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Political Rolodex

How Tom Block '71 and Luiz Simmons '70 built KPU


photos of people who've spoken at KPU events


A Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a Viet Cong officer's assassination swayed U.S. public opinion against the war in Vietnam.

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Riots erupted in more than 100 cities in the wake of King's death, devastating entire communities and causing $27 million in damage in D.C. alone.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1968.

Student sit-ins from Howard U. to UNC made national headlines.

It was an unprecedented time to be living and learning in Washington, where debates about civil rights, women's rights, and the Vietnam War raged as hot as the fires on 14th and U Streets in Northwest D.C. And Tom Block—like throngs of students before him and generations of political wonks after—came to AU to be in the middle of it all.

What the Cincinnati native found, however, puzzled him: AU was more island than epicenter.

"AU seemed to be isolated from the political culture of Washington," says Block, SPA/BA '71. "I was surprised that, with everything going on in our own backyard, there had never been a real initiative to bring speakers to campus."

So when friend and Student Association president Luiz Simmons, SIS/BA '70, WCL/JD '74, floated the idea of a speakers bureau, Block—a self-described mediocre student who was more interested in the DNC and the GOP than his GPA—jumped. Together, they formed the Kennedy Political Union (KPU): an organization that would bring AU students face-to-face with some of the most compelling and controversial activists, politicos, journalists, and religious leaders of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Over nearly a half century, KPU has become synonymous with the AU experience Block had been craving.

"Many of us who went to school at AU in the '60s frankly suffered from an inferiority complex. There was a sense that AU could be a lot better than it was," says Simmons. "My hope was that we could raise the reputation of the university in some small way. We wanted to bring speakers to campus to raise new issues and questions and contribute to a national discourse."

When Block and Simmons (now a Democratic member of the Maryland House of Delegates) began mapping out their speakers bureau that summer, they didn't have to look far into AU's history for a name.

Five years earlier, at AU's commencement on June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy gave an eloquent speech of lasting consequence: "A Strategy of Peace." Delivered at the height of the Cold War, Kennedy announced the development of a nuclear test ban treaty
and vowed that the U.S. would suspend atmospheric nuclear tests—as long as other nations followed suit.

In the speech, Kennedy also called on the graduates gathered in the hot sun at Reeves Field to reexamine their attitudes toward peace, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War, famously remarking: "If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can make the world safe for diversity."

"That speech symbolized politics and the power of young people," says Block, who served as KPU director from 1968 to 1970. "It was the thing for which AU was most well known."

Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated on the campaign trail in June 1968, and Block recalls "a great deal of fondness around the Kennedy brand. It all added up to KPU."

To honor the organization's namesake, Theodore (Ted) Sorensen, an aide to both Kennedy brothers, was invited to deliver the inaugural KPU speech, on September 16, 1968. Attacking the "politics of silence," the legendary speechwriter criticized presidential candidates Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey for failing to disclose their positions on Vietnam. The address, held at the Woods-Brown Amphitheater, garnered three standing ovations.

"We knew we were onto something," says Block. "It was an idea whose time had come."

That first year was a whirlwind.

Adam Clayton Powell, the first African American New Yorker elected to Congress, got stuck in an elevator between the second and third floors of Mary Graydon Center. Conservative author William F. Buckley, when booed by some of the 1,600 students in attendance at his lecture, shot back at the hecklers: "If you invite me here, you should let me speak." Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver delivered his last speech at AU before fleeing the U.S. and seeking exile in Cuba and Algeria.

With eight lectures under their belts, Block and Simmons mastered the business side of a speakers bureau—honoraria, contracts, and event logistics. After borrowing $25,000 from other student groups to get off the ground, they secured a permanent budget line. "There was some controversy in the beginning, because all the money from student activity fees went to concerts," recalls Simmons. "We were taking money away from Sly and the Family Stone."

The pair also changed the format, moving from a panel discussion to a lecture followed by a Q&A session. (KPU still refuses to book any speaker who won't take questions from the audience.)

Booking conservative lecturers proved to be a problem, however.

"We went as far left as we could go with Eldridge Cleaver," who was charged with the attempted murder of Oakland police officers in 1968, the year he spoke at AU. "But when we tried to go to the far right, we had problems," says Block.

"We wanted to bring Spiro Agnew to campus—it never happened."

According to current Student Activities director Karen Gerlach, who's worked with KPU since 1997, the organization has struck a better balance in recent years.

"Back in the '70s and '80s, it was mostly white, male speakers—because that's who was in power. Today, they bring a much wider perspective in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, and political ideologies," says Gerlach. "From Bill Clinton to Coretta Scott King to Paul Ryan, KPU's brought an amazing range of change makers to AU.

Politics is our sport here, so we get more attendance at lectures than at carnivals on the quad. KPU has become one of the jewels in the crown of Student Government."

Actors, athletes, authors, and a pair of astronauts. Presidents, prime ministers, secretaries of state, and two Kennedys (Sen. Edward Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.).

KPU's lineup from the past 45 years includes some of the most powerful and prolific figures in world history.

"When you're 21, you never think, 'I'm going to create a legacy,' says Block, who retired in 2008 as global head of government relations for JPMorgan Chase and now splits his time between West Palm Beach, Florida, and Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves as secretary of the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest. "It was just a fun thing to do.

"I loved Student Government, I loved politics. I came to AU to have a good time, and this was my definition of a good time."

For years now, Block, a KPU alumni board member, has treated the incoming student director to dinner and stories of the organization's founding. Alex Kreger, SPA/BA '13, who has been director for the past two years, says she's tickled to be a part of KPU's rich history.

"Our speakers inspire, educate, and encourage students to do something meaningful with their lives," says Kreger.
"The fact that I play a role in bringing those change makers to campus is humbling and incredibly satisfying.

"This is why students come to AU."