She Scared the Hell Out of Me (and Made Me Better)

Former University of Wisconsin Chancellor Rebecca Blank died earlier this month. Her speechwriter offers a candid remembrance of a tough boss she came to love.

My former boss died February 18, after battling an aggressive cancer for less than a year.  She was brilliant and dedicated and selfless, and had terrifyingly high standards. I respected and admired her, and — as David Murray put it after a gathering at which she spoke beautifully about the importance of the work we do — she scared the hell out of me (a feeling that subsided, but never quite went away).

Before she arrived at the University of Wisconsin, Rebecca Blank had built an international reputation for her work as an economist focusing on issues related to poverty. She served in three presidential administrations — most recently as Commerce Secretary under Barack Obama. And she spent her first year as chancellor at UW-Madison growing frustrated with the carousel of writers who tried to write her speeches.  

“What do you need from a speechwriter that you’re not getting now?” I asked in my phone interview. I could hear her frustration as she answered. “I need to demonstrate that I know what this place needs,” she said. “I can write speeches that do that, but I don’t have time to write my own speeches.” 

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank is pictured in her office at Bascom Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on July 19, 2019. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

I blazed into the job confident that I could succeed where others had failed. I’d heard the stories about drafts returned with “Incoherent” and “I spent 3 hours rewriting this” in the comments. Two people who had tried to write for her called me before I took the job. “She told me I have a lot to learn about speechwriting!” one of them whisper-screamed into her phone.“Do you have any other jobs you could take?” the other asked me. Sure, I said, but writing for Chancellor Blank sounds …”.  She cut me off:  “If I were you, I’d keep looking.”

There were a few days in my nine years with Becky when I wished I’d taken that advice. I quit my job at least 10 times, mostly in my head, imagining myself storming out indignantly or quietly announcing that I’d accepted a position at a different university with a different kind of boss. One time I actually did resign, took another job, cleaned out my office, had a good-bye lunch. Then Becky asked to meet with me. “You’ve been so important to me,” she said. “Please don’t leave.”

Years later, it was she who left, resigning to accept a new position at another university. I knew I would miss her terribly. She’d made me a better writer, but more than that, she gave me the chance to organize a new exec comms program that sent her all over campus and beyond. Arriving alone, with a big purse and sensible shoes, she’d stand on a step so she could reach the podium and deliver each speech at her signature fast clip. 

I responded to her death by banging out some of the comments she’d inserted into speech drafts, which didn’t land well at the time, but now make me laugh. “This reads like a big snooze,” read one. “Did you get this out of a self-help book?” and — a fan favorite — “Why would I EVER say this?”

I’m shipping them off to a company that has promised to  turn them into a coffee mug or a tote bag or a throw pillow.

Becky lived long enough after her diagnosis to write her own obituary, which was — like Becky herself — simple and modest. I badly wanted to respond to her e-mail with a suggested re-write. Something to better capture the extraordinary impact of her leadership.  But I knew what the response would be — I’d seen it before. “This,” she would write, “is exactly what I DID NOT want!”

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