After 12 terms in Congress and innumerable legislative battles, former Kentucky Congressman Ron Mazzoli could teach students of government a thing or two.
But for this year, Mazzoli is content to take a seat with the rest of the class at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG).
After a lifetime of experience, at age 70, Mazzoli wants to learn a little bit more.
“At the thought of coming back to school, of learning something, of being in the midst of this talent pool and at this great place, I sort of tossed caution to the wind, filled out the [application] papers, and sent them in,” Mazzoli said.
Mazzoli, a fellow at the Institute of Politics in spring 2002, said he began considering the Kennedy School’s midcareer master’s in public administration program after he returned home to Louisville when his fellowship was up.
He calls his membership in the KSG’s Class of 2004 his latest, but not his last, adventure. Mazzoli said he may turn his energy to teaching or the nonprofit sector on graduation, but credited a lifetime love of learning – not future ambition – for his presence in Cambridge.
“If none of those things ever comes to pass, I’d be thoroughly satisfied to have gone through a year of pretty intense study,” Mazzoli said. “I’m here doing what I want to do for its sake, increasing my knowledge.”
One of the midcareer program’s strengths is its diverse student body, said program Director Sue Williamson. Among its ranks have been town mayors, state representatives, even the former prime minister of Mongolia. Mazzoli is the oldest person to enroll in the program so far, she said, but not by much.
“Everyone considers midcareer to be at different points in their lives,” Williamson said. “Ron is extraordinary in that he’s a 12-term congressman. He’s the kind of people we want to have in the class.”
Williamson said the diverse backgrounds and job experience that midcareer students bring to the program mean they often contribute meaningfully to classes and to the experience of other students. Mazzoli, she said, has already spoken to student groups about his congressional career.
“We always say we’ll learn as much from you as you learn from us,” Williamson said.
The full experience
Mazzoli and his wife, Helen, decided that if they were to plunge back into collegiate life for the first time in decades, they wanted the full experience. After inquiring if an apartment would be available, they took up lodging in Lowell House.
The four-room apartment gives them room to move around, but it’s a bit smaller than their home in Louisville, which they built when Mazzoli left Congress in 1995.
Daily life is busy. Mazzoli starts early at mass at St. Paul’s Church and then heads over to the Kennedy School where he has time to eat breakfast and get ready for class. He tries to run along the Charles three times a week, and shares his conviction that you have to take care of your body with classmates he meets along the way.
He studies nights and weekends and warns students to make judicious use of events at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, which he said is so fascinating that students may need to be warned to pay more attention to class work.
Helen Mazzoli said she’s also taking advantage of the experience, auditing two classes and attending events on campus and in Lowell House. She travels back to Louisville for one week each month, to visit their children and grandchildren.
“We’ve had a lot of different words used for [their student experience],” she said. “I think it’s an adventure.”
Mazzoli compared the experience to his days in Congress, when grabbing lunch on the run became second nature. He credits that congressional experience with giving him the fortitude to jump back into the student body 50 years after he graduated from the University of Notre Dame and 44 years after graduating from the University of Louisville Law School.
“There’s a frenetic pace to this that’s similar to Congress,” Mazzoli said. “We’ve barely pulled into Cambridge and it’s been a breathless experience since.”
Mazzoli said the years of walking into senior centers, union halls, and town meetings not knowing exactly what to expect made him confident he could handle what the Kennedy School could throw at him.
“The experience in politics [is one] of having to handle the unknown and still function,” Mazzoli said. “That background helped to give me the sense of comfort that I could handle being back at school.”
Though Mazzoli is in the student body, he’s apparently doing some teaching anyway. His enrollment at the Kennedy School made national headlines, and classmates have told him they’ve sent copies of the articles home to parents, uncles, grandparents, and friends, using Mazzoli as an example and urging them to take another adventure.
Mazzoli said he hopes he’s dispelling stereotypes about older Americans, that they’re not all out of energy and cantankerous. This is especially important, he said, as America grays and the proportion of the population made up of older Americans grows.
“I think there’s been an adjustment of thinking about people my age,” Mazzoli said. “It’s kind of an experiment. There’s a lot of thinking and rethinking going on.”