houston says, “and wanted to be a sportswriter. But there were fewer job opportunities then—no cable, no Internet.”

The East Bay native majored in business, but recalls most fondly Collegiate Seminar. “I still have those books; the accounting and stats books are long gone,” Houston recalls.

College wasn’t all business. Houston recalls a campus party in 1980 on the night the USA hockey team beat the Russians in the Lake Placid Olympics. “All heck broke loose—the band played a Hendrix-like version of the Star Spangled Banner.” And just before SMC resumed its football rivalry with Santa Clara, “some of our seniors went to their campus posing as janitors and stole The Bell (the perennial trophy awarded to the victor). We returned it right before kickoff, then beat the Broncos in a huge upset.”

After earning his MBA in 1987, Houston established a successful real estate firm before turning to politics. He served two years on the Dublin City Council and seven more as mayor before his election in 2002 to the State Assembly. He was reelected in 2004.

Houston credits Saint Mary’s and his volunteer service in the 1980 Reagan presidential campaign for sparking his passion for public service. “President Reagan impressed on me that serving others is a high calling, and Saint Mary’s taught me that there is more to life than individual gain.”

Karen Pank ’92
Deputy Legislative Secretary to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger

While Karen Pank has little spare time these days, she says: “I always have time for Gaels!” As the governor’s criminal and civil justice policy point person, Pank helps guide the direction of civil and criminal law in California. Her sensitivity to social justice, Pank says, was awakened at Saint Mary’s, and set in motion a series of events that shaped her life.

“I trace everything I’m doing to my time at Saint Mary’s,” Pank observes. “It was the only college I applied to. It offered the overall college experience I wanted: intimate setting, liberal arts emphasis, a true community. I took many courses outside my (business) major, and those broadened my horizons as a person.”


Pank’s first job was with an insurance company that recruited her on campus. Her job involved interacting regularly with attorneys, at which point “law school began to make sense,” Pank recalls. While studying at McGeorge School of Law, she was invited into an honors program in government affairs. That led to an internship with the Assembly Judiciary committee during which Pank “was bit by the political bug.” After law school, she served as a Senate fellow and policy adviser to legislative Republicans. After California voters recalled former Governor Gray Davis and elected Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pank joined the new administration.

“Saint Mary’s was a safe place for me to push myself,” Pank said. “I now have the opportunity to use public policy to touch the lives of people affected by our criminal justice system. When I reflect on how far I’ve come, I look back and smile.”

Dan Wall ’68
Chief Lobbyist, County of Los Angeles

Asking Dan Wall about his years at Saint Mary’s is like asking a parent about the birth of a child. Each memory begs another, and another, and another.

“My high school principal (San Francisco’s St. Ignatius Prep) suggested Saint Mary’s,” recalls Wall. “I applied, got in, and went. It was providential that I wound up there.”

The liberal arts had a profound effect on Wall. “I studied religion, philosophy, and the classics. I doubt economics majors at most schools got that. A political science professor, Sepher Zabih, brought Congressman

Jerome Waldie to speak to our class. William Tauscher (Economics) brought captains of industry. That just knocked me out.”

After graduation, Wall earned an M.A. in Economics from San Francisco State University. After seven years as a budget analyst with the California Department of Social Services, he served as a State Senate committee consultant. That convinced him that policymaking was where he belonged. Wall was an adviser to former Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson, and is now the top lobbyist for Los Angeles County.

“There’s so much I appreciate about Saint Mary’s,” Wall reflects. “ I learned there that life is about giving something back.”

Peter Detwiler ’71
Staff Director, Senate Committee on Local Government

In the theater of politics, Peter Detwiler ’71 is a behind-the-scenes stage manager. Effectively administering the daily operations of a Senate policy committee requires an open mind, intellectual curiosity, deft timing, and a balanced perspective. He credits Saint Mary’s with equipping him with all four.

“I came to Saint Mary’s wanting to be a lawyer,” he said. “I got interested in Latin American studies, then state and local government. The Government department supported all those interests. Professor Hal Winkler arranged an internship with the Assembly local government committee in spring 1971. That exposure to the legislative process led me to my career. Dr. Winkler figuratively opened the door and encouraged me to walk in.”

Two Jan Term courses especially influenced Detwiler. “My junior year was the first for the “4-1-4” curriculum. I produced a photo portfolio of land use around the Bay Area. A year later, I interned for a citizen group wanting to consolidate regional government. I now work on these issues for the Senate local government committee, and both relate directly to my Jan Term experience.”

Saint Mary’s left a personal impact on Detwiler. Asked to relate his most memorable moment, he declines—“it’s so embarrassing that I won’t tell you”—but does recall his first impressions.

“I went to a public high school in Southern California, but wanted to attend a Catholic college in the Bay Area. Neither USF nor Santa Clara showed any personal interest. Someone from Saint Mary’s admissions visited my home and we sat around talking about college. He also arranged for us to take a tour over the Christmas break. Forty years later, my dad still talks about the good Navy bean soup he ate in Dryden Hall during that visit.”


Capital Reception Unites Gaels

In Sacramento—a political town where personal connections are vital—a group of elected and appointed government officials recently discovered another important connection: an uncommon number are Gaels.

Several dozen Saint Mary’s alumni, including assembly members and senators, legislative staffers, advisers to the governor and attorney general, lobbyists and others, gathered in August for a reception co-hosted by the College and State Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata ’67. The gathering was one of many in which new President Brother Ronald Gallagher has participated since taking office last January.

"The Saint Mary’s reception shows that a small, personalized event highlighting the contributions of an individual college or university is a very effective method for keeping our issues before legislative leaders,” says Jonathan Brown, President of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities (AICCU). Casual observers also took note. During the reception, a woman poked her head out of an elevator as its doors opened. Seeing a red-and-blue Saint Mary’s banner, she exclaimed, “Hey! My daughter goes to Saint Mary’s!"