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Stanford Report, June 2, 1999

What matters to William Perry on ‘the road less traveled’


Two roads diverged in a wood and I --
I took the road less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

With this famous Robert Frost poem, William J. Perry -- the Michael and Barbara Berberian Professor at Stanford, with a joint appointment in engineering-economic systems and operations research and the Institute for International Studies -- began his remarks for "What Matters to Me and Why," the biweekly lecture series held in Memorial Church that is designed to promote the exchange of views on personal values, faith and integrity.

"When faced with a choice between two diverging roads, I have always taken the one less traveled, and that, as Frost said, has made all the difference," Perry, who also is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, told the small audience on May 19.

Although all his degrees are in mathematics, Perry's career has led him to places where few mathematicians have ventured. In 1964, he founded his own high-tech company, ESL. From 1981 to 1985 he served as an executive vice president for the venture capital firm Hambrecht & Quist. He co-directed Stanford Center for International Security and Arms Control from 1988 to 1993. Perry served in several capacities at the Department of Defense that culminated in three years, from 1994 to 1997, as the 19th U.S. secretary of defense. In fact, the only mathematics job on his resume is a stint as part-time lecturer at Santa Clara University from 1971 to 1977.

Like a good mathematician, Perry quantified the number of "seminal decision points" in his life. There have been five.

The first came in 1944, before he had finished high school. World War II was still going on, so he decided that he would enlist in the U.S. Army rather than graduate. While serving in the Army of the occupation of Japan, he saw the last great battle of the war. "I will never forget the horror," he said.

The second decision point was coming to Stanford. (He received his bachelor's and master's degrees at Stanford, and earned his doctorate at Penn State.) The education that he received in science and technology here have played a major role in his life, he said.

Number three came when he and his wife, Lee, who is a certified public accountant, decided to get married while he was still in school. They went on to raise five children.

The next major decision in Perry's life came in 1964, when he decided to leave a secure job as laboratory director for General Telephone and Electronics and use his life savings to found ESL. The final zig in his career came early in the 1990s, when he decided to accept President Clinton's nomination as secretary of defense.

"These various experiences were influenced by the basic values that I held at the time, and they have also affected those values," Perry said.

He listed seven values that are most important to him.

First and foremost is his family. "I think I can fairly say that nothing is more important to me," he said. In response to a question, Perry acknowledged that he has tried to find the correct balance between competing priorities throughout his life. The key to achieving that balance, he said, is to remain focused on what is important. He acknowledged that he might do some things differently if he had them to do again, like spending more time with his children. "But they've turned out to be wonderful adults," he said.

The second value on Perry's list is education. "I was fortunate to have gone to one of the greatest universities in the world, Stanford University, and have benefited from that in numerous ways throughout my career. I've had some of the greatest teachers in the world. Now, at this stage in my career, I want to give back to education some of what I got from it during the first [part] of my career."

Confessing that he might accurately be described as a "technological geek," Perry ranked his love of science and technology as the third most important factor in his life. He came to this interest early in life. It was nurtured by his experience at Stanford, and was instrumental in his decision to pursue a career in the high-tech industry. "I can't resist getting all the latest gadgets when they come out," he admitted.

Innovation and entrepreneurial values have always been important to him as well. He left a good job to start a new company simply because he wanted to create and to run something himself. "That experience certainly shaped my life in important ways," he said. That is why when he went to work for the government, he tried hard to instill some entrepreneurial attitudes. It was the reason that he pushed through a radical reform in the way the Pentagon purchased goods and services while he was secretary of defense.

One of the important things that Perry had to sacrifice while serving in Washington, D.C., was his love of nature, particularly hiking and backpacking in the Sierras. "We tried hiking in the Appalachians once, but it just wasn't the same," he said.

Music has been another mainstay in Perry's life. He started a swing band in high school, and he has been part of several different choral groups in the years since. He recalled a favorite cartoon, which showed a vast wasteland and was titled, "Life Without Mozart." However, he said that his taste in music extends well beyond Mozart to jazz and even to rock.

Finally, Perry listed service to the community and the government as an important value, one that explains his willingness to serve in various administrative and consultant positions, even when it has meant a significant financial sacrifice.

"I'm a child of the Cold War. I've lived all my life with the threat of nuclear devastation. And I've devoted part of my life in order to deal with this problem," he said.

Taking on the position of defense secretary gave him the opportunity to help reduce the number of nuclear warheads remaining from the Cold War by forging a trilateral agreement among the United States, Ukraine and Russia that resulted in the destruction of the 2,000 nuclear weapons based in Ukraine.

On his first trip to the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, as secretary of defense, Perry toured one of the missile sites and got a sobering firsthand lesson in just how perilous the Cold War had been. In a bunker, two young officers simulated a countdown right to the point of launching 700 nuclear warheads.

"With the push of a button, those two young men could have released all those missiles. Nothing had ever brought home the horror of the Cold War like that," he said.

Because of the agreement that he personally backed, a year later those same missiles were pulled up, chopped to pieces and sold for scrap. Two years later the giant underground silo that had housed them was blown up. Three years later, Perry, along with the secretaries of defense from Ukraine and Russia, planted sunflowers on the site.

Perry concluded his remarks by quoting Elie Wiesel: "You must remember that peace is not God's gift to his creations, it is our gift to each other." SR