Searching for Beauty
Harold "Koof" Kalkstein '78
If they knew of her impact, those I work with would be upset with Connie Hungerford. But they would be nearly 30 years too late. The seed she planted so long ago is what now compels my move from a hectic work pace to a slower life-an aesthetic life. Instead of solving business problems, I will be searching out beauty in all its forms, while trying to figure out how I can create some on my own in the process. How did it happen that today, at the age of 47, I am affected by Swarthmore as profoundly as I was when I was a student?
My introduction to the College came in the form of cold, crisp afternoons watching football. Two older brothers played on the team, and they, as well as my parents and sister, preceded me to Swarthmore. It seemed to be a fine place for them. For me, it seemed to be a logical school to visit, to get a practice interview in preparation for whatever college I would really want to attend. But as I went through the application process and got to know Swarthmore for myself, I found that it was the college I really wanted to go to.
I majored in economics and minored in political science. The honors seminars were the defining aspect of the College for me. Being up close and personal with six to eight students and a professor, and having to write a paper or two a week (with no word processor to fix one's grammar and spelling mistakes), was an excellent training ground for thinking and communicating. The ability to think on one's feet-to always have a logic, a story, for what you were focused on-was a skill Swarthmore instilled in me. And being able to argue vociferously with friends and then let it all go is a wonderful way to learn that friendship and community are not based on shared views but, rather, on shared values.
Fulfilling distribution requirements led me to an introductory art history course, taught by a new assistant professor who-nervously, at first-walked us through the basics of the development of painting, sculpture, and architecture. She knew her stuff well but seemed to come alive when we reached impressionism. My term paper, based on a Monet painting I had seen only in a photographic reproduction, was not well thought out. In discussing the paper with me, Professor Hungerford gently but firmly made the point that I would get a lot more out of art if I would find a way to go and see it, and take it in fully, using both my mind and my feelings. At the time, her comments washed over me-after all, I had passed the course.
Swarthmore was fun and a great learning experience. I benefited from the subjects taught, the friendships formed and maintained, and the experience of learning to live independent of my family. Swarthmore allowed me to express my curiosity and my desire to explore. By graduation, however, the notion of an aesthetic life was very far removed from my consciousness; I was ready to go to work.
For the past 20 years, that work has taken the form of management consulting. It has covered many types of problems, including the acquisition or divestiture of businesses, the building of new businesses, the streamlining of existing operations, and the redesign of organizations. Getting the logic right and telling the story are the key skills of a consultant, and I have become quite good at them, thanks to the jump start those honors papers and seminars gave me.
In my profession, the real key to success is the ability to develop such skills in others. Holding others to high intellectual standards, helping more junior consultants think about the logic and the story, and teaching them to have empathy for others are all critical. In fostering this development, I found that I relied heavily on the techniques that several of my professors, such as Frank Pierson, had used.
I have worked across many industries and have undertaken numerous pro bono assignments, ranging from efforts to revitalize the city of Oakland to helping nonprofit organizations that advocate for the improvement of children's welfare and education. As the old Quaker saying goes, I have done good and, in the process, done well. But it has been a grueling life, involving much travel and inflicting hardships on my wife (whom I met in Washington and married while attending business school) and two children (the older of whom now attends Swarthmore).
Two summers ago, I had the opportunity to take a sabbatical for 10 weeks. My family and I toured parts of Eastern Europe, Germany, Italy, France, and Scotland. In the course of the trip, I came to realize that many of the sights were familiar from my art history course. Without having planned it, I was, at last, following Professor Hungerford's advice on slowly letting the works of art and architecture permeate my brain and my soul.
I toured Ireland alone during the last week of my sabbatical. In Ireland, the art and architecture are less magisterial than those I had encountered in other places, but there is great natural beauty. And there are wonderful ruins, not grand or immense, but accessible and alive. Wandering through them, and around the countryside, I came to a full realization of my desire to experience more beauty and to take on the challenge of attempting to create a bit of it myself.
Since the sabbatical, I have been fulfilling the remaining responsibilities I have to my partners and am now ready to embark on the next phase of my life. What will this life contain? I can't say for sure, but I do know there are many beautiful areas to explore still. And while I can't paint, I think I can build things that create beauty, such as a Victorian garden. Mostly, I hope to conduct my life at a pace that allows me to feel all of its rich possibilities.
As for Swarthmore, I know it will continue to affect me. I am now on the Alumni Council, and my son has three more years to go; so there will be many connections in the coming years. I do wonder about what lies ahead. What will I still learn? What will my son learn? What seed will be planted in him?
Koof Kalkstein is a senior partner with the Boston Consulting Group in San Francisco.