Tom Dean, Office of the President
In August 2000, UI president Mary Sue Coleman hired Tom Dean to put words in her mouth. Officially, Dean’s title is Special Assistant to the President for Communications and Research, and since that time he’s done the same for five presidents, helping them craft speeches, letters, and other permutations of the spoken and written word. Dean, who earned his PhD in English at Iowa in 1991, also spent a year as a program assistant in the University of Iowa Honors Program and currently serves as an adjunct assistant professor in leisure studies. This breadth of University experience helps him better understand the arena in which UI presidents work and communicate.
What does your job entail?
I’m the writer and editor in the office. Speechwriting is the bulk of what I do, but I also do some letter writing, work on reports, and participate in other aspects of presidential communication. People will also draft letters and bring them to me to look over and edit, and I serve as a liaison with many other University offices when words from the president are needed. In addition, there is a “special projects” aspect to my job, and that covers a number of things. For example, I help organize the Presidential Lecture every year, as well as the President’s Award for State Outreach and Public Engagement, which David Skorton instituted. There are also one-time projects I take on: for example, along with Steve Parrott, I organized activities for the Year of Public Engagement.
Writing words for another person sounds challenging enough, but you’ve done it for five different presidents. How do you capture the voice of a president when you’re writing his or her speeches and correspondence?
Really, just listening is the most important part. When a new president comes into office, I make a point of going to events so I can hear them. If they’ve been at the University for a while [as was the case with interim presidents Willard Boyd and Gary Fethke and President David Skorton] I might find archived editions of Talk of Iowa and speeches to get an idea of their voice. If they’re coming from another institution, I’ll listen to and read the speeches they’ve given. When President Mason was hired, I was able to go to Purdue and meet with Martin Jischke’s speechwriter, who also did work for President Mason and who shared some of her speeches with me.
How do you go about writing speeches?
It’s always a consultative process and actually has gotten easier. It’s partly personality—President Mason and I “clicked” pretty quickly. I’d known David Skorton fairly well before he became president. President Coleman was probably the biggest challenge for me because it was the first time I’d done it.
The process is different for each president. President Skorton usually wrote the first draft of his major speeches, and then various drafts and revisions would go back and forth between us. It also depends on the event: for some of the more major speeches, such as commencements, installations, and annual addresses to the Joint Service Clubs, there is more back and forth. For some smaller events, such as event welcomes or meetings with alumni in various communities, the president might just want a list of talking points. President Boyd had what he called his “stump speech.” He knew exactly what he wanted to say. President Mason and I will usually have a conversation—we meet every week or two to discuss upcoming events. She’s very interested in telling specific stories about students, faculty, and staff. She may have been in someone’s lab or met someone she’d like to highlight. That’s where research comes in. As an academic, I really enjoy that aspect of my work.
How many speeches per year do you write?
September, October, and April tend to be the busiest times on the calendar. President Mason has been very willing to accept invitations: one day she had five events. Since she came on board Aug. 1, she’s done more than 100 events for which I’ve written. These range from commencement to community service club events, to talks with local newspapers and alumni around the state.
What’s a typical day or week like for you?
For the most part it’s pretty stable, occasionally punctuated by the unexpected. Crisis situations, such as the shootings at Virginia Tech for which President Fethke needed a statement and then had a memorial service, require quick action. Otherwise, it’s doing writing and research for speeches, report introductions, letters, etc. We typically write letters of condolence, congratulations, and special invitation.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
I really care for The University of Iowa a lot. Being a part of this place and helping to shape its image and tell its story is something I enjoy. It’s fascinating to see up close how the University works, but not to have to make the decisions myself. I also enjoy the challenge of collaborating with talented people and writing in someone else’s voice. And because I come from an academic background, I enjoy the research: for example, for President Mason’s installation speech, she wanted to do a “countdown” of past UI presidents, and I was able to do some fun and interesting research for that.
What’s the most challenging part?
Coming up with new ideas for recurring events can be challenging. But I always keep in mind that although I’ve written a speech for University faculty retirees seven times, this is the first time these people have heard it and that it’s very important to them.
Did you want to be a speechwriter when you grew up?
From what I’ve heard and read, I don’t think any speechwriters ever imagined this is what they’d wind up doing. It’s a matter of circumstance and your background that leads you to it. I wanted to teach—that’s why I got a PhD—and started out as a faculty member at several institutions, but my wife and I fell in love with Iowa City when I was in school here and wanted to return. I decided I was willing to be a part of academia but give up the tenure track when I took a job with the honors program. People there thought I had the perfect background—I was a writer and I was familiar with the University because I was a graduate and a staff member—and encouraged me to apply for this job when [former speechwriter] Mary Lynn Grant retired. I feel really privileged to be making my living as a professional writer.
Tell us about your “other gig” at the University.
I teach Introduction to Place Studies and The Good Society, which used to be part of the Literature, Sciences, and the Arts program and are now part of Leisure Studies. While getting my PhD, I was particularly interested in environmental and nature writing, along with Midwestern regionalism. Place Studies is a coalescing of disciplines—urban and regional planning, geography, service learning, environmental studies, and others—with an interest in natural, built, social, and cultural environments. I founded the Iowa Project on Place Studies, which I call a “loose confederation” of people who come together, mostly informally, to share information. We have sponsored some symposia on place, including three “Wild Iowa” conferences in collaboration with the Agrestal Fund of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. In addition, we work with the Iowa City Public Library on Weber Days and the Irving B. Weber Chautauqua Series. I also have taught in the College Transition program, both the first-year student and transfer student versions, as well as with the Iowa Summer Writing Festival.
Since place is so important to you, what are your favorite places?
I’m in one of them. I really love Iowa City as a community and I love the Midwestern, prairie landscape. Northern Minnesota is also one of my favorite places: my family and I started going to some cabins in the Ely area about seven years ago. Reading, writing, and doing research about a place I love becomes an important dimension of how I relate to that place.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
My family and I are involved in greyhound rescue and we have four greyhounds. The most recent to join us is a 3-and-a-half year old named Spinner who ran away from his previous home.
Another surprise might be that I love to read comic books. I was an inveterate comic collector as a kid and still enjoy picking them up. Give me a Spiderman comic book and I’m happy.
by Linzee Kull McCray