Occupation: Professor at Stanford University/Former U.S. Secretary of State
What’s on her Plate: Her recent induction into Augusta National Golf Club. Also, serving as the honorary chairwoman for the Birmingham Civil Rights Commemoration in September.
How have your Southern roots shaped your life?
Once you’re of the South, you’re always of the South. Even though I left Birmingham and moved to Colorado when I was 12, if people ask me where I am from, I immediately say “the South.” I think it’s because of my Southern roots that I have a strong emphasis on family, faith and, well, food.
What’s your favorite Southern dish?
Fried chicken! My grandmother made great fried chicken and passed her recipe on to my mother, and they both passed it on to me. It’s the exact same recipe that has been shared among all of the women in my family, although we didn’t have a written recipe. I learned by being in the kitchen with them.
This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” What was it like to live in Birmingham at a time when the South was still racially segregated?
It was like living in parallel societies. We didn’t go to school, restaurants, or movie theaters with white people. We lived two completely separate lives. I was lucky because I grew up in Titusville, a middle-class neighborhood in Birmingham, so we had our own ballet, piano, and French lessons.
What memory of growing up at that time has stayed with you?
It seems strange now to have a racial charge centered around Santa Claus. But, when I was 5, I remember going to see Santa with my mama and daddy. The Santa Claus was placing the little black kids to the side of him and putting the white kids on his knee. My father noticed this, and I heard him say to my mom: “If he does that to Condi, I am going to pull off his costume and expose him for who he really is.” Santa must have read my father’s body language, and when I got up there he put me right on his knee.
How would you describe the South to someone who has never visited?
Because I lived in Alabama during segregation, the South reminds me of how much people can overcome and how the human spirit is irrepressible. When I go back to Birmingham now, it is such a different city than I grew up in. Then, I couldn’t have a hamburger at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. Still, my parents had me absolutely convinced that I could become the President of the United States. Instead I became the Secretary of State.
What’s your very favorite Southern place?
My father’s church, Westminster Presbyterian, in Birmingham. It still stands, and I love to go there. I sit in the pew, and I can almost see my father at the pulpit and my mother at the organ. It is just wonderfully affirming of who they were, what they left me, and the centrality of church growing up.
Your parents were both teachers. What did they teach you?
They would say, “Condi, you’ll have to be twice as good.” That was their answer for overcoming prejudice. I still say it to my students now. Even if you don’t think you’ll face prejudice, being twice as good is a good way to be prepared for life.
And what’s the best advice your mama gave?
I started playing the piano when I was 3. When I was 10 years old, I declared that I wanted to quit. My mom, who was a musician, said, “You’re not good enough or old enough to make that decision.” So she’s the reason I got to play with Yo-Yo Ma and play for the Queen of England.
I know you love football! Where does this deep passion for the sport come from?
I was supposed to be my dad’s All-American linebacker! But I was born female, and I am an only child. He was a semipro football player, a coach, and a high school athletic director. Most of my early memories with my dad are around football. I am a huge fan of the sport. I still root for the Alabama Crimson Tide and, of course, Stanford.
When you heard that you were going to be one of the first two women to be admitted to Augusta National, what went through your mind?
People who are “first” don’t set out to be first; they just don’t see barriers. Whenever those firsts come along in life, you think of all the people who have come before you. When I was asked to be one of the first women to join Augusta National Golf Club, I thought about all of the other women who could have been members. I think it’s good that it’s finally happened. I’m just honored to be in that first class of women at a great Southern institution and one of the most incredible courses to golf in the world.
Do you have fond memories of your childhood in Birmingham, despite living there during racial segregation?
Oh, absolutely, absolutely! Life was really busy and active. We were always having church pageants and vacation Bible school. And every year my friends and I would have a doll party. We would bring all our dolls and then have a contest for whose doll was dressed the best. We learned to make our own fun.
What brings out your Southernness?
Talking to another Southerner. When I pick up the phone and there’s a fellow Southerner on the other end, my drawl comes out. It’s just natural.
Speaking of Southern drawls, what’s your favorite Southern expression?
Southerners are great at contractions. “Y’all” is used by everybody, but there’s also “Mama an’em.” Which means, “mother and those people,” or “mother and all of those people. ” Only a Southerner would get “Mama an’em!” out of that.
Golf is a passion for you, but you didn’t come to the sport until later in life, correct?
That’s right. Growing up I was a competitive figure skater. Not a very good one, but I worked hard! At about age 18 I realized that skating was not an adult sport and took up tennis instead. In 2005, I went on vacation at The Greenbrier in West Virginia. I took a golf lesson there and loved it. From then on, I was hooked. I was Secretary of State at the time, and I think the fellow golfers in the administration found it funny that I decided to pick it up such a time-intensive sport at a period in my life when I had no time!
As a former Secretary of State you’ve faced more stressful situations than most people will ever know. How do you stay calm in all situations?
Well, I try to stay calm in all situations, but I’m not sure that I always succeed. I don’t think any of us were calm for instance on September 11th. Remaining calm is something I work hard at, I really do. I do tell myself, “You have to stay calm. You have to keep your head about you.” If you’re running around and your hair is on fire, then you’re not going to be very effective with dealing with whatever is in front of you. In that regard, I think being religious helps. In moments like that, I’ll just stop and pray for calm and for resolve.
Finally, what is life like now? Catch us up a little bit—what makes you happy?
Well, I’ve been on faculty at Stanford since I was 25 so I’ve returned to my normal habitat. I teach, I am writing some, and I am consulting for American companies doing business abroad. I’m also, believe it or not, practicing the piano a lot these days because I’m playing benefit concerts around the country for kids’ music programs. And I’m playing golf when I can. It’s not often enough, but I get out at least once a week to play.