The death of former Secretary of State Cyrus Roberts Vance ’39 should have saddened Yale’s current student body. Unfortunately, campus media barely covered the story, and even if publications had devoted more attention to Vance’s death, it is unclear whether most students would appreciate the life of this Berkeley College alumnus.
Vance is among a handful of Yale graduates who deserve our attention not only for their national leadership but also for their dedication to this university.
Vance attended Yale in the crucial years before World War II. Known familiarly as “Spider,” he fulfilled the expectations common at Old Yale: he earned a major “Y” on the University hockey team, rowed on the Berkeley Crew, served as a cheerleader in his senior year and garnered a number of society pins. After graduation, he continued his studies at Yale Law School.
A New York Times obituary to Vance noted that “he was the epitome of the American establishment, that small group of men who moved seamlessly from the prep schools of New England and the Ivy League colleges of the East to the law firms of Wall Street, with time out for service in government.” Then, after the fashion of Cincinnatus, such a man would “return again to private practice, bringing with [him] the old values of family, work and public service.”
Yet Vance’s path from lawyer to statesman is no longer common in the professional world. In his book “The Lost Lawyer,” Yale Law School Dean Anthony Kronman defined the lawyer-statesman as one who “cares about the public good and is prepared to sacrifice his own well-being for it, unlike those who use the law merely to advance their private ends.”
Yet the model of the lawyer-statesman no longer exists. Instead, today’s legal profession rarely leads to government service. Ever since Henry Kissinger attacked the American tradition of appointing lawyers to high offices such as Secretary of State, the old guard has been supplanted by the combination of academics and bureaucrats that currently fill top-ranking government positions.
Vance was, many could say, one of the last remnants of a bygone era.
While the media has spent much time discussing his life in and out of public service, less attention has been given to his dedication to Yale. Remarkably, a man who held numerous positions of political influence still found time to sit on the Yale Corporation.
Yale was not a commitment Vance ignored during his many stints in the government. Although he resigned as a Corporation alumni trustee in order to attend to his duties as Secretary of State, he was later appointed to a successor chair.
In an interview, University Secretary Linda Lorimer praised Vance’s “profound love of Yale.” She noted that he was “a wonderful trustee who held the college and law school with the deepest respect and gratitude.”
It was this gratitude that motivated him to serve the University.
Vance was able to view Yale as a mythical place and as a vibrant institution which deserved his attention, even in the midst of national service. Indeed, if anything, he saw his responsibility to Yale as an important part of his commitment to our nation, motivated by his belief in its potential to produce future leaders.
At Vance’s Class Day ceremony in 1939, William P. Bundy ’39, a future Presidential adviser, noted that by developing a sense of obligation to society, Yale men help “give meaning to our profound conviction that educated men should be the practical, intellectual, and spiritual leaders of a democratic state.”
May Mr. Vance find peace with God, having proudly served both Country and Yale.
Justin Zaremby is a junior in Calhoun College. His columns appear on alternate Tuesdays.