Best Job in the World!

November 10, 2011

Currents Magazine, Featured

Winona State alumnus Terry Lierman ’69 performs a delicate political balancing act as chief of staff for Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer. Writer Shari Kiple caught up with Lierman at his Capitol office, which looks out towards the White House and National Mall.  

“It’s the best job in the world,” says Terry Lierman ’69, emerging from the ornate office of U.S. Representative Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland). “It combines policy, politics, management, and working with a terrific boss. There are very few jobs in the world where you can do all that.”

 

As chief of staff, he works with policy and moves legislation forward while interacting with the White House as well as Congressional and other regional offices. He also manages Hoyer’s leadership team and communicates with a myriad of other constituencies. What makes him most proud? “Being at the center of the storm and working on priorities that will impact Americans for generations.”

He joined Hoyer’s staff in 2007. They met, however, years earlier when Hoyer attended a party Lierman was hosting for then Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. The two have been friends ever since.

“It’s not very often you can know someone as a friend and then work in the trenches every day and respect that person even more than you did before,” he says. “Sometimes I wonder if he’s the big brother I always wanted.”

Raised in the small town of Shopiere, Wisconsin, he has two older sisters. Their father tended bar and their mother worked nights at a factory.

“My father gave me $20 when he dropped me off at Winona State,” recalls Lierman, a political science major who put himself through college by sweeping boathouse floors each morning and stocking groceries most nights.

Today Lierman is a long way from Winona State, but he remains grateful. “Winona State, through various experiences, internships, and professors, propelled me toward my interest in public service. Professors [Ahmed] El Afandi and [Jim] Eddy took me under their wings and helped me get an internship with the city manager in Winona.” After that, he landed a student assistant position for the chancellor of the Minnesota State University system.

Those internships, he says, allowed him to apply his education in real and tangible ways. They also made him rethink his plans to become a teacher.

After graduating with honors from Winona State, he pursued his master’s at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during the height of Vietnam War protests. “Looking back, it was an amazing time: tear gas, presence of the National Guard, protests day after day.”

A conscientious objector to the draft, Lierman saw a chance to serve through public service and politics. His education, internships, and life experiences, he says, “led me to believe I could make a difference. What better place to make a difference than Washington, D.C.?”

He graduated from UW-Madison in 1971 and planned a move to the nation’s capital. How he would get there is a story of perfect timing.

While distributing anti-war leaflets door-to-door for the Quakers, Lierman met Ed McManus from the National Institutes of Health. “We became fast friends,” he recalls. Their connection led to an internship with the NIH, the first step of his career in Washington.

After the NIH, he became director of the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations. Lierman left in 1980 to create a healthcare lobbying and public relations firm and start other related ventures. He returned to politics in 2003 as national finance co-chair for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, helping raise $51 million, then a groundbreaking amount. From 2004 until his appointment as Hoyer’s chief of staff, he chaired the Maryland Democratic Party.

His career path has taken turns over the years; his faith in public service has not wavered. “One of the things I’m most proud of is my volunteer efforts. If it’s a priority, you make the time.”

He has most definitely made the time. Lierman is dedicated to helping others:  by founding the Pancreatic Cancer Network, founding and chairing the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, serving as vice chair of UNICEF, and founding the Children’s Research Institute at the Children’s National Medical Center. At Winona State, he created a scholarship for political science students involved in service.

“I believe the most noble thing one can do is public service,” he says. “That can come in many forms, be it elected official, public servant, or volunteer in the community.”  

What sparks this passion for service?

“For me, everything comes down to human rights. If people are treated with respect, if they have self-worth and a sense of purpose, that equates into good things happening. I believe things always come around in circles. Look at what has happened in my life. I’m the most blessed person you’ll ever meet.”

Terry Lierman ’69 comments on issues other than national policy and politics:

Paying for college:  “The crazy thing is that you can’t work your way through college now like I did. There’s such a disparity of what you get paid and what higher education costs. That’s a huge disincentive to students today.”

Making a difference:  “You don’t see protests [like those I saw at the University of Wisconsin] as much anymore. Our campuses have gone silent at a time when we need them most.” How to make your voice heard? “Letters to the editor, opinion pieces, peaceful protests, campaign involvement, and conversations with your elected officials.”

Staying true to your roots: “If you’re from the Midwest you are the heart of this country for other than geographic reasons.”

Quoting a favorite: “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”  (Aesop)

Memorable words: “Children are living messages we send to a time that we will not see. What message are we sending through our daily deeds?”

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About Winona State University

Founded in 1858, Winona State University is a comprehensive public university with more than 8,500 students. The oldest member of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System, Winona State offers 80 undergraduate, pre-professional, licensure, graduate, and doctorate programs on its three campuses: the original Main Campus in Winona, the West Campus in Winona, and Winona State University-Rochester.

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