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Appreciating (& defending) Gordon Gee

| Saturday, June 8, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Gordon Gee's sudden announcement that he's retiring as president of Ohio State University isn't the product of another leader of an institution of higher learning running his mouth amok, as so many would have you believe, but of a society that takes itself far too seriously, takes offense far too easily and, frankly, is skill-bereft in the art of aural comprehension.

Dr. Gee, 69, will leave OSU's top post on July 1. He found himself in hot water, again, with a few statements that raised eyebrows among the self-anointed smart set who don't understand his wry sense of affectatious sardony.

Among those statements was one from a December 2012 meeting, in reference to why Notre Dame was not in the Big Ten athletic conference:

“Those fathers are holy on Sunday and they're holy hell on the rest of the week. You just can't trust those damn Catholics on a Thursday or a Friday.”

Shocking? One “in a series of embarrassing gaffes,” as The New York Times put it? “Wholly unacceptable” and “not presidential in nature,” as Robert Schottenstein, chairman of the OSU board of trustees, characterized it? “Bigoted,” as still others have alleged?

Hardly. In fact, Gee's line, delivered as only he could have delivered it, could have been a line from Will Rogers, the beloved humorist of the early 20th century.

But for this statement and, one can only guess, an accumulation of others, OSU trustees ordered Gee into an Orwellian “remediation” program, professional help to get his personal communications skills up to snuff.

Talk about losing one's sense of context and perspective. Good grief, Gee even sparked outrage from the far too easily outraged when, in 2010, he said schools with weak schedules shouldn't be eligible for the Bowl Championship Series football title game, adding, “We do not play the Little Sisters of the Poor.”

Nearly 30 years ago, as bureau chief for United Press International in Morgantown, I covered Gee, then one of the youngest university presidents in the nation, when he headed West Virginia University. Witticism trading was currency in those days, a pretty decent way to size up a person's intellectual wherewithal and a great way to determine if you could do business with someone.

To wit, before a meeting of some import in his conference room, spotting me, dressed in my usual attire of the day — a dress shirt, jeans and a pair of beaten Nike running shoes — he wrapped one arm around me and wryly quipped that Heck's (a then-popular discount store chain) must have been closed when I shopped for my outfit.

In a good-natured retort, I asked him if one of the legendary bow ties he was wearing that day spun.

“No, but it does squirt water,” he shot back, not missing a beat and breaking into a broad smile.

From that day forward, we could “do business.”

Back to Will Rogers.

“In the days of our founders, they were willing to give thanks for mighty little, for mighty little was all they expected,” he once said of Thanksgiving Day. “But (today) if we can't gather a new car, a new radio, a new tuxedo and some government relief, we feel like the world is agin' us.”

Had Gordon Gee said such a thing, he would have been run out of Columbus — with his bow tie collection thrown after him.

Colin McNickle is Trib Total Media's director of editorial pages (412-320-7836 or cmcnickle@tribweb.com).

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