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Friday, March 5, 1999

It is a great privilege to join you in honoring my mother, Pauline LaFon Gore -- who has been an inspiration to me for all of my life.

For nearly 51 years, she has been my teacher and my role model -- the woman who taught me what it means to be part of a close, loving family.

I'm reminded of the words of a writer who said: "no matter how old a mother is she watches her middle-aged children for signs of improvement." So I'm going to be very careful about what I say tonight...

Al with Mom and Karenna
Karenna, Al Gore and his mother Pauline at a family BBQ (136 K)
Vanderbilt gives this award, its very highest honor, to those who "manifest the values of a Vanderbilt University Law School education." I know my mother and Vanderbilt Law School share many of the same values -- because Vanderbilt helped to smash through the glass ceiling in this country by offering my mother a legal education. It was little more than a dozen years after women won the right to vote. She was among the first ten women ever to enroll at this school -- and the only woman in the Class of 1936. Today, nearly half of your graduating class are women.

My mother has always been reluctant to talk about herself. But I think there is a lot about her life and career that speaks to the core mission not just of this law school, but of the law itself -- to deepen human dignity and opportunity, and ensure that everyone can seize the promise of this nation.

Back when my mother applied to Vanderbilt Law School, that promise was out of reach -- not just for women, but for people of color, for farmers who did not have electricity or crop insurance, for older Americans who lacked decent pensions or health care, for those who were hit hard by the Depression -- for all those who had yet to be uplifted by the New Deal, and the ever-expanding circle of social justice of which my parents were so proud to be a part.

For my mother -- and in many ways, for me -- her time at Vanderbilt was an important step on that journey.

She was greatly troubled by the stories my grandfather told her about his struggle to help my grandmother and my great-grandmother inherit land that was rightly theirs. Instead, it went entirely to their brothers. Women weren't supposed to own land in those days. They certainly weren't supposed to become lawyers. As a young girl, those inequalities made a deep impression on my mother. She set out to change them. And she did.

My mother's parents had married at 17. Her father ran a small country store in Cold Corner -- in the First District of Weakley County in Northwest Tennessee -- in a community that didn't even have any radios at the time. Neither of her parents had the chance to get the education they wanted. But they were determined to do better for their children. They moved to Jackson when my mother was in the seventh grade -- partly because it had a better educational system.

She started her education in a one-room schoolhouse in Cold Corner. And her fire for learning was lit from the beginning. In my mother's words, "it never occurred to me that I couldn't go to college. I just knew it was up to me to find a way."

She found a way. First she went to Union College in Jackson; and she insisted on bringing her sister Thelma, who was blind, to college with her; she paid her sister's way, and would take notes and read assignments for both of them. Then my mother enrolled here at Vanderbilt. She scraped her way through by waiting tables at the old Andrew Jackson Hotel, working for 25-cent tips during the Depression. She lived at the downtown YWCA for two dollars a week, took a trolley to her morning classes, and then rushed back to the Andrew Jackson for the dinner shift.

Meanwhile, my father had just started YMCA night law school, even as he worked as Smith County Superintendent of Schools and awoke well before dawn to tend his crops.

As I said at my father's memorial service in December, he must have been sleepy after such long days and nights, facing an hour's drive yet to return from Nashville to Cartage on old Highway 70. So he went looking for coffee, and found it at the Andrew Jackson. He loved to tell the story of how the coffee didn't taste good unless it was poured by that beautiful young woman named Pauline LaFon.

From the day they met, they were partners. They studied together for the bar exam -- and passed it on the same day.

When my mother graduated from Vanderbilt, it was virtually impossible for a woman to find a legal job here in Nashville. So she left for Texarkana, and put up her shingle.

She was the only female attorney in Texarkana, and one of only dozens in the entire nation. She practiced oil and gas law, and also took on divorce cases -- unprecedented for a female attorney back then.

The next year, my father persuaded her to come back as his wife. Soon after, he decided to run for Congress in the old Fourth District. At that time, politicians' wives stayed far in the background. My father wanted my mother right up front with him. It turned out to be a wise decision on his part. Ned McWherter puts it very bluntly: "she is the best politician in the entire family."

