Alumni Profile

Tom Vilsack '68: Serving a Second Stint As U.S. Secretary of Agriculture
Tom Vilsack '68: Serving a Second Stint As U.S. Secretary of Agriculture

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.

Tom Vilsack Meeting FFA Members

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 meeting at USDA

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."

Vilsack virtual meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris

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.

Kali Arnold '94: Teaching Mindfulness and Meditation in a Stressful World

When Dr. Kali Arnold told people she was walking away from her career as an orthopedic surgeon to teach yoga and Pilates, they stared at her in disbelief.

"You're crazy," everyone told her.

After all, she had spent four years in medical school and another six years in residency so she could do reconstructive surgery on ballet dancers, athletes and everyday people with foot and ankle injuries. She had a prestigious job title, a big house and other trappings of success.

"You can't leave," friends would tell her. "You have this great life. You're an orthopedic surgeon."

But it didn't feel like a great life to Arnold. It certainly wasn't what she envisioned in the 10 years she spent training to be a surgeon. She liked helping people walk or dance or play sports again, but she was disillusioned by a medical system that she felt was driven more by financial considerations than patient care. On call and stressed out, she felt pressured to bring in more revenue.

"I just felt like there had to be a different way for me to heal and connect with people on a different level," she said. "I felt like I had more to offer the world."

So in 2016, she turned to yoga, the practice that had gotten her through the last 10 years in the high-stress environment of hospitals. She also taught private lessons in Pilates and barre.

She set aside a nest egg by selling her spacious house and moving to a smaller one. She decided she would give herself one year to see if she could build up enough of a business to leave medicine and stay in this new career. Yoga teachers don't make the same six-figure salary as orthopedic surgeons, but that was okay with her. She wanted a simpler life. A smaller house. No more designer clothes and handbags, items that she had bought in an attempt to fill a void that couldn't be healed with stuff. She earned her certification to teach yoga, Pilates and reiki energy healing, and she taught at various studios before renting her own space and doing private lessons.

But she wanted to scale up the business so it reached more people. In 2019, she co-founded The Namaste Project, teaching meditation, mindfulness and yoga techniques to corporations and to students and staff in public schools. Arnold's business partner is a former school principal.

Their business took off during the pandemic, when stress levels among students, teachers and administrators skyrocketed. "We like to call ourselves educational consultants," she said. "We help workplaces and schools bring mindfulness through a curriculum we have designed that involves mediation, breathwork, yoga and social-emotional learning. We are teaching trauma-informed response for schools and in the workplace. We teach empathy and how to recognize trauma in yourself and respond to others with compassion and kindness."

Through The Namaste Project, schools and other institutions can access different levels of an individualized mindfulness curriculum. For example, level one introduces breathing exercises, light yoga and mindfulness activity at the start and end of the day. "The kids love it," Arnold said. "They want to feel calm. The beautiful thing about what we are offering is that it doesn't require a lot of expensive tools or programs. You sit and breathe."

They also offer training on how to replace in-school suspensions with more positive strategies. "We know suspensions don't work. It doesn't get to the root of the problem. If a kid throws a chair across the room, it's not that he likes throwing chairs. He was triggered by something. He has stored trauma in him," Arnold said. Instead, the Namaste Project works with schools to set up common areas equipped with soothing sounds, colors, textures and games that help children learn to regulate their emotions.

One principal said the program reduced the number of in-school suspensions from 38 to four in one year.

In an era of standardized tests, yoga and social interaction skills may sound like hippy-dippy extras, but Arnold believes they're just as important as math and science.

So far, she said her company has signed contracts with schools in Georgia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Virginia. Her company has also started the Mindful Wellness Teaching Program in Atlanta, teaching sessions that help teachers deal with trauma through yoga and other techniques.

"I think it's really important for teachers, and adults in general, to understand the science behind mindfulness. A lot of people think it's esoteric, woo-woo stuff. But I can tell you as a physician myself, it is very much science. We talk about trauma and emotional regulation in the brain."

