Development news

Dan Laskin brings a range of experience to public affairs office

A fter a decade of lending his literary voice and talents to Kenyon as a freelance writer, Daniel S. Laskin officially joined the College's administration last summer as director of publications in the Office of Public Affairs. And it's about time.

Having published essays and articles in the likes of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and Esquire, Laskin has contributed regularly to the Bulletin and to Fortnightly, the College's administration, faculty, and staff newsletter. His Fortnightly columns and essays, whose subjects range from the woes of winter to the joys and mysteries of fatherhood, elicit much praise and conversation around campus.

Laskin is married to Associate Professor of French Mary Jane Cowles. No stranger to the world of higher education, he worked at St. Mary's College of Maryland for four years prior to moving to Gambier. Earlier in his career, he worked as a reporter and editor at several magazines and newspapers.

As Laskin talks about his life, it's apparent that his devotion lies not with Kenyon but with life itself. He's followed his heart, not a career path.

Although he sometimes seems reserved, Laskin opens up in an interview with News Director Shawn Presley as he reflects on his years in the Ivy League, growing up Jewish in a "Golden Ghetto," and life in Gambier. He also proves he can do a mean Yiddish accent.

Question: I see you graduated summa cum laude from Yale University.

Answer: I had a roommate who called me a knee-jerk homeworker. I was always a very good boy. One of my father's friends referred to me as the straight arrow. I was very good at following directions and doing my homework.

Why did you decide to go to Yale?

I grew up in Great Neck, Long Island, a heavily Jewish suburb of New York City. We had a good school system in Great Neck, and the ethos of that community was that bright kids would aspire to top colleges, Ivy League colleges. My grandmother was an immigrant from Russia who never went to college. For her, I think education was in part a status thing. In her circle of friends, people would say things like [he begins to speak in a Yiddish accent], "Oh, my grandson graduated from Harvard Medical School. He opened a practice in Florida and in his waiting room he has floor-to-ceiling aquariums, and there are telephones in the bathrooms." Great Neck was sort of, well, they sometimes called it the Golden Ghetto. It was a well-to-do Jewish area.

How did you meet your wife, Jane? One of my roommates went to high school with a girl who was attending Mount Holyoke College. We were interested in meeting women, and when my roommate said, "Oh, I know a way to meet women. One of my friends from high school goes to Mount Holyoke and they're all women," we hit the road. That's where I met Jane.

Your resume is impressive. You've worked in a variety of jobs, and you've been published by some major publications. Is this the resume you planned to build?

It's hard to say. When I graduated from college, I had no idea what I wanted to do. While all of my friends were going off to law school and medical school, I went to seek my fortune in Burlington, Vermont, where I camped out on the living-room floor of friends. I harbored fantasies of being a poverty-stricken novelist, but I ultimately got a reporting job with the Burlington Free Press. It was there that I began to lose some of my shyness, relish the reporting part of newspaper work, and relax with words.

You talk a lot about having the opportunity to work with people who are really bright. People often don't think of journalists as bright. What do you think?

Well, I think some reporters aren't very bright. I'm spoiled in a way because I grew up in a household where the Bible was the New York Times. I think reporters at the top newspapers in the country are pretty bright and talented people, but I think it's difficult to write about a complex and often technical topic without oversimplifying, distorting, and getting things wrong. It's also hard to write about things with clarity and touches of grace. If I sometimes come down hard on journalists, it may be because the paper where I live now is the Mount Vernon News, and Mount Vernon deserves a much better paper. Kenyon people sometimes are a little snotty about Mount Vernon, and I have to admit there are times when I feel alienated from what I see as the dominant ethos here, but Mount Vernon people are much more interesting, complicated, and intelligent than that newspaper.

You've clearly left journalism, at least for the time being. Why?

I was always frustrated with the type of writing newspapers allowed for. Within a few years of working for newspapers, I began to feel that it would be a bad place to grow old. It seemed like you could relive the same sewage-treatment-plant stories over and over again. I saw people at the Trenton Times who did that. To be really successful in journalism, you have to lead a very driven, consuming professional life. I've always been drawn to something more contemplative.

You came here because of your wife's job and didn't work on a full-time basis for several years. Tell me about being a "Mr. Mom."

A big part of my decision to stay at home was the feeling that while our kids were young it was important to have one parent really available to them. The image I had in my mind was that if Gregory or Alexander was having a bad day, I'd just keep him home from preschool and take him to the zoo. Of course, in reality, I never did that. Also, I was never a true Mr. Mom because Jane had enough flexibility in her schedule that she could do more than your average full-time bread winner.

Did you ever feel stigmatized for staying home with your children?

No, and that's one of the nice things about Gambier--there are other men who do the same thing, and there's a spirit of tolerance and open-mindedness here. Also, my mother was a doctor, and I grew up accepting the fact that women work. Sometimes I get all of this praise for doing what any parent should do if he or she didn't have a full-time job. There really is a double standard. When a woman spends half of her life in a minivan taking kids places, it's accepted as normal, no matter what her occupation. When a man does it, he's a saint. Gambier is a good place to be a man without a label.

You're Jewish, from New York, a graduate of Yale, and you've chosen to make your home in rural Ohio. What's it like for you here?

For various reasons, I've always been drawn to rural areas, but I have to say that there are ways in which I have always felt, and always will feel, a little bit out of place in this community. I very much resent Kenyon people who are snobbish about Mount Vernon. I feel uneasy talking about this because I don't want to sound condescending about Mount Vernon. I'm not a religious Jew, but I do have some attachment to my Jewish identity. It's not fair to generalize, but I have run into people from Mount Vernon who've never met a Jew before and their first question is, "What do you think of Jesus?" A question like that makes me feel like an alien here. When I went back to my twentyyear high-school reunion, there was this little thrill like, "These are my people," yet that sort of materialistic, upper-middle-class, suburban life is something I also feel alienated from. Central Ohio is a place where I feel comfortable. Kenyon is a wonderful place to be, but it's not my place entirely. Our kids are growing up here. I imagine they will feel a connection to this place, similar to what I feel for Great Neck and Long Island, even though I grew up dismissing it as materialistic and hypocritical. Someday my kids may think of Mount Vernon as Podunk or Nowheresville, but they will feel a connection to it, and to Kenyon.

When you describe what you look for in a job, you sound as if you'd be a perfect faculty member. Why aren't you in academics?

I don't think I have the patience to be a scholar. While I admire great scholarly writing, I frankly don't read a lot of it. I'm moved and inspired more by great fiction, essays, and journalism.

I hear you emphasize how busy your schedule is with your children, and since I work with you, I see the schedule you keep. Is having children worth it?

[He laughs.] It's too late even to ask that question. I don't think it's a question parents ask. It's a reality--it's part of my identity. At this point, I can't imagine not having kids.

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