Despite high profile jobs and a very public life, former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel tries to remain private.
“I think keeping a little corner for yourself is really important to keep yourself balanced rather than trying to be on the stage all the time and trying to deal with the glare of publicity,” Hagel said.
But that “glare of publicity” has been stronger than ever. Especially since President Barack Obama nominated Hagel for secretary of defense on Jan. 7.
Publicity comes with the job and it works for Hagel. But he’s more private than many think.
Among the long and growing list of jobs and titles Hagel has held is UNO alumnus.
His time at UNO was defining. The Nebraska native came back from Vietnam in December 1968. A month later, his brother Tom returned. The two settled on moving to Omaha, where they could work full-time and attend UNO full-time.
Hagel attended other universities before his tour of service in the Army. He started out at Wayne State College on a football scholarship. When an injury ended his playing career, he transferred to the University of Nebraska Kearney. He later transferred to Brown College in Minneapolis because it specialized in broadcasting.
But after Vietnam, Hagel was looking for more than just a university. He was looking for a perfect fit.
“I had just come back from a very terrible experience in Vietnam,” Hagel said. “It was terrible, all war is terrible. There’s no glory in war. We’d come back from that.”
He and his brother chose UNO because it was one of the largest and friendliest universities for active duty military.
This fall, UNO was at the top of several lists of military friendly schools. The jump in rankings happened after the opening of MaV USO offices. Hagel’s most recent visit to campus in early November included a visit to the offices. As former World USO president, he follows USO events closely.
The military friendly aspect UNO had brought older, more serious students to campus. There were also students fresh out of high school who “energized everybody,” Hagel said.
“They were great leaders, as young people always are and should be,” Hagel said. “Then you had the veterans there. It was a great match.”
One area Hagel had interest and passion in was radio and television broadcasting. But he already had the experience after working at various radio stations in Minneapolis, Lincoln and Omaha. So Hagel decided to major in history.
“I already kind of felt I knew a lot about that business, so history was an area that I always had great interest in,” Hagel said.
“And quite frankly, I liked it. It was probably my easiest subject, I suspect because I had more interest in it than anything else.”
Hagel enjoyed his teachers, too. Orville Menard, former head of UNO’s Political Science department, became a close friend and mentor.
Hagel now teaches a graduate class at Georgetown University in the School of Foreign Service.
He also lectures in the business and law schools.
Hagel draws from life experiences in his teaching. Teaching with personal experience enhances any course, he said. His wide range of experiences has helped him frame reference points on many issues.
“In my classes, I don’t get up and lecture and tell long stories. I’m not sure students want to hear old war stories from old senators,” Hagel said.
Instead of lecturing, he relates personal experiences he’s had over the years relevant to the subject matter at hand.
“All those things together help me with students and maybe give a more personal sense to a subject matter from a practitioner, not just a theorist or someone who teaches out of a textbook, Hagel said.
His experience at UNO helped shape him.
“The older I get and the more I look back on those days, it was really a very significant turning point in my life being there,” he said.
“I’m not sure if I had gone to another university it would have come out the same way.”
The 1971 graduate got a complete experience at UNO.
“I was really looking for kind of my own center of gravity,” Hagel said. “UNO really helped me with that. It focused me. It stabilized me.”