Her private lessons for yoga, Pilates and reiki are also flourishing. The physical therapists she worked with as a surgeon refer clients to her. Clients appreciate her understanding of the human body and her approach to injury prevention.

Bryan Dow, vice president of global creative and brand marketing for David's Bridal, has been practicing Pilates for 10 years, the last three with Arnold.

"She is the best Pilates teacher I have ever had," he said. "My time with her has been transformational. Her approach to Pilates is individualized. As a doctor, she understands the body. She is a mind and body healer."

As a child growing up in Pittsburgh, Arnold was so pigeon-toed that she would trip over her own feet. Her mother put her into ballet class at age 3 to help her walk straighter. She loved dancing and tumbling and found her true talents as an elite gymnast and competitive modern dancer.

In fact, she was one of the original dancers in the Abby Lee Dance Company before it became a televised phenomenon on Dance Moms. Because of her dance training, she excelled in floor exercise and also competed in vault with the Pittsburgh North Stars.

She attended high school at Shady Side Academy. "It was like a little utopia," she said. She loved the small class sizes, the interaction with teachers and the close friendships. She also appreciated the sense of independence instilled in the students. "There was nobody giving you a hall pass. They treated us like adults. That really helped me when I went away to college."

In her junior year, she tore ligaments in both ankles and had to take a break from gymnastics. She was treated at the UPMC Sports Medicine Program, headed by renowned orthopedic surgeon and past SSA parent Dr. Freddie Fu, who passed away in November 2021 at the age of 71.

Kali Arnold '94

Because she was interested in a career in medicine – and happened to be friends with Gordon Fu '95, fellow Shady Side student and the son of the famed surgeon – Arnold had the unique opportunity to shadow Dr. Fu. The doctor, who repaired the joints of athletes ranging from NFL players to ballet dancers, inspired her to become an orthopedic surgeon herself. She also liked how Dr. Fu attracted a diverse group of residents and fellows in the traditionally white, predominantly male world of orthopedic surgery.

Although Arnold was offered gymnastics scholarships at several large universities, she turned them down in favor of the smaller class sizes at Vassar College. She majored in biology with a minor in African studies and performed in a dance troupe. She attended medical school at Meharry Medical College, a historically black college in Nashville.

She began her residency in orthopedic surgery, but was disappointed that the program felt unwelcoming to women and minorities.

On her 29th birthday, at the height of the residency stress, she received a gift certificate to a local yoga studio from her friends.

"Yoga?" she said. "I don't do yoga."

"No, you need yoga," one told her.

She attended the class. "This is interesting," she thought, and her gymnastics training made the poses fun to do. But when the students were instructed to hold a pose and breathe and meditate, she started crying. Loudly. Embarrassed, she ran out of the class and vowed never to come back.

Still, she came back the next week, only to cry again while doing a hip opener pose. It wasn't until later that she discovered the reason for her strong emotions. "You hold negative energy in certain parts of the body, like the hips. So, when you do these deep hip stretches and you are there with yourself, breathing and sitting there, the emotions bubble up. You are literally releasing trauma trapped in your body," said Arnold. Yoga led her to explore other forms of healing such as meditation.

After her residency, Arnold moved to Atlanta. Over the next three years, while working in two different orthopedic practices, yoga kept her grounded amidst the stresses of long hours at the hospital and nights on call.

"I always tell people that yoga literally saved me. I think if I didn't have yoga at that time, I would have been clinically depressed, because I had so much anger, frustration and angst inside of me."

Yoga also connected her to her inner voice, which told her that she should leave her medical career and commit herself full-time to her passion. "I was listening to my own voice. My clients stay with me not just because of my knowledge, but because I really love what I do."

Now her life is simpler. She no longer shops in an effort to reduce stress. She spends her money on travel and experiences instead of things. She also incorporates self-care into the way she runs her own business, setting up boundaries.

"I always say there was a Kali before yoga and mindfulness, and a Kali after yoga and mindfulness."