Before the first guests arrived for the 2022 J. Erik Jonsson Ethics Award reception beginning at 11 a.m., much activity was already underway on Tuesday, April 12.
Outside SMU’s Martha Proctor Mack Grand Ballroom, the latest cold front was knocking at the door. On the adjacent terrace, the high top tableclothes were flowing in the wind. Plan B was put into place with a couple of tables with the floral centerpieces moved indoors, leaving the remaining three to breeze along.
As the guests like Ruben Esquivel, Annika Cail, Tim Moore, Chris Kleinert, Phyllis and Ron Steinhart, Caren Pothro, Jeanne Whitman Bobbitt, Peggy Sewell, Gail Thomas with daughter Electra Harelson, Tom Luce, Brent Christoper, Trammell S. Crow and Kern Wildenthal arrived, none was aware of the change of plans for the reception. However, as one of the remaining outdoor tables toppled over, Cary Maguire’s grandson Chris Hess and others scurried outside to move the tables to a calmer spot on the terrace.
Inside the ballroom, SMU President R. Gerald Turner, Maguire Ethics Center Chair/SMU Trustee Bobby Lyle, and Maguire Ethics Center Director Rita Kirk were showing the day’s honoree, Dr. Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, how to handled the award when it would be officially presented. In addition to being weighty, the award itself was not attached to the marble base
After handling the two-piece statuary, Michael smiled, assuring them not to worry: “I worked out this morning.”
And that sense of ease, mixed with the trademark Sorrells smile and sense of humor, was just a hint of how the day would go.
Upon entering the ballroom, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who would be introducing Michael, kidded Turner that he was keeping him busy “introducing people.”
The program got underway right on time, with SMU Development and External Affairs VP Brad Cheves introducing the day’s emcee Lyle, who recognized past recipients including the first awardee, Curtis Meadows Jr. Lyle then asked Ralph Babb to stand. It seems that Ralph, Nancy Halbreich and Tracey Nash-Huntley had served as co-chairs for the event. However, Nancy was unable to attend because she was tending to her husband’s case of COVID-19, and Tracey was called out of town on family business.
Following lunch at 12:45, Gerald and Rita told the group about the importance of ethics during these current times, and how the center has put into place programs for students to learn that “doing the right thing is often difficult.” One of those programs is the J. Erik Jonsson Ethics Award, which recognizes and honors those who have not just helped “build a bigger city, but a better one.”
Following a video describing the Award, Rita closed her part of the program with a prayer by Sir Francis Drake before introducing Ron Kirk, who once again was the ultimate speaker.
Highlights of his introduction of Michael included:
- Michael is “googleable.”
- Over 25 years ago, when Michael was a young lawyer working for Tom Luce, he volunteered to work for Ron’s campaign for Dallas mayor. “We knew as soon as we met Michael, he was destined for greatness.”
- Despite the changes over the years, “the one thing that has never changed about Michael is his unyielding commitment to social justice and equity. And his belief that underlies all of our success has to be access to affordable and quality education.”
- Just as Erik Jonsson heroically pulled Dallas out of the Kennedy assassination period, so Michael had led Paul Quinn from its days of nearly closing. Ron recalled that many people who knew Michael questioned, “What are you doing?”
- Ron’s wife, Matrice Ellis Kirk, saw the same talents and beauty in Michael’s wife, Natalie, and introduced the two. She told Michael, “You’re gonna marry this girl.”‘
- After years of the Kirk and Sorrell families sharing holidays, one stood out to Ron. It was a Thanksgiving “and my 93…94-year-old aunt was visiting and taken with Michael. So, she was talking to my two daughters and said, ‘He reminds me a little bit of your father.’ My girls corrected her by saying, ‘No, he’s taller than dad; he’s thinner than dad; he’s more athletic than dad; he isn’t just a lawyer, he’s got two degrees from Duke and a Ph.D., and he’s a college president and he’s been recognized by both Fortune and Time Magazine as not just an innovator but a leader and agent of change.’ And finally they said, ‘And he has swag.'” Ron admitted that he pointed out to his daughters that while he hadn’t been in Fortune or Time, he had been on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily.
Getting serious, Ron reminded the audience that Michael could easily have used his skills to be making big money in the private sector, but “he had always been motivated by using his skills and talents to make our community better.”
As Michael officially received his award, he thanked Ron for being his mentor and answering his questions without making him feel like an idiot. “Just to show you what full-service mentoring looks like, he even helped me get married.”
Addressing Natalie, Michael admitted that he knew he “married up.” He said that he has the life that he does “because she believed in me. When we started dating there were lots of date when I didn’t have a lot of money. So we got in my car and we drove around to bookstores. Part of what I was doing was watching which books she read because I wanted to make sure. She never once made me feel less than because we weren’t going to dinner or what we weren’t doing. She always just let me know, ‘I believe in you and I am here for this run.’ I say this all the time, but let me say again, thank you.”
