Collins craves community colleges over corporationsPublished 10:06am Friday, April 16, 2010
By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News
Michael Collins believes strongly in second chances, whether it’s the resurrection of American self-reliance from shaking off short-sighted shackles of greed masquerading as capitalism or his own emergence as a University of Notre Dame scholar forged with discipline from an “idiot” scholarship athlete.
Taking a swig of beer, Collins admitted to Dowagiac Rotary Club’s second annual Family and Friends dinner night at Elks Lodge 889 Thursday night, “I’ve been around the world, but I’m nervous because I’m standing before my community members now.”
“If we’re going to survive as a people and a nation, we need to return small as opposed to getting bigger,” Collins said. “Everything is in place here. We have the school, we have self-sufficient people. For my four kids, there’s nothing like walking down the street to a place where other human beings congregate” – Twistee’s.
His life in “very nice upscale” Bellingham, Wash., when he worked for Microsoft made a new axiom that he couldn’t see the trees for the forest.
“You had to get in the car to go find other human beings,” said the author of eight internationally acclaimed works of fiction that have won Notable Books of the Year awards from the New York Times, Best American Short Story Award and a finalist for the Booker Prize which went to another Dogwood Fine Arts Festival visiting author, Margaret Atwood.
“Small towns mix people together,” said Collins, who survived a Chicago stabbing. “Big cities segregate people and cause divisions. We are one people under God. We have to draw state and national politicians to places like this, where everything is here. It’s not overseas or in China, it’s here. We’re educating people to be ready to do the job of bringing us back to our former grandeur. I’d just love to be here when that happens and to be a small part of that.
“Thanks very much for embracing me as an immigrant and letting me live in your community. Ireland recently had some wealth and we had Polish people coming in. A lot of Irish didn’t want Polish or Africans coming in and became kind of racist. We had always been outsiders with nothing, so I hope we learned our lesson not to get too high on yourself. Americans have always embraced other people. I’m just hoping for glory days to come back here. That’s why I’m in Dowagiac.”
Collins’ odyssey from Limerick, Ireland, to Dowagiac, Mich., only seems unlikely if you haven’t heard him tell his story.
Collins admits he’s “partial to small towns.”
His heroes aren’t Microsoft’s Bill Gates, but teachers like Rich and Teri Frantz or visionary eye doctor Fred Mathews, who introduced him.
Collins’ audience included storyteller and children’s author John Mooy and his wife, illustrator Wendy Halperin.
Mooy was the club’s first evening speaker in March 2009 and said the pig-tailed cashier who rang up his purchases in Marcellus attends SMC.
In fact, she told Mooy she could listen to Collins “all day.”
“Your story has touched all of these people and that’s really what it’s all about,” said Mooy, who although not an attorney, assisted federal prosecutors assembling the case against co-conspirator Terry Lynn Nichols in the 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995, Oklahoma City bombing which killed 168 people, including 19 children in a daycare.
Each with a story “that ended, just like that,” as Mooy said a year ago.
Collins expanded his criticism of rogue Wall Street greed and corporate excesss during a question-and-answer period.
“There’s a massive disconnect in this society between what they get paid versus what they actually do. Running for me was a visceral reaction. I’m used to doing a hard day’s work and getting paid for that.”
Ironically, it’s a theme in September’s “Midnight in a Perfect Life,” which the compartmentalizer wrote mostly in the dark between 2 and 5 a.m.
Of the title, Collins explained, “You sort of have everything you want, but the darkness is there and you have to make certain decisions if you want to keep it.”
“This last 20 years has driven us into the ground,” he observed. “When I get some money, I’m not going to invest in the bubble, I’m not going to buy a house that I want to flip.”
Instead, he’s given thousands to Union High School students for their short stories, poetry and photography and raised millions for charity running some of the most extreme conditions on Earth.
“It wasn’t to win,” he said, “it was to try to establish some kind of sanity between putting something out to get something in return. Somehow, the business world offers all kinds of rewards I didn’t feel entitled to. If I run a 100-mile race and win, it’s by the sweat of my brow, looking them in the eye and beating them. It was almost a political protest. Raising money for charity had a purpose.”
“I’m a positive person inside,” Collins insists, but tends to write cathartic dark, brooding books like his decay of the industrial heartland trilogy, “The Keepers of Truth,” which refers to Cass County by name, “The Resurrectionists” and “Lost Souls.”
“They look at what went wrong in society and deal with a lot of flawed characters,” he said.
An encounter at Microsoft informs the third chapter of his new book which he decided against reading.
“I was pulled aside by someone I thought was the devil. I thought I saw a tail flicker. He said, ‘Huge money is going to be made on the Internet, but selling goods and services won’t do it. What will is Internet pornography.’ He had an MBA from Harvard and said, ‘Vice is the vanguard of progress. You’ve got to lure these people in and create a culture that’s going to be seedy, but who cares?’
