In retrospect, Ryan Rippel thinks it was probably a good thing he didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for one of the biggest speeches of his life.
As president of American Legion Boys Nation in July 1999, Rippel’s responsibilities included introducing President Bill Clinton before Clinton spoke to the delegates from Boys and Girls Nation in the East Room of the White House.
Reflecting on the moment nearly 20 years later, Rippel estimated he had about four minutes to prepare a speech and track down a gift for Clinton, himself a Boys Nation delegate in 1963.
“I had a receipt in my pocket. I pulled it out, and I’m leaning over a table in the East Room while all these other folks are coming together and making small talk, and I’m trying to write down an introduction of President Clinton. Then all of a sudden, he walks into the room. And you cannot be huddled over a table writing a little speech on a receipt when the president of the United States is walking your way,” Rippel said. “And at that point, I thought, ‘whatever’s going to happen is going to happen.’
“… We get on the stage, and I’m seated right next to him. And Secretary (Richard) Riley is the secretary of Education, he’s introducing the Girls Nation president (Tia Frederick), they’re doing their thing, and I’m trying out still to figure out what I’m going to say, and President Clinton keeps leaning over and trying to have a conversation with me about Missouri and politics and who I am and all this stuff, which was exciting and thrilling, you’re talking with the president of the United States, at the same time he has no idea that I have absolutely no clue how I’m going to introduce him in the next 60 seconds.”
While noting that he still cringes at the C-SPAN video of the event, Rippel called it “a thrilling moment.”
“It’s extraordinary to meet the president, whatever your political ideology or affiliation, this is the leader of the free world. And it is an overwhelming experience, and especially for a young person who aspires to be in public service, is committed to government service and admires it, to then be in the company of the president of the United States, and to actually have a president paying attention and talking to you, it is indescribable,” Rippel said.
Two decades later, Rippel is Director of Economic Mobility and Opportunity at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He credits his experience at Missouri Boys State and Boys Nation for shaping him personally and professionally.
“These are programs that are shaped and supported by our nation’s veterans. And so the idea, one, of coming to know those veterans through those programs in a much deeper way — because certainly in the case of Boys Nation, they’re the counselors in many respects running the program — was very important to me in shaping the notion and the commitment to service and giving back to the country. And that has had a profound effect, and I still am oriented in that direction and think about my career in those terms,” Rippel said.
“The second was just the importance of relationships … . It is really how you show up and who you are and how you build relationships with other people, and that was an important lesson then and it’s one that I feel is even more important in my life today. It’s true of the work I do, it’s true of the way I think about the community that I’m a part of, that so much of what has been good and wonderful in my life has come through a desire to get to know other people and nurture relationships. And I have benefitted greatly from those.”
A guidance counselor at Hickman High School in Columbia, Mo., pointed Rippel toward the Boys State program during his junior year — “I had no conception of what it was actually going to be like or what would come after it, but I was thrilled to have a chance to go” — and he was “stunned” when he was chosen to represent the state at Boys Nation.
Randomly assigned to the Nationalist Party upon arriving at Boys Nation, Rippel remembers half the party initially seeking the nomination for president.
“I thought that was so funny, but maybe so reflective of the Senate, half of them want to be president,” Rippel said. “The thought that you would actually prevail in that was not anything that ever crossed my mind. I thought, ‘OK, you’re here for a week, you might as well try this and see how far you go.’ I was really trying to push myself to step out a little bit more, and I was as surprised as anybody to where it ended up in terms of the voting.”
That drive to challenge one’s self is, in Rippel’s estimation, one of the key selling points in attending a Boys State program.
“You’re going to understand the mechanics of how the system works and what’s at stake in terms of what does come out of this (political) system, but I think you will also be developing your own voice and finding a way for yourself to have influence, even at a local level, on issues that are important,” he said. “And I think walking away from it, what was so profound for me, was just the fundamental importance of what does happen in the vicinity around you. I work on issues of poverty and economic mobility today, and I know what’s happening in the half-mile radius around someone’s home has a lot to do with the kinds of opportunities that can exist later in life.
“And that is true of our systems of governance too, that we have to invest in those local ones, we have to find our voice and a role for ourselves in building those communities where we live. And whether that takes the form of government service or politics or military service or whatever it is, it does begin with you finding your own voice, and these weeks in the summer are ways to do that and to shape that and to build some extraordinary relationships that will stay with you over the course of a lifetime, which is hard to beat.”
And seeing the example set by the veterans who volunteer with the programs had a profound impact on Rippel as well.
“The sense of commitment they have to the country, that’s now translated for them into a role in which they are now creating a program to help a next generation of leaders be engaged civically and to understand how the government works and what it means to live in a democratic republic, what form of government we have. That is incredibly powerful as an example … . I felt we had a responsibility to carry that forward, that we too had to be investing in these institutions and working to strengthen and build them up, that it was not OK to just coast on by. I think that certainly stays with me,” Rippel said.