In that first campaign, my mother hit the campaign trail with tremendous energy and enthusiasm: speaking at any club meeting that would have her, calling on the wives of well-known men to help in the race, and walking the dirt roads of the district -- from Franklin County to Clay County, and all points in between. On rainy days, she'd sometimes pull off her shoes and wade through the mud to reach people's homes.

She made a big difference in that race. A lot of people supported my father that year because they saw my mother's heart -- how she listened to people, how she understood their concerns, and how she could speak with anyone -- from the downtown businessman, to the farmer struggling to recover from a bad crop.

When my father served the Fourth District, she knew it like the palm of her hand. When he served in the Senate, she got to know this whole state. From Memphis to Mountain City, the concerns of Tennessee's working families were always on her mind.

The people she met and recruited on those early campaigns formed a powerful bond with her, and helped our family for decades. Many of them helped on my own campaigns, more than 40 years later. Many still do.

It wasn't just in that first race that my mother's political skills came to the rescue. In 1952, my father decided to run for the Senate. He was challenging a powerful incumbent, Senator Kenneth D. McKellar, who was the Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. McKellar sought to remind the voters of his power to bring money to the state with his omnipresent slogan: "The thinking feller votes McKellar."

My father would never allow his supporters to remove those McKellar signs. And so my mother came up with the perfect solution. On her advice, every time we found a sign that said "The thinking feller votes McKellar," we put a new sign directly underneath it: "Think some more and vote for Gore." Without that slogan, he might not have won the race.

In 1992, when then-Governor Clinton asked me to join his ticket, she was a favorite on the campaign trail. She and my father took their own bus trip that year -- with Tony Randall, Mitch Miller, and Dr. Ruth.

For my whole career, my mother has given me excellent advice -- and passed on the best advice she's received from others.

My mother was much more than a campaigner. She was my father's closest adviser. And when he took tough and controversial positions, such as his strong support for civil rights, and his opposition to the war in Vietnam -- positions that caused great tension among their colleagues and friends -- she always stood with him. She shared his conscience, and was his strongest supporter.

She loves the history and heritage of this state. After my father passed the bill that created the Interstate Highway system, my mother made sure there was an exit sign for the Hermitage, home of Andrew Jackson -- the namesake of her beloved hometown.

She has always believed in the power of education. She taught it to me and my sister Nancy -- and she taught it to her grandchildren. She carved her own path because of the opportunity she had here at Vanderbilt. That may be why, when she won a humanitarian award last year, she used the money to set up a scholarship fund for aspiring college students from Smith County.

She has always found ways to serve. During World War II, when my father resigned his seat in Congress to enlist, my mother helped with the war effort as well. At first, she volunteered for her friend and role model Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House, answering letters from those who poured their hearts out, looking for hope at a time of distress. She then volunteered at the Red Cross, interviewing young women who wanted to go overseas to help with the war effort.

After my father left the Senate, my mother finally returned to her legal career -- first at a firm she opened with my father, then as the managing partner at a large firm in Washington. During her law firm years, she liked to advise young women who were considering legal careers -- so they could walk the trails she had blazed, and make the legal profession more open and equal for all.

Maybe it was just her way of redeeming the struggles her mother and grandmother could never win in their time.

It has been said that when you educate a woman, you educate a whole family. I feel that is true of my mother.

She still loves the law, and the promise it holds for erasing life's inequalities.

She still cares deeply about the working families of this state, from the farms to the factories to the office towers of downtown Nashville.

I know that as long as I am privileged to serve Tennessee and America, I will carry the lessons she taught me -- and the values she passed on to me.

For I believe it is true that "a mother is not a person to lean upon, but a person to make leaning unnecessary."

And that may be the greatest gift she has given -- not just to me, but to generations of women in public life -- and to the Tennessee families whose cares have been her concern.

Congratulations, mom, on a wonderful career -- and on the high honor you have earned, and so richly deserve. Thank you.



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