Good morning everyone!
Happy Wednesday! I hope everyone’s enjoying the change in the weather. Nashville is looking particularly lovely this time of year—there are dogs in the park, flowers in the gardens, children on the playgrounds, and college students on their bikes! I’m looking forward to this season of new growth and excitement. As I look forward to graduation in just a few short months and what lies ahead, I had a very timely conversation with this week’s guest—a man whose dedicated pursuit of his passions led him to becoming one of the most influential mayors in Nashville’s history. His story and insight are perfect for anyone who’s on the brink of pursuing their next big dream. Without any further ado, my honored guest for Power of One Wednesday, Mr. Karl Dean!
Mr. Dean grew up in the small city of Gardner, in central Massachusetts. He pursued his undergraduate studies at Columbia University and moved to Nashville in 1978 to attend law school at Vanderbilt University. While attending school, he met his wife, a Nashville native and fellow law student. Mr. Dean began his career working as a public defender, serving as an assistant public defender from 1983 to 1990, and was then then elected to serve as a public defender for the city of Nashville. He was reelected for this position in ’94 and ’98. Although it was a tough job, he loved the fact that he felt like the work that he did every day had meaning. This work had a great deal of influence on his future career path and shaping his perspective. In September of 1999, his former colleague Bill Purcell was elected mayor, and appointed Mr. Dean as the city’s Director of Law, where he oversaw the city’s legal department while working closely with the mayor’s office. Mr. Dean stayed in this position until 2007, when he was elected Mayor of Nashville. He served two incredibly successful terms as mayor, passing the baton to current mayor Megan Barry in September of 2015.
Currently, Mr. Dean is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Belmont University and also teaches at Boston University as their first Mayor in Residence. He’s the father of three children, two who are currently in college in New York and one who is a recent law school graduate. I’m excited to share his story and insight with you today!
Who is one person who’s significantly impacted your life, and how have they done so?
My wife has had such a positive influence in my life—not only in helping to build a wonderful family together, but also in shaping my career path and where we decided to call home. She’s a great friend and good advisor, and she’s had a significant impact on me.
What is one of the most important things you’ve learned in your life, and how has it shaped you?
I think the main thing that I’ve learned that I would try to impart to young people would be the importance of hard work. If you’re going to do something, do it seriously and try your hardest. People get nervous about whether or not they’re going to be successful or have a good life, but I think if you’re willing to work hard and put in the time and effort that’s required to succeed, you will succeed. I really believe that. As someone who’s hired a lot of people, I’ve noticed that people who really want to do something, who have a true passion—if they want to do something badly enough, it works out. I think every college senior worries about the economy after they graduate, but it’s all going to be alright. Make decisions about what you’re going to do after college not based on how the economy is but on what you want. Don’t do something you’re not interested in; don’t give up on your dreams. You’ll get there.
What’s a challenge you’ve faced in your life and how were you able to overcome it?
I’ve had a very good life. I’m fortunate to have grown up in a close family in a small town that was safe but not necessarily thriving. It was a great place to grow up. When I decided to attend Columbia University, I didn’t necessarily have the resources to pay for it on my own. Fortunately, there were opportunities to work in factories around where I grew up. I worked in a paper mill over the course of six summers to help pay for college, which were open seven days a week. It was a job that was absolutely key in me being able to pay for my education. I learned a lot from that job—I met a lot of interesting people, those who had their own challenges in life, and got to know more about them. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.
What’s your advice for someone who wants to make an impact in their community?
Well, there’s so many different ways to do it. I think you can make an impact in your community in a very positive way in the private sector; running a good company or working for a company that’s doing good things in the community. I think it’s important for people to be active with nonprofits, and give back somehow, and if you’re in the private sector, taking the time to lend your expertise to some of these organizations to help them succeed. As far as politics go, be someone who’s involved in the community. Be aware of the discussions going on and contribute to those discussions. There are always issues and reasonable, smart people are a valuable part of that conversation. It’s not hard to integrate community involvement in your everyday life, no matter what you’re doing.
As the former mayor of Nashville, what’s one thing you’re most proud of about this city? What’s one thing you think we could do to improve?
I think one thing I’m most proud about for Nashville is that this place has become a very diverse city in the 35 years that I’ve lived here. The increased movement into Nashville has contributed to the strength of our economy—it’s been a great thing for the city. I think the best cities are ones that are diverse, and attract diversity. When you have all that energy in a city, it produces a very creative place. I think Nashville is that kind of city, and it’s something I’m really proud of.
I think the biggest issue facing Nashville is undoubtedly education. We need to continue to work at improving our public education system. Looking at things like ACT scores and other tests show that we’re not where we’d like to be. If we had the public schools where we want them to be, Nashville would be totally unstoppable. We’re hitting everything else right now, and we’ve made a lot of good progress in education. We’ve received a lot of support from the business community, from nonprofits, from the community, and from political leaders—we’ve had two really good governors in a row who have made sincere commitments to education and have followed through with resources and an openness to reform. There’s a lot of reasons for us to be optimistic, but I’d say that it remains the most important issue for our city and our state.
I loved getting to talk to Mr. Dean about his story (especially as an aspiring mayor), and I think his advice has value for people of all ages—after all, you’re never too young or old to pursue a new dream or goal. Be fearless in your pursuit of your dreams—if you’re relentless in your efforts, they’ll show results. And whether you’re a citizen of Nashville or not, be looking for ways that you can become a more active and engaged citizen—it starts with something as simple as being aware of community events and taking part in making a difference.
Thanks so much to Mr. Dean for taking the time to meet with me—Nashville is certainly lucky to have you and I’m so thankful that you’re continuing to inspire future leaders through sharing your story. Go out, work hard, and make a difference this week!