We got around to talking football eventually, but it’s just that when you only have an hour to spend on the phone with a man who has seen so much, learned so passionately and lived so fully as has Curtis McClinton Jr., sports don’t dominate.
Sure, McClinton was an All-American running back at Kansas University in 1961 and had a terrific career for the Kansas City Chiefs. But what makes him special is the insatiable curiosity of his mind and the way he is able to capture in words the brilliance of others.
McClinton received a bachelor’s in education from Kansas, a master’s in business from Central Michigan and a doctorate in philosophy from Miles College in Birmingham, Ala. He gave the valedictorian speech after completing graduate studies at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
His most important lessons, of course, were learned at home. Yet, as much as he always has admired his father, a Wichita real estate broker who his son proudly shares is going strong mentally and physically at 98, he didn’t want to follow him into politics.
“First black senator elected in the state of Kansas,” Curtis Jr. said from his home in Kansas City, Mo, of his father. “I never really fell in love with politics.”
McClinton Jr. was in the federal Senior Executive Service under President Jimmy Carter and President George H.W. Bush and he was deputy mayor in Washington, D.C., but not everybody who serves in or on the periphery of politics is a politician. McClinton greatly admires one such man.
“In all my travels, probably the most mesmerizing personality that I ever met was Colin Powell,” he said.
“It was the way General Powell communicated with words and without words, and it was the way he brought a mission to closure and moved on,” McClinton said. “And to the people around him — including presidents, statesmen and world leaders — he was a true leader. He was a person who you knew when you were in his presence, you were going to leave a more knowledgeable and comfortable person. ... The aura about him was subtle, but his focus on acts and deeds was swift. He was always moving.”
He never moved into the oval office, but if he had, he would have made a “superb” president, in McClinton’s estimation.
“I certainly encouraged him when I had the opportunity to chat with him,” McClinton said. “The one issue that brings about a caution on my behalf, he seemed to be a man of very good judgment, and he chose not to, so I trust him.”
During his days at KU, McClinton’s hero became not a football player, rather fellow bass baritone Paul Robenson, who also used his voice to plead for equality for all Americans. McClinton learned of him from a KU professor and flew to New York to see him in concert at Carnegie Hall during a bye week.
Judy Kish of Lawrence, the daughter of former KU assistant football coach George Bernhardt, remembers fondly McClinton student-teaching at Central Junior High and riveting students with a “beautiful” version of “Old Man River.”
McClinton looks forward to joining ’61 teammates in Lawrence this weekend for a reunion honoring them.