Mineta and Wachs: Two Giants Remembered

The transportation community lost two giants when Norm Mineta and Marty Wachs both passed away just over one year apart from one another. While these men contributed very different things to the field, upon reflection and digestion of the memorials for both, it becomes apparent that they shared much more than a love of transportation. Despite all their accomplishments, what stood out is that both were recognized above all for being profoundly good human beings.

Norm Mineta was a natural politician, in the best sense of the word. When I became President and CEO of Eno in 2011, Norm took me out to lunch. At this point in his career, he had already been Secretary of Transportation and Secretary of Commerce. He had led the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the House of Representatives and transformed the nation with ISTEA. When I asked him what his favorite job had been, he answered without hesitation that he loved being Mayor of San Jose. Unlike those other jobs, it allowed him to be around and help people with their problems directly. He loved people and it showed.

One might think that Martin Wachs, a lifelong academic, would be the opposite. The man wrote over 160 articles and four books, and writing can certainly be a reclusive activity. He was a brilliant thinker, and though he got involved in policy, he never held public office. But if you asked Marty what his favorite part of his career had been, he would never have cited a specific article or book. He would have told you about how much he enjoyed working with and mentoring students, which was something that came so naturally to him that dozens of people who were never actually his students (like me) considered him a mentor. Like Norm, Marty loved being around others and helping them succeed.

Similarly, Norm is well-known for how he responded to the trauma of being imprisoned at a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II. While a lesser man might have been embittered by this experience, Norm turned something tragic into an opportunity and devoted his life to serving his country. Moreover, he brought the lessons from that experience directly to bear on public policy in the U.S. after 9/11 when he steadfastly refused to discriminate based on race or ethnicity – as many were pressuring the Bush Administration to do. I think we all admire how he focused on the lessons of the past and then applied them in real time.

It is often said about academia that it can be vicious because the stakes are so low. If this maxim has any truth to it, that makes it even more admirable that Marty was known for the opposite. While he was direct and precise, and had high expectations for those around him, it always came accompanied by genuine love and kindness. Whatever struggles Marty may have experienced in his life, he did not impose that trauma on others. Instead, he committed himself to always helping others, whether in public service, mentoring, or the academy.

A final but telling commonality between these two men was their love of baseball. Norm used to tell the story of having his bat taken away by the authorities when he was wrongfully imprisoned, and near the end of his life he finally did have a bat that was remade for use as a cane. Marty was a committed lifelong Dodger fan whose passion for baseball equaled his passion for transportation. Their love for baseball – America’s pastime – reflected their love and appreciation for a country their ancestors had adopted. Both loved the nation that had provided their families with a better life, despite the fact that both had faced discrimination.

There is a lesson here for all of us in the transportation community as we mourn the loss of these two extraordinary people. Norm and Marty are universally beloved by those who knew them, not because of their accomplishments – which are plentiful and admirable – but because of who they were as human beings and how they treated others. They were uniquely positive people who radiated love, kindness, and generosity. These qualities are how they are remembered, and the reason they were able to enlist so many others to help achieve great things, make important decisions, and change the world they experienced for the better. They accomplished so much precisely because of these qualities, and I hope that all of us who care about transportation can muster the strength to follow their lead.

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