“Instead of having American business people centered on bringing us back as a people, these smart MBA people basically say, ‘Here is a vehicle for me to make money and I don’t care what I push down people’s throats.’ That’s an element, but it’s not all porn. Don’t think I’m a maniac. You’re going to read that, put it down and go, ‘That doesn’t seem like that nice guy who was up here.’ He’s just a character like the devil that I bumped into who are the people who hijacked society. They’re puppetmasters who are going to use pornography for their own ends. It’s kind of chilling that they’re from some of the best universities in the country: ‘Here’s our five-year plan, which is going to wreck the moral underpinning of our society.’ Who cares if you can cash in for $200 million? You want to survive and make money, but at all costs? It gets dark and seedy, but it’s about ‘Vice is the vanguard to progress’ – that you can do anything in the service of making money. I don’t think capitalism is about that.
“Classical economics with Adam Smith doesn’t have a moral intent – just goods and services, supply and demand, unregulated market – but there is a moral underpinning of doing it within a certain parameter of societal constraint and a moral compass. Now captains of industry make billions of dollars disconnected from society. I don’t want to be lured down that path by the devil into either uploading pornography or working at Microsoft. That’s a challenge we all have. If something’s offered to you, do you take it or decide it’s not for you? It’s hard to walk away and do something else besides making money.”
Collins graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1991, which crossed his path with that of the Frantzes.
“I was asked to do the literary festival. They brought down a gaggle of students. I’d never seen a teacher engage the writer afterwards. I was fascinated by where is he from and who are these kids. Rich and Teri aren’t braggarts, they just said, ‘We’re interested in the arts and in educating kids, so we take them wherever we can.’ ”
As a runner, Collins had heard of SMC’s national cross country powerhouse Ron Gunn built with the Roadrunners.
“Ron had one of the greatest athletic programs and he was recognized as one of the greatest coaches in America,” Collins said. “I don’t know if you know that. Notre Dame used to bring in some of the best runners in the world and Ron would kick our asses. That’s why small-town communities are good, because you get people who are committed to something. Ron could do it in sports. Rich and Teri were jewels in the community for what they were able to draw out of students. When you recruit people, you might not have as much behind you, but I think good people recognize people who want to do good.
“Then I had the privilege of meeting Fred. Doctor, can I call you Fred? What beautiful people. To come to the community and find people who embrace you. Fred, in his wisdom, back in the Sixties, founded a community college with the sense that four-year institutions that cost a lot of money are going to run their course eventually and we’re going to have to go back to hometown values with two-year colleges where kids don’t have to go far afield for a quality education.”
When Collins moved to Dowagiac in 2008 and began to restore his Main Street home to its former grandeur – it, too, deserved a second chance – Bruce Willis came to his rescue.
“We both had a vision that it’s a corner showpiece downtown near Twistee’s and we wanted to show there’s something alive here and Dowagiac’s not dead,” even if that vision would be a tougher sell to his billionaire brother-in-law with the Harvard and Stanford education and Obama campaign connections.
“His mother, who must be 110, thinks Michigan is a dead place. I’d hit an old lady if she messes with Dowagiac,” Collins said.
“I couldn’t do it all,” Collins continued, “and Bruce has got the skills to do anything. Part of the resurrection of a community is to invest in the community, so it’s great to have a variety of people who all pull together. There was something special about this community all along that drew me here.”
Collins noted America rose to a global power with “classical economics, Adam Smith and the invisible hand” of markets and “a moral society of small towns and small and mid-sized businesses” handed down to their children and grandchildren.
Collins, born in 1964, recalled growing up in Ireland, “We all looked up to America. By the time I arrived in the ’80s that had begun to fall apart. But that was a dream of Irish people, going to America, getting out of the big cities and getting to small towns. Americans were a moral people who dealt justly with each other. In Ireland, we dealt justly with each other, but we had no economy. I didn’t have a tragic childhood personally, but as a nation we were involved in war with England and 40-percent unemployment. There was no prospect of advancement in society unless you were the top intelligentsia. Otherwise, you were pigeonholed as a farmer, and there wasn’t any money in farming. You were, as they said in England, the unwashed masses. There was nothing for you to do. I wasn’t gifted academically. The only thing I was good at back then was running.”
He has won six ultra-marathons, including the Last Marathon in Antarctica, the Himalayan 100 Mile Stage Race, the Sub-Sahara Marathon and the North Pole Marathon. The extremes of sand and polar bears landed him in Sports Illustrated.
“You’ve got to try to distinguish yourself some way,” Collins said. “In the early years I needed to find something I was good at, and I wasn’t good at academics. Running provided me with an historical sense of Ireland and gave me a sense of identity” as a 14-year-old on a farm in a bleak economy and a good prospect of joining the unwashed masses.
Sunday mornings he rose at 6:30 to run 18 miles into the mountains.
“Through running, I began to get a greater sense of myself,” he said. “Ireland had eight million people and lost four million during the famine. We’re down to four million. On Sunday mornings I traveled up through history,” his legs carrying him past places “where people used to live who died or emigrated to America. Old cottages, no roofs, just stones. Old animals that were abandoned. At 7 or 8 in the morning I could look back down on the town and get a sense of perspective that this is life, this is history, this is reality. I’m standing in the places where people ate grass, their lips were green and some made it to the boats for America and some didn’t. There was no context to it, and you’re not going to get a degree for saying stuff like that.”
