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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 10, 2006

Little mud on boots didn't hurt

By Lee Cataluna
Advertiser Columnist

Good for David McClain. He's living the mid-life dream.

He has prestige without notoriety. Respect without fawning. Opposition without scandal.

He has retirement security without selling out, a challenging job, worthy opponents.

He has the promise of return to his first love, teaching, and a definite exit date should the gig turn out to be a nightmare.

He very publicly lived out the fantasy of trying to retire while a chorus of high-placed people cried, "No! No! You must not leave! We need you!"

Clayton Hee is gunning for him, Kitty Lagareta is nice to him. What more could a man ask for?

There used to be a saying around the sugar industry about plantation managers: A good farmer always has the dirt from the field on his boots meaning that crops don't thrive unless the guy at the top gets out of the koa-table office and walks among the rows every now and then.

McClain has managed to keep his feet in the fields and his eye on the goal. And bless his heart, the goal for him has not been to keep his job or to parlay it into a run for political office.

Just weeks after he took over for the embattled Evan Dobelle, the Billy Flynn of Academic Administration, McClain literally had the Manoa mud on his boots as he walked through the aftermath of the campus flooding and assured wan academics that things would be OK. Dobelle, for all his polish and slide, wouldn't have pulled off the sweaty T-shirt and work boot "we'll clean all this up" speech.

And that has been a big factor in McClain's popularity: he is not Evan Dobelle. He is more measured, more diplomatic, less brash. His style of quiet strength has played well in this town. He has let protesters protest and rabble rousers rant without taking umbrage. He has put to work his policy of the freedom of inquiry crucial to scholarly pursuits.

To be sure, there are snaggly points in his transition from "Only Interim" to "OK, Kitty, but only for three years."

For one, he has to eat his words about the best candidate for UH president being willing to commit to a term of at least seven years.

For another, he questioned the ethics of an interim president running for the permanent job. He didn't run, though. He was drafted by the party.

In any case, the rest of the dream usually goes like this: he makes great contributions in his last years, gets a building named after him and then happily heads back to the classroom with summers for grandchildren and book writing and golf ... leaving Clayton and Kitty to duke it out in 2009.

Lee Cataluna's column runs Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach her at 535-8172 or lcataluna@honoluluadvertiser.com.