Remarks by the Honorable Shirley N. Pettis-Roberson celebrating the dedication of the Jerry L. Pettis & Shirley N. Pettis congressional papers
The following remarks were given by the Honorable Shirley N. Pettis-Roberson during the celebration and dedication of the Jerry L. Pettis & Shirley N. Pettis congressional papers, to be housed in the Del E. Webb Memorial Library on the campus of Loma Linda University.
Her remarks were made during a special convocation at the Loma Linda University Church of Seventh-day Adventists on Wednesday, November 28, 2007.
I’m so pleased to be among you today. I know that many of you have traveled some distance to share in this special occasion.
And Barbara, thank you, my dear friend, for making time in your hectic schedule.
And I thank each of you who’ve chosen to be here today. Indeed, as I gaze out, I’m heartened by the presence of so many friends and you students who are shaping our future.
Loma Linda has been a special place to Jerry and me, and I’m so honored that this great University will house the joint record of our congressional service. These papers capture a dynamic instant in our country’s history, from the turbulence of Vietnam through to the post-Watergate era.
This was a period when the “baby boomers” were coming of age politically and making their voices heard loud and clear, both metaphorically, and quite literally. Sacred traditions and institutions were being shaken to their cores. There was much debate within the citizenry and it was not always civil.
However, as the late 1970s gave way to the 1980s, our fundamental way of life was re-affirmed. Discordant rhetoric gave way to reasoned, respectful, yet still passionate, discourse.
We came to better appreciate the strength in our diversity, while recognizing that we are united by the essence of what makes us each American: freedom and the majesty within each single one of us to contribute and make a difference.
My opportunity to serve in Congress was literally thrust upon me by fate. My husband, Jerry, was just over a month into his fifth term, when in February, 1975, he perished in an airplane accident.
A special election was held, and less than three months later I succeeded him as representative in the 37th district.
To say that period in my life was overwhelming, is decidedly an understatement. Though I’d been a congressional wife for eight years, I was now entering into the sanctum of the “old boy’s club.”
At that time, only 18 House members were of the female persuasion. Indeed, shortly after my swearing-in, a well-known senior member mistook me for a secretary, to which I responded, “I’m pleased to meet you. I’m your new congressional neighbor just down the hall.”
I came to rely on keeping a sense of humor.
Besides being outnumbered gender-wise, literally by better than 25 to 1, I was the newest member—thus with the lowest seniority—in the minority party, where House Democrats outnumbered Republicans by better than two to one. This was the stark reality against which I contemplated my future service in Congress. One option, readily available, and quite frankly, expected of any freshman member, was to lay low, not make waves, and simply go along to get along.
But I saw an opportunity, instead, to continue Jerry’s distinguished legacy and to try and make a difference.
Jerry hailed from Arizona. He grew up in the desert, cherished it, and wanted to see it protected and preserved.
Jerry carried this passion for the land into adulthood. Indeed, he was a dedicated environmentalist, which frankly, did not align with the priorities of his Republican colleagues.
Indeed, at that time, environmentalists were typified by boisterous youth of the radical left. And more pointedly, there was no serious advocacy among the Republican constituency.
That didn’t deter Jerry, however. He championed for the preservation and protection of desert lands. His House colleagues listened respectfully and perhaps bemusedly.
Jerry was no left-wing crackpot. He was one of them, a Republican, with a distinguished record in the military, academia, and the world of business.
Besides, Jerry represented a district in which 96 percent of the total land mass was public, yet overseen by a hodgepodge of governmental authorities.
Jerry sensed an opportunity to help fashion legislation which would consolidate these responsibilities and bring order to fragmented, inefficient, and inconsistent land use policies.
He saw the necessity to take stock of these vast land resources in the unique desert Southwest, to preserve their value for current and future generations.
Clearly, in the political landscape of that time, despite Jerry’s popularity and persuasive demeanor, this cause did not sufficiently resonate among his colleagues. However, he opened the door for future discussion.
Upon my election, it became my calling to pick up the banner, to advance the conversation, and in my fantasy vision, to get some smidgeon of legislation on the books.
Of course, I also had to confront the reality of my situation being the newest kid on the block, in the minority gender, and in the minority party.
Thus, pragmatically, I sought out others having similar interests and necessarily from both sides of the aisle. Further, I sought out a complementary committee assignment: to Interior and Insular Affairs.
And my request was readily granted, as this was not one of the more sought-after positions. However, this seat supported my personal objective.
I shared Jerry’s passion and found myself thoroughly consumed, devouring countless pages of research and testimony late into many evenings.
One particular issue under our committee’s review truly resonated with me: strip mining.
The debate distilled as follows: whether companies engaged in strip-mining should be required to restore scarred acreage, to clean up the debris left by their efforts, and pointedly, could these added costs be economically justified?
Recall, this was an era when chemical companies dumped effluents into rivers without regard.
Within the committee, the political divide was clear, if not predictable: The majority Democrats favored restoration of the land while the Republicans were focused more on the potential financial consequences on companies and their surrounding communities, and frankly hoped to maintain the status quo.
Notably, I received a call from President Ford, just prior to our vote, encouraging me to support my Republican colleagues. I thanked him for his interest, but as was my custom, I relied on my study of the issue, where I had carefully weighed the merits of both sides.
And when it came time to vote, I sided with my conscience and not with my party.
The ranking member was utterly dismayed and shocked that I did not offer my support. I responded that he never actually asked for my opinion, and that my vote reflected my careful review of the issues, and that he should never take my point of view for granted.
My come-uppance impressed the committee chair, and provided an opening to advance my particular interest: preservation of our desert public lands.
Indeed, this cause was readily supported by the Democratic majority. They picked up on Jerry’s original vision, and amplified it to encompass a revamp of disparate pieces of land management legislation, some literally dating back to the Colonial era.
This was an exciting time. I found common ground with many—frankly, more from the other side of the aisle.
In my mind it’s a blur… so many meetings, hearings, and late nights. But less than a year into my first term, a bill emerged which would become a landmark piece of environmental legislation: The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976.
This new law consolidated literally hundreds of disparate governmental authorities and encompassed virtually all public federal lands in the United States.
Under the aegis of the Bureau of Land Management, there would be an accounting of all public lands, and more unified oversight to ensure their productivity for the present and sustainability for the future.
To my particular interest, this bill established the “California Desert Conservation Area,” which broadened the reach of Joshua Tree National Monument, and established the first environmental reviews for use and development of lands beyond the park boundaries.
Notably, these protections would be further amplified by the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, which upgraded Joshua Tree to national park status.
There’s a lesson here which speaks to my motivation in sharing these anecdotes:
First, each of us can make a difference every day and in everything we do.
Further, we need the company and support of others, for none of us works alone.
Individuals, with drive and belief in their objectives, can serve as effective catalysts. But great results ultimately come from exciting others, and motivating them to the cause.
There’s nothing easy here. Realistically, results do not come as fast, or even as anticipated, but they do come with sustained belief in yourself and commitment to others.
This, I hope, distills the legacy of our joint congressional records, which, again, I am so honored to dedicate today.
In this great University, where Jerry spent 17 joyous years as a professor, administrator, and chairman of the Board of Councilors, here will sit a slice of our government in action, from the perspective of two humble participants.
Ultimately, I hope these papers reinforce the privilege and honor of service, and the possibilities within each one of us to contribute and make a difference.
Once again, thank you all for participating today in this special occasion.