By James P. Cramer

May 14, 2011

Good afternoon and congratulations to you!

This is an exciting day. You are graduating and it is special for all of us who are gathered here. We celebrate your success together. It is a hopeful time. You are graduating from this fine college – The Fay Jones College at the University of Arkansas.

Now, I do not want to throw cold water on our celebrations today, but I do need to remind you of something you already know. There is a problem with success. Success does not have much staying power. No, you have to keep on being a success. That takes courage.

Moreover, if you decide to coast for a while it will take you down the path toward irrelevancy, decline, even obsolescence. There is only one way to coast: Downhill.

However, you are a professional who can regenerate success throughout your life.

Right now, there are some big opportunities for you. It occurres to me how relevant the Fay Jones story is.

In 1983, I met Fay Jones for the first time. It was in Minneapolis. He was the American Institute of Architect’s keynoter at their annual state convention. It was a cool and an altogether gorgeous day. His enthusiasm filled the hall with the power of his descriptions of making architecture and about the architect’s responsibility in place-making. You of course know that he was the creator of some very special places: Thorncrown Chapel, Cooper Memorial, Pinecote Pavilion, many memorable residences. They are as familiar historically as those by Saarinen, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Lou Khan.

Fay Jones was a quiet presenter, and so the conference hall in Minneapolis was hushed because no one wanted to miss any of his thoughtful nuggets. He was humble, almost apologetic. His persona was warm and his ideas infectious. He made friends fast. He was such a hit.

There were some paradoxes, too. Fay Jones did not know how good he really was. If he did, he hid it. Following his presentation in Minnesota, which included the obligatory Kodak carousel slide trays spanning over an hour, he engaged his audience in candid back-and-forth conversations. When one of the architects in the crowd said, “What a great presentation,” Fay blushed, stammered a moment and said, “Well, when you see a turtle on a fence post you know that he must have had some help!”

This was our first encounter. I decided to work my way to the front of the room and toward the podium to thank him for his speech and for his inspirational work. While we had not met before, I remember feeling comfortable approaching him. He did not intimidate. I just wanted to shake his hand and say thank you. My feeling then was that even a brief moment with this architect from Arkansas would be satisfying.

That would be the first of many rich encounters and thoughtful discussions about his work, his love of this university, his curiosity and hopes for the future of architecture and the profession.

When I think of Fay Jones, I recall images that for me have meaning and inspire action. He was a man whose energy seemed always to engage.

I am not an expert on his buildings. Not really. Not like the architectural historians. However, I have come to appreciate them immensely – even passionately. I am not an architect. Nevertheless, my passion for design and the profession of architecture eventually led me from publishing and education to become the national chief executive of the American Institute of Architects. I served in this position from late 1980s, to the mid-‘90s.

At the December 1989 board meeting of the AIA, Fay Jones was one of three finalists for the Gold Medal. You must understand that this is a serious deliberation and solemn decision for the national board. They study this with about as much discipline as 49 directors can muster. After all, the Gold Medal is the highest honor that the Institute bestows.

Past recipients include Renzo Piano, Santiago Calatrava, Tadao Ando, Lord Norman Foster, and Thomas Jefferson. Fay Jones was elected in December 1989 and received the award in 1990.

It is a tradition at the Institute that following the final vote procedure of the board’s directors, a phone call is placed to the winner no matter where in the world the recipient may be.

Of course, Fay’s reaction was one of complete disbelief. He was quiet as he contemplated it all. He was most grateful, not really believing that this could be happening – not to him. His humble likability was palpable.

His AIA Gold Medal was presented to him in early 1990 at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. It was a grand affair of about 800. Prince Charles was there, as were Brooke Shields and Tom Selleck. Past Gold Medal winners showed up to honor him: I.M. Pei, Pietro Belluschi, Joe Esherick, and others. There were senators and administrative policy makers, a Supreme Court justice. It was as big a gala as the profession had ever had.

A few years later in the mid 1990s, Fay attended a watershed meeting of the profession in LaJolla, Calif. He was there with a dozen thinkers and design talents. Dr. Jonas Salk led this particular session in 1994. Our meetings were in the library at the Salk Institute. Dr. Salk was the creator of the Salk vaccine that would end the polio epidemic in most of North America and much of the world.

