An Unconventional Talk with Mike Sweeney

This post is a transcript of First UMC Leadership Board chairperson Mike Sweeney’s speech to the American Journalism Historians Association as he accepted the 2015 AJHA Sidney Kobre Award for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism History. Mike is a long-term member of First UMC, and we wish to celebrate not only his achievement, but also his faith. Way to go, Mike! And thank you for sharing this powerful speech with us!

An unconventional talk.This will be an unconventional talk.

I was on the web a few days ago and stumbled upon the fact that DNA tests reveal that there are about 16 million men descended from Genghis Khan living in the world today. That’s about 1 in every 200 men. Maybe one of them is here.

I myself am a direct descendant of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Maybe some of you are, too. The first ancestors of mine that I can trace in the Americas came to Massachusetts in 1629 from Nottinghamshire, England. Their family name was Billings, which was my mother’s maiden name. They included some of the first Congregationalist ministers in the New World. One fought in the Connecticut militia in the Revolutionary War. Some of their descendants settled in Bleeding Kansas, in Pottawatomie County. On my father’s side, we don’t know as much. The first Sweeney ancestor of mine born in the United States arrived in Flat Rock, Indiana, in 1851. His parents likely came from Ireland to escape the potato famine, and were very glad to become Americans. They named their son, my great-grandfather, George Washington Sweeney.

The reason I bring this up has to do with the present moment.

As many of you know, a little over a year ago I was diagnosed with stage IV kidney cancer. I have been on chemo ever since.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. How could someone that sick still be so good looking? It’s a mystery to me.

It has been an ordeal, and as I deal with the physical and emotional toll, I’ve decided that it is of paramount importance to live for the day. It’s not good to live in the past, and dwell on mistakes or how good things once were. And it’s not good to live in the future and dwell on what might be. Live in the present moment. Enjoy a sunset. Never say no to a glass of wine. Eat dessert first, like my wife. Spend time with good friends who are smart and funny – like you, some of my favorite people.

This may seem like a strange thing for a historian to say, but I believe it is important advice for all of us, and especially for those of us who teach. And who teach history. The present moment is everything.

To get back to Genghis Khan, King Henry, and George Washington Sweeney, I want you to think of where you came from. Each of us has two parents. Each of them had two parents, so we have four grandparents. And eight great-grandparents, and 16 . . . and so on, and so on. If you think about your ancestors, they spread into the past behind you like a great pyramid with you as the apex. Or think of an hourglass. You are the neck, the thin point of one single person who carries the DNA of thousands, maybe millions, of people in the past. The stuff of their bodies literally makes up the stuff of your body. And their experiences shaped them, which they passed on to their children, generation to generation, so that your grandparents and parents shaped you with not only their physical attributes but also the lives they led and the stories they were told, and the stories they told you. The Revolutionary War, all those ministers, my mother’s experiences on a truck farm in Kansas in the Great Depression, the great hunger in my father’s clan from Ireland, the Dust Bowl and Great Plains and the Cold War and all that – these shaped me. What about you?

The past is not dead. The past is not even past.

Now, think of your descendants. Many of you have, or will have, children. I have a son, and he has a wife and child. If you have two children, and each of those children has two children, and so on and so on, you will be the patriarch or matriarch of a huge clan. You might have millions of descendants someday.

Not everybody has children, of course. But we, here, as teachers, all have what Orson Scott Card called “Children of the Mind.” We pass along our knowledge, we pass along our stories, to our students. And they will be changed by our stories and our teaching, and share what they have learned with their students, and so on. Just as we are the children of the minds of those who came before us. We may shape thousands, even millions, of minds.

I myself am grateful to have studied with Pat Washburn, who was shaped, in part, by his professors at Baylor University and by his grandfather in East Tennessee. And I was shaped by Joe Bernt, who was smacked into shape by the Jesuits of Oregon. And, more recently, I count myself lucky to have been influenced by the research and writing skills of professors at Ohio University such as Ellen Gerl and Aimee Edmondson, who are here. And Joseph Campbell, Maurine Beasley, Giovanna Dell’Orto . . . and if I named everyone we would be here all day. And, of course, I owe a great debt to my wife, Carolyn, who has shown me, and continues to show me, the importance of love – and humility. My wife’s main duty is to keep me humble, I think, and perhaps she’s not doing a very good job.

So, my point is this: Whether you count your biological ancestors and descendants, or you count the ancestors of the mind and the children of the mind, each of us stands at the pinch-point of the hourglass, where an infinity of experience has shaped us, and we share it with those who follow us, perhaps to infinity. This makes each of us, today, in this moment, a potential fulcrum to move the world. Chaos theory demonstrates this is so, in the physical sciences. Trust me, it’s also true in the humanities and social sciences.

This makes it imperative that we get history right, of course, because the story needs to be right, and true, and well-told, if it is to have an appropriate impact—whether it is about wartime censorship, which I study, or whatever subject is most dear to your heart. But it also makes it imperative that we act with kindness and love. I believe we should treat each other like God’s children every day, because even the smallest act can resonate for generations.

So, I want to say, that in accepting this award, I must thank those who shaped me, and those whom I perhaps have shaped. Six of my students are here: Nick, Samantha, David, Ken, Carol and Pam. … [facing those six] Please wave.

sweeney_AJHANow, I want you to express your gratitude to those who have shaped you. I am going to give you instructions on what to do. And to make sure you follow them, I am going to ask for the assistance of Madam President, Erika Pribanic-Smith. Erika, please come up here.


Now, it’s not polite to point. So, I want you to hold up your hands like this [arms extended, palms up and facing out, thumb tips touching]: )))~ ~((((, like a director framing a shot for a movie. Move your hands so that you are framing the face of someone who has influenced you – someone for whom you are a child of his or her mind. They can be in this room, or somewhere far away, or no longer with us, like Peggy Blanchard. You can do this for more than one person.


Now, frame someone whom you have influenced, or hope you have influenced. Your students, your co-authors, etc.


Appreciate your moment in time. You are awesome. Be glad, and be strong. And be proud to be telling stories that matter, for they will shape the world to come. Thank you.