But his timing was right on as he transitioned from a sweet, intimate moment to a lighter one, saying, “Better understanding family dynamics, I must also recognize my mother-in-law.” Michael added that, “she doesn’t marry me if she [mother-in-law] doesn’t co-sign. So I try every day to make sure my mother-in-law doesn’t regret that decision.”
Another mentor for Michael was Gerald, who in addition to giving him “amazing advice,” provided for Michael’s students “to take classes here. And in a truly an extraordinary gesture, the students only had to pay Paul Quinn prices to take SMU classes. Now, you guys might not know this, but there is a little bit of a difference.”
He also thanked Tom Luce, Trammell S. Crow, Bobby Lyle and his Paul Quinn students and staff.
“Every day I work to make sure that none of them regret the decisions they have made to be part of the Quinnite Nation. That they don’t regret becoming students at Paul Quinn; that they don’t regret staffing Paul Quinn; that they understand that they are a part of something bigger and I thank you for believing and thank you for being here.”
He then asked the audience that if one of the students approaches them and asks them what they do and why you do it, “Understand that they’ve been taught to do that because they are genuinely interested in learning more about you.”
Michael said that in the few minutes he had left he wanted to talk about the “ethics of convenience, because we are as ethical as our self-interest will allow us to be. It is difficult to look at someone else’s life and put their situation ahead of your own. It is far more difficult to look at people and ask how did they get there instead of judging them for where they are. No one deserves to be left behind. They’re not there because they didn’t work hard enough; they’re not there because people didn’t love them; they are there because there is a system invested in keeping some of us behind while others move forward. That’s not right.
“But the reality of it is that it serves many of us well for this to be the dynamic that we see in this country and in this community. It serves us well when we go to sleep at night to think that our lives are just purr and wouldn’t it be nice if maybe we could just do something to help those people over there. The reality of it is we can, but we choose not to do every bit that we can do.
“One of the reasons why I’m excited to be part of this club with this award is these are individuals who understand that we have a responsibility to speak up. We have a responsibility to challenge the idea that others don’t deserve more; we have a responsibility to believe what we believe at Paul Quinn College, that it should always be ‘we over me.’ The needs of the community supersede the wants of the individual. We don’t get to be selfish. We should never be selfish. We are blessed …”
At that moment the lights in the room went dark and Michael quipped, “Hey, I was just getting warmed up.”
As the lights came back on, Michael broke away from his train of thought and thanked the staffer who restored the lights, adding that he had also turned up the air conditioning earlier and “I am forever grateful.”
Getting back to his message, Michael continued, “Understand this: We have an obligation to speak up. We have an obligation to speak up when we see things that are not right. We have an obligation to challenge the idea that we don’t speak up because it will cost us something. It may cost us an invitation to dinner. It may cost us an invitation to lunch. It may cost us a couple of friends. When we turn our back on the injustices that others are forced to live thru, we are not living up to the very best of us. We are not living up to the dreams that people have had of us. This is our moment in history. We will be judged by what happens next. All of us are aware of the stakes. If we chose not to rise to this moment, we have made a decision that flies in the face of what the Maguire Center stands for. It stands for standing up, not standing up a little bit but standing all the way up. Speaking truth to power, challenging the injustices that we see. It is wrong. It is wrong to look at the southern half of our city and not to be enraged by that; it is wrong to drive around neighborhoods that are pristine and then drive around neighborhoods that aren’t and just think that things just wound up that way. It is wrong. It is wrong to turn our back on racial injustices. If we live in neighborhoods where everyone looks like us, that is wrong. And that’s not by accident. You didn’t create it, but you didn’t change it. So you are complicit in it at that point. It is wrong to see injustice and pretend that you don’t.
“None of us is perfect. All of us have things that we compromise on. But what I want to leave you with is this: There are people watching us. What are they learning? Every step that I take I have an 11-year-old and I have a 7-year-old. I have a college full of students who are paying attention and if I take shortcuts and if I turn a blind eye, I’m saying to them, ‘It’s okay, it’s okay to leave others in the place where they reside because you have more. It’s okay not to ask the extra question of, How did it get that way? It’s okay to pretend that all of this is okay.’
“My journey to becoming a better man began with the simple understanding that I don’t ever want my wife and children to apologize for the man in their life, ever. And that means you stand up and push back. So my challenge to each of you today — because this is a room full of people with extraordinary respect— if all of us collectively decided to fix the issues in our midst, they would be fixed. But to do so we have to give up something. And my question to you as I take my seat is, ‘What are you prepared to give up so others walk with more dignity in their lives? What are you prepared to sacrifice so others can fulfill their dreams? What are you willing to do to leave this place better than you found it?’ I hope, I pray that you will make the decision to do more. Thank you for the honor of this award, and I promise you that I have just wound up.