But it did give Collins “a certain kind of gravitas or intellectual capacity I couldn’t actually use at the time. You couldn’t get into college telling a story like that, but I knew I was better than society had labeled me. Irish or English society, or European society, you’re on a track you can’t get off. The great thing about America is you can come in, as I did to Notre Dame – a fool on an athletic scholarship – my first two years I was a hired gun. I was fourth at the nationals in ’84 or so, but I still didn’t get it. I used my athletic prowess and I had this kind of sense of history, but I was still too into sports and nothing else.”
That January a teacher asked him to read aloud from a book, “which I hated” – especially when Collins mispronounced “chaos” and ignited laughter that made him more determined to apply discipline to his native intelligence “to learn how to damn read and write. When you run races, you can’t punch (other participants) in the face, so you learn to read their psyche. Are they slowing down? Are they tired? It’s a physiological battle reading the nuances of someone else’s face. Then you go in the classroom and (butcher) chaos and they say, ‘This is why we’ve got no respect for athletes – they’re idiots.’
“At that stage, the light went on and I said to myself, ‘You’ve got to reform. You’ve got capacity that you’ve never used.’ At that stage I walked over like AA and said, ‘I’m an idiot. I’m an intellectual but I can’t do anything or participate in the regular academic forum. Teach me.’
“This is why I teach at community colleges – if at a certain point in your life you decide you want to do something and your previous path seems to suggest that you couldn’t, I really believe that when the moment arrives that you feel ashamed, there’s no other country in the world that has community colleges and the second chances that America does.
“A greatness of America was not me being on a scholarship, but to find a community of educators. In Ireland and Europe, educators are boy or girl geniuses and pompous asses who only deal with boy or girl geniuses.
“American educators are very smart, but they learn it the hard way. They are willing to deal with people and to lift them up and educate them. Sometimes, being too smart too early gets you nowhere. Being educated later in life and wanting to do it, you can make quantum leaps. Americans are willing to help other people and to raise people up. It defines this country. Within two years I settled down, advanced to getting A’s, found people who would support me and give me the lift I needed and then graduated not as a ‘dumb athlete,’ but as a person who should graduate from Notre Dame with the academic standards. I went on to a master’s and a Ph.D.”
At Microsoft Collins encountered a world where through stock options, “You could literally make millions of dollars, but I didn’t want to be involved in that type of world. I wanted to return to Rich and Teri Frantz, who were connected to ordinary people and the next generation of kids who were going to advance. When Heidi was doing her residency, I said, ‘Do you mind if I just stop working at this place?’ which I called the golden handcuffs.
You can get $4 million in a couple of years, but I wanted to do all the things I wanted to do when I was younger.”
“I wanted to run, I wanted to teach,” Collins said. “We agreed we weren’t going to go big city, but to retrace our roots to where it all started and to try to help the people who helped us and try to be like them. My heroes aren’t Bill Gates, the guys from Enron or fast financial finaglers, but the enablers who work for a pittance in a variety of towns across America and who bring up the next generation of people. That’s how I left behind the glitzy path and came to Dowagiac. I didn’t want to be preening on a pedestal – not that I don’t preen a little bit; I preen locally – I wanted to be down in the trenches. I don’t think we should try to get out of where we are as much as to succeed where we are.”
When Collins eventually leaves Dowagiac he imagines eturning to his Irish hometown, not New York, London or Paris.
“That’s my goal,” he said. “In the interim, if it takes 20 years here, a community like this is the ideal place for me, and for American business as well. To California and New York, the interior of America is wasteland. This is where we need to come as a society. You look around at the houses for sale here and people like Bruce, Rich, Teri, Fred’s vision, everything’s here that’s not found in big cities and could re-energize America.
“When I get invited to events where it’s $15,000 to shake Obama’s hand and people want to touch him and speak to him, but once he’s the President he’s this figure you can’t get near and he’s in the pocket of other people. As a democracy, make the people we elect serve us. Look back to Dowagiac and other communities that were able to survive 100 years and there’s legitimacy here.
“At SMC, we’re educating a damn good group of people who shouldn’t have to leave this community and go elsewhere. There should be factories and stuff coming in here. I’m at this school because I believe that. One guy here wrote one of the best essays I’ve ever read on intelligent design over the summer course.”
He didn’t mention Ron Matthews by name, but Collins said, “The essay was so good it could be used anywhere by an undergraduate, not just a community college. The things he had to say and the level of scholarship were amazing.”
Collins was running Wednesday when the Fire Department tested sirens.
He thought it was “Armageddon” and pretends to be relieved that Chuck Ringland and others heard the wailing, too.
“I like traversing the graveyard,” he refers to Riverside Cemetery across from the Elks. “People’s stories and names that I’m now becoming familiar with. You run up the hill, then it’s flat. The graveyard puts it into context that we’re only here a short period of time. There’s a lot of free time on the other side to play handball,” so he sets the alarm for writing at 2 a.m.
Collins, though sees an educator epitaph – not author or runner.
“To be embedded in a community and to say, ‘I am a teacher,’ and there’s thousands of people that you touch.”