We often talk about our mentors and those who taught us to be the leaders we now are. Far less frequently, though, do we discuss our champions, those whose encouragement, support, faith, and grace are equally important, if not more so.
I am rising now to honor one of them. This week, I will say my final goodbyes and pay my respects to Walter W. Buckley, Jr., who passed away late last month. There are many words I could use to describe this true gentleman. Inspiring. Visionary. Successful. Inquisitive. Loyal. Passionate. Of faith. Tireless. A force. But most of all, he will always be my champion.
I first met Walter a decade ago. I was new to the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, tasked with presenting to the Board of Directors my strategy and vision for communications and public engagement just eight weeks after joining the non-profit. Walter was Woodrow’s board chair.
Upon meeting me informally, Walter asked a ton of questions about me, my background, and my family. It was far more than the obligatory chit chat. It felt like he really wanted to get to know me. We immediately bonded over a love for, and knowledge of, politics. And he seemed taken by my background working with venture capitalists and hedge funds and start ups, experiences not often found in the non-profit world.
The next year, I had an opportunity to speak at the Episcopal Academy in Pennsylvania, without realizing it was where Walter went to high school. Once I made the connection, he couldn’t get enough details. He wanted to know more about my thoughts of the school, of the students, of the head of school (who I knew personally), and such. He was fully invested in my experience.
Over the years, we shared many conversations. I learned of his time at Cornell University, of his favorite professors, and of his love of American history. Here was a titan of industry, far more interested in talking of Washington, Lincoln, and Grant. A true gentleman and scholar. And, of course, I heard so many stories of his beloved wife, Marjorie.
These conversations led to the development of Woodrow’s American History Initiative, a program we incubated to support k-12 social studies teachers. With Walter’s blessing, I directed the work on a day-to-day basis. It was work I was passionate about, work I knew could have real impact. And it was work championed by Walter.
When Woodrow decided to end its efforts in the American history space, I was devastated. I truly believed we could transform the teaching and learning of American history. I knew I could play a part in making it happen. But the elimination of the work and of my job filled me with self doubt. I was clearly not seeing the shortcomings of the work others did, for I saw nothing but potential.
Walter, too, believed. He believed in the work, and he believed in me. Having retired from the Woodrow board six months prior, Walter pushed me on my vision for moving the work ahead, having me develop a business plan that relied on the startup skills he knew I had. And like my mentor, Arthur Levine, Walter made clear that “if I could dream it, I could do it.”
Walter Buckley was my champion. He saw the possibility and potential — in both the work and in me — well before I did. With his support and guidance, we launched the Driving Force Institute in April 2020. Walter seemingly knew we would succeed from the get go.
And we did. Those DFI successes are because of Walter. We have produced 500 films on American history because of him. We now reach more than 45 million users because of him. We have partnered with groups like New York Historical Society, American Battlefield Trust (on which he once served on the board), Smithsonian, White House Historical Association, Bill of Rights Institute, and many others because of his faith in the work.
Our work in Kentucky grew because of Walter’s interest. Our deep work with Florida schools happened because of Walter. And our similar work in more than a dozen states now exists because of Walter.
When DFI won two Silver Tellys last year, my first call was to Walter, to share that he was now an award-winning film producer. I regret I was not able to tell him this month that he won five Shorty Awards as well. That’s seven awards Walter earned at DFI as a producer.
I was deeply honored last year when Marjorie Buckley asked me to spearhead an effort to launch the Walter W. Buckley, Jr., Prize in American History. Marjorie realized there was no better way to honor Walter and his passions than to recognize those national leaders that embody Walter’s interest in and commitment to American history and history instruction. This past July, we were able to recognize Dr. Louise Mirrer, the CEO of NY Historical Society as the inaugural winner.
I have never strayed from my pledge to Walter to, in Teddy Roosevelt’s words, “dare mighty things” when it came to our shared commitment to American history. It is because of my champion that DFI launched a new effort — in partnership with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and our longtime video production partner Makematic — to develop a 500-film series on the essentials of American history as part of our nation’s 250th birthday in 2026. That work takes on even greater significance for me, as the work will honor Walter and the nation he loved so dearly.
As I’ve reflected in recent weeks, I worry I was never able to fully articulate to Walter how much his faith, trust, support, and encouragement has meant to me over the years. I worry I was running so fast with the work that I didn’t share with him all of the details or ask all the questions I now wish I had. And I worry that Walter didn’t realize the full impact he had on me as a leader, as an entrepreneur, and as a man.
Earlier this fall, I shared with Walter the dedication to the book, Why History Matters: American History Educators Speak Out. In it, I wrote:
“To Walter, There are few who can claim the interest in, passion for, and commitment to American history that you possess. For years, you have helped teach me why the teaching of American history matters, demonstrating that a passion for history is a passion for this nation and its future. You are the inspiration for the work of the Driving Force Institute and its efforts to improve the teaching and learning of American history. Millions of learners and educators now have the tools to better learn history, to appreciate history, and to understand why American history matters because of you.”
Truer words could not have been written.
Walter W. Buckley, Jr. was my champion. Now my work takes on even greater significance, as I need to fulfill my audacious promises and ensure that Walter’s belief in me was justified. I need to prove I am worthy of the trust, faith, and grace he had long shown me.
Thank you, Walter, for everything.