As a high school student at Shady Side Academy, Tom Vilsack '68 was so fascinated by politics that he carried around a copy of Herbert Humphrey's book The Politics of Joy, sometimes tucking it into his back pocket.
At Hamilton College in upstate New York, Vilsack met a girl he liked. "His pickup line was, 'Are you Democrat or Republican?'" said his lifelong friend and classmate, Douglas Campbell '68. Fortunately, Christie Bell was a fellow Democrat, and the romance flourished as Vilsack went on to law school.
While most aspiring politicians move to power centers such as Washington, D.C., New York City or Los Angeles, Vilsack married Christie and settled down in her rural hometown of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, where he became a small-town lawyer.
Say goodbye to Tom Vilsack, Campbell thought as he drove away from his best friend's wedding, surrounded by cornfields. "I figured that was the last I would hear of him." Who launches a prominent political career from Mt. Pleasant, Iowa? But to his and other people's astonishment, Vilsack not only became the mayor of the tiny town – the post opened up after a tragic public shooting – he went on to become a state senator, the governor of Iowa, a presidential candidate, and then U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under President Barack Obama.
And now, at the age of 70, he is doing something even more remarkable – serving a second stint as Secretary of Agriculture under President Joe Biden.
"No one has ever come back as Secretary of Agriculture," Vilsack said.
Campbell said his friend's career is a testament to his ability to do good no matter where he is. "He applied himself and did a good job," said Campbell, founding partner of Campbell & Levine law firm in Pittsburgh. "He never said, 'I am stuck out in the middle of nowhere.' Instead, he said, 'Let's make things better,' and people rallied behind him."
Vilsack was surprised to get a call from Biden shortly after the 2020 election. The president-elect floated the possibility of a second stint at the Department of Agriculture, though he was still considering several other candidates.
Vilsack wasn't sure he would get the job. He figured there were so many qualified people aiming for those few prestigious and powerful jobs in the cabinet. He had the privilege of doing it once, and he figured that it was someone else's turn.
Then, in early December 2020, he got another call from Biden. He wanted him back.
Vilsack was honored to be asked to return to Washington. He wasn't sure, though, if his wife would have the same enthusiasm. After all, the couple had been in public service for more than four decades. Maybe she would tell him it was time to move on. She had always been his political partner and confidant, the rock by his side.
"Christie, what do you think of going back?"
"You've got more to do," she told him.
In accepting the job, Vilsack asked Biden to tell the public that the president-elect had approached him, not the other way around. "I didn't want them to think I was backdooring it," he said.
The last time he started as Secretary of Agriculture, it was a different world. The country was in an economic depression because of the subprime mortgage crisis. When Biden became president, the country and world faced an even more dire crisis – COVID-19.
"We knew we had to act quickly and decisively with the American Rescue Plan," Vilsack said. "The President basically was saying that we need to get the vaccines out to people."
Heading up the agricultural department a second time, his priorities also have shifted to promoting initiatives to combat climate change. "We are encouraging farmers to undertake certain practices in their farms that sequester and store carbon and convert it to methane."
That, in turn, could be used to create a natural, renewable biofuel to replace fossil fuels. "We also want them to think differently about agricultural waste and manure" by applying it more precisely to avoid overuse, which can be harmful to the environment, Vilsack said.
Another goal is to address the racial inequities in the agricultural assistance programs.
"For almost 100 years, policies and practices have either discriminated against socially disadvantaged producers – Black farmers, Hispanic farmers, Native American partners, Asian Pacific farmers – or limited access to USDA programs and assistance."
At the same time, White farmers have received assistance that allowed them to purchase modern equipment and maximize their harvest. The Department of Agriculture will relieve the debt for up to 16,000 socially disadvantaged farmers who have either borrowed directly from the USDA or borrowed from a bank with a USDA guarantee. "We are creating opportunities for the socially disadvantaged producers so the gap is reduced."
