In a Cox Auditorium packed to capacity, two American icons brought the audience to its feet – twice.
The standing ovations for renowned journalist Tom Brokaw and UT's own former U.S. Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. came in quick succession at the beginning of the third installment of the Baker Distinguished Lecture Series, for which Brokaw lectured on Baker's behalf.
Fighting soreness from a recent back surgery, Brokaw sat in a chair at center stage and looked directly at Baker, who sat in his wheelchair in the front row.
"Howard is emblematic of the kind of citizen that, for too long, we took for granted," Brokaw said after the applause had faded. "He served this country in war, came back to his home state of Tennessee and then served his nation in so many ways."
With Brokaw's compliment to Baker becoming the foundation of his subsequent speech, the 22-year anchor of NBC Nightly News detailed the events of the latter half of the 20th century in addition to his hopes for more citizens like Baker in the next.
Perhaps taking a line out of Chancellor Jimmy Cheek's mouth, Brokaw divided history into what he called "Big Ideas." He reflected on America's first Big Idea – the mobilization of the nation's industries in preparation for World War II – and then credited the genius of the 1944 Congress for America's second Big Idea: the GI Bill.
"There may not be another piece of domestic legislation that so transformed America for everyone," Brokaw said, referring to the generation of educated citizens who benefited from the readjustment effort. "And it came at a time when Congress was not sure that it could finance it."
Brokaw went on to detail the Big Ideas of the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s. He listed President John F. Kennedy's quest for a lunar landing, Martin Luther King Jr.'s belief in non-violence and the power of law and President Richard Nixon's decision to open relations with China.
All of these events helped create tolerance, Brokaw said, a value that has transformed the role of women in society. He shared a personal anecdote about his wife's successful efforts to create a completely local tomato-canning business in Africa."
If there's hope for that continent – and there is – it will come from that gender," he said. "Women run Africa, from village to village and family to family. That's the kind of Big Idea we need to be thinking about, even in the most advanced nation in the world."
He concluded the narrative of "Big Ideas" with his own "Brokaw Idea." In a call for more public servants from the millennial generation, Brokaw said it was unacceptable for 1 percent of Americans to fight wars and return home in body bags so the other 99 percent can do nothing.
"The fact is, we need to do better than that," he said. "We need to reignite the idea of public service, the John F. Kennedy concept of 'Ask not what your government can do for you, but what you can do for your government.'"
He proposed public service academies – formed from university partnerships and sponsored by private companies – to improve the elite skill sets of American youth. These academies, Brokaw said, would offer tax breaks to private sponsors that pay for advanced training; the sponsored students would then serve America in some capacity for a set period of time.
"We need something ... to knit us together again," Brokaw said. "If we raise the call for public service ... it could be one of the defining developments of our time."
Faculty, staff and community members outnumbered the students in attendance, but those who heard the call for service responded positively. Beacon columnist and Baker Ambassador Katie Dean works on many of the events hosted by the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy. As she did her part of public service by helping clean up after the lecture, Dean agreed that Brokaw's challenge held importance for UT students.
"He just saw so many things happen throughout his career and he's seen where we were then and where we are now," Dean, junior in political science, said. "It's just an important perspective to hear from someone who's seen how far we've come."
At the conclusion of his speech, Brokaw joined Baker Center Director Matt Murray and the more than 900 audience members to sing "Happy Birthday" to Baker, who turns 88 on Friday.