We stayed at the LaJolla Racquet and Beach Club. It is an old, somewhat creaky club right on the ocean. I had a room right next to Fay’s, and it was there that I learned he enjoyed singing in the shower!

From this meeting in LaJolla and at the meeting rooms off that library at the Salk Institute the seeds were sown for the formation of the Design Futures Council. Fay was enthusiastic to help create a think tank to explore the future. He believed that architects, landscape architects, urban planners, and interior designers needed to be better prepared and have more voice to shape the future.

He always inserted into our discussions the importance of design, and he suggested possible strategies that could give increasing influence to design professions that are too often underleveraged.

Fay Jones was such a pleasant and constructive character at our meetings. In LaJolla and in Washington, D.C., he contributed to the birthing of the Design Futures Council.

Before I finish, allow me to share with you five takeaway thoughts you can use as you advance in the future.

Fay Jones values and vision are relevant to everyone here today at graduation. This is a time of your success, poised for new and even more relevant success. Here is what Fay Jones would be thinking is important, I believe.

1. First is the love of people. He appreciated each of his colleagues, clients, and students. Friendship! He saw his purpose in life simply: to improve the condition of all those he would meet. He loved his students, and he appreciated all those who would ultimately use his buildings. His vision was people-centered, and he saw that architecture could uplift and dignify the human condition.

2. The second was his love of the University of Arkansas. The architecture school was a serious passion. He was an ambassador. He was motivated to make it better day by day.

He said that he would always be a student of architecture. He talked about his time with Frank Lloyd Wright but also of modernists like Edward Durrell Stone and Alvar Alto. His niche was different from others in the profession, but this never went to his head. His ego was grounded in the past and future potential of the University of Arkansas.

3. He had big ideas. He thought on a grand scale, but his architecture was always human-scale. The design details were just plainly sweet and noticeable – even to the untrained eye. He shared with me the fee schedule for Thorncrown Chapel. The business model was a straight 12 percent fee. That was tight. That would be less than $18,000. Thereafter, he shifted to a different monetary relationship to capture the value of great architecture. However, he was never greedy. He was always professional. His billing methods changed with Thorncrown and his backlog of work continued to grow.

4. His perceptions, his global views, were always positive. He was quick to say yes. He was fond of new methods to support students and faculty.

He was not hesitant to speak up for the profession – very politely. He knew that attitudes underpin design solutions, and he was full of positive ideas. He did not hesitate to advocate for Fayetteville. He believed it was his mission to defend Frank Lloyd Wright. He usually saw the best in people, and he had energy to work hard to benefit other people. When Thomas Monahan, the founder of Dominos Pizza, commissioned Fay to do a very big project, Fay argued for restraint. Fay prevailed, even though that project would be halted by Monahan’s life-changing, faith-based decisions.

5. He imagined a better future. He thought in scenarios, and when faced with problems he tended to see the opposite of the problem. He played his part in visioning a better future.

I did not personally experience any cynicism from this architect.

He did get depressed, yes. He saw world events in a sober reality. However, he would then re-imagine the potential of our time. He never stopped believing in the power of good design and what he called “operative opposites.”

He told me of a different design he imagined for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. He said, “I would wrap a house around the waterfall rather than hover over it.” Both are organic approaches but different. Operative opposites. His leadership style was about making and seizing opportunities, not sitting home consumed by TV pundits but rather by going out, listening, learning, and contributing with vision.

Those are the five:

  1. To love and enjoy people – to be a friend
  2. To love and advance the University of Arkansas
  3. To love the power of design at a human scale
  4. To have positive views that underpin strategies and ongoing success
  5. To imagining a better future – refresh visions that bring health to humankind.
  6. His success never went to his head, but his legacy is in our minds.

I want to close by saying it is especially satisfying to be with you today. Moreover, there is a bit of Fay Jones here in this hall today. As we reflect on him, we can feel his spirit. I can see him in my mind’s eye, slide by slide.

Thank you, President. Thank you, Dean. Thank you, Chairmen. Thank you, parents. Thank you, extended family. Thank you, Fay Jones. Thank you, graduates for setting up this moment poised for your future success. Keep it growing!

Just as Fay’s work was sweet and courageous, yours can inspire, too. Fay would say that you are very special. All of us agree. You are special.

Congratulations and best wishes.