Vilsack came from humble beginnings – he was born in the Roselia Foundling Asylum and Maternity Hospital, an orphanage in the Hill District. He was adopted at age 1. He grew up in Squirrel Hill, just a few blocks from Campbell. The two met in nursery school and stayed close throughout their lives.
Both boys transferred to Shady Side Academy for high school. Vilsack struggled mightily his sophomore year, nearly flunking out. He had to adjust to a more rigorous school, and he was dealing with turmoil at home. His parents were separated, and his mother was addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs. Living through that experience would give him empathy decades later when he was helping to combat the opioid crisis during the Obama administration.
Vilsack thought about dropping out of Shady Side. "I was ready to quit," he said. "Friends like Doug are a large reason why I stuck it out. They reinforced that there was something
in me that was worth not giving up on," he said when he and Campbell returned to campus for their 50th reunion and gave a speech to students.
"I learned an incredibly important life lesson at Shady Side – an understanding of what to do with failure. You are going to experience failure in your life. And it's better to experience it early in life and learn from it, so that you're in a position to deal with it when it happens later in life."
He said he wasn't a natural athlete, but he liked the friendships he made on the football team.
He was a lineman, and Campbell was a quarterback on the JV team. "He didn't run fast, but he had a big heart," Campbell said. "He was big and could block."
He also ran against Campbell for student council president. Campbell won by promising to repair the water fountains so students wouldn't have to lean in so close to get a drink. He made Vilsack his vice president. "He learned his first lesson in politics," Campbell quipped.
It was one of the only times Vilsack lost an election.
Vilsack said his Shady Side education enabled him to go to Hamilton College. "It's a fairly well-known, small college in upstate New York where I met my wife. If I hadn't met Christie, I wouldn't be talking to you as Secretary of Agriculture. I would not have had the level of success had she not been so supportive and such a tremendous advisor."
After he attended Albany School of Law, the couple moved to Iowa, and his father-in-law offered him a job at his practice. "I probably would still be there practicing law, but the mayor of that small town was shot and killed in a council meeting" by an angry citizen.
Vilsack had been active in the community, raising money for new youth athletic facilities. So when tragedy struck, the people in town encouraged him to fill the void. He was elected mayor in 1987 and held the position until 1992.
That's where he got the political bug, winning a state senate seat before running for Governor.
The 1998 Iowa gubernatorial race was an uphill battle. "We hadn't elected a Democrat in the governor's office in 30 years, and I was down by 23 points with three weeks to go. Because of the lesson of not giving up here, I ended up winning." He served as governor from 1999 to 2007.
During the 2008 presidential election, he threw his hat into the race but withdrew as Obama's popularity exploded. Then he was asked to join Obama's cabinet as Secretary of Agriculture, a great honor, serving the full duration of both of Obama's terms.
Vilsack had never been a farmer himself, but as a small-town lawyer in Iowa, he came to learn about their lives. "I represented farmers during the 1980s when there were some serious challenges for farmers. I learned how tough the farming business is every single day. They're just good, good folks."
Vilsack acknowledges that politics has become tougher than ever. "But on the other hand, there are very few places in life where you can impact and affect people's lives in a direct and positive way. My department is currently providing nutrition assistance to 43 million Americans. We are making meals better from a nutritional standpoint for up to 30 million children in America in schools every day."
Campbell said the power and publicity have never changed his childhood friend.
Sometimes, when Vilsack made the long drive from Iowa to Washington, D.C., he would make a stop in Pittsburgh. Once, Campbell got a taste of the VIP treatment when they went to a Penguins game together in a black vehicle with a driver and flashing lights, accompanied by state police. "We would drive up to the ramp by the door to the arena. Everyone would say, 'Who is that? You can see how seductive it could be. But it never got the best of him. He is unassuming."
Even as politics has become uglier and more partisan, Campbell said his friend has managed to stay above the fray. "It's a blood sport," he said. "He is untainted by scandal. I am really proud of him."
The teenager who kept Herbert Humphrey's words in his back pocket still loves politics.