If I had stuck strictly to my Wisdom Road mantra of finding “overlooked” voices in America, I would have missed the remarkable opportunity to spend time with J.P. Bryan yesterday in Marathon, TX. I doubt J.P. has been overlooked for much in his life. He is a long time business leader in finance and oil and gas; a large-scale rancher; and, along with his wife Mary Jon, a philanthropist in a wide range of areas, including art, education, and Texas history. He happens to be a direct descendant of the sister of Stephen F. Austin, titular founder of the Texas Republic, all of which may mean that if there were a “Mr. Texas”, it might be J.P.
None of that is why I have decided for the first time on Wisdom Road to write a two-part blog about one interviewee.
J.P. kindly set aside an hour yesterday for our interview; that ran over to almost two hours, after which he asked if I wanted to stay an extra night in Marathon so we could continue our conversation over dinner. I have learned on the trip to never say no to this kind of invitation.
Tomorrow or the next day I will post a normal blog with direct quotes from J.P., but I wanted to provide extra context first. J.P. is a strong conservative, with equally strong and well-defended views. That is not unusual for Wisdom Road. What is unique so far, is how J.P. articulated the framework that supports his value system. He grew up in segregated Texas, in a powerfully religious family and community. “No matter what church you attended”, he said, “everyone believed in a Creator, an ultimate authority of right and wrong.” He strongly believes that the drift towards secularism in America lies at the root of the degradation of our civility, our norms, many of our family life and community problems, and more. Lacking that ultimate authority, he believes we do not have a shared understanding or respect for what is true, respect for parental and law enforcement authority, and more.
One might think that he and I would disagree on most everything; I take a more balanced view of spiritual and secular authority. But hearing J.P. explain the basis of his value system allowed me to understand his life experience and the choices and actions that follow. And, while there are certainly a number of things upon which we disagree, there are also MANY values we agree on. When J.P., for example, speaks about what he values in an education, “teaching kids to take a set of objective facts and learn to form their OWN opinions and analysis; teaching them HOW to operate as an effective team and solve problems; how to THINK”, he might have taken pages out of my own books or slide decks. His family placed a high priority on giving back, even when they were not wealthy, and he provides support for education in underserved, primarily black, neighborhoods in Texas inner city. He thinks that understanding history is vital for all kids, and is looking into creative ways to make history come to life for them.
We discussed immigration, race, politics, anger and divisions in our country, and more. We did not dig deeply but I am absolutely convinced that if I spent a week with J.P. we both would learn from the other. We might or might not change our views in any fundamental way, but that is not the point. The point is to understand “the other” enough that we can engage in civil conversation and MAYBE find solutions somewhere in the middle.
I was truly humbled by this experience. He sounded pretty darn sincere in telling me that he had enjoyed our conversation; I know that Texans can be generous and respectful, but he really did not have to ask me to dinner!
The next post will be longer than usual, though I certainly will not post everything he shared; you’ll have to wait for the book for that. I will say, that in the ten-hour drive I just made down to South Texas on the Rio Grande, I had plenty of time to think about “what if” I got to speak with him again some time.