SCA100k Ambassador Q&A: Mark K. Updegrove

Mark K. Updegrove of Austin, TX is president and CEO of the Lyndon B. Johnson Foundation. He is also the author several books, including the just-released INCOMPARABLE GRACE: JFK in the Presidency, and is the presidential historian for ABC News. He characterizes his 1978 SCA crew experience at Yosemite as “magical.”

As an historian, what does SCA’s imminent 100,000th member say to you about the organization?

That it’s made a real impact. The fact that is has grown so significantly over the course of 65 years and continues to thrive suggests to me that it is filling an important niche in American life. We’re at a very sensitive time in our history when institutions matter more than ever because they are helping to bolster country as we struggle with democracy itself – the most basic aspect of who we are, what we are is in jeopardy.

How do we deal with the fissures affecting our nation?

People feel more alienated than ever before in my lifetime – alienated from one another, their communities, their peers. Divided. Polarized. It’s a perilous situation. My hope is that we all see value in public service, greater civic engagement. But until we all invest ourselves in ensuring that we continue a government based the democratic principles that have guided us to this point, then we are in some danger of losing the continuity of our republic.

Why do you see service as the solution?

I found as so many others have in this world journey that while you can get great satisfaction out of accomplishments in your life, the biggest fulfillment comes from serving others. It nourishes one’s soul in a way that other accomplishments do not. The little things that build our ego – getting a lot of likes on social media, winning an award, whatever it might be – the satisfaction from that is ephemeral. It took me a while to figure that out. I probably should have known that from my SCA service but I left there thinking that I got much more out of that than I gave. I think that’s what most people will find if they serve.

That was very much JFK’s pitch, wasn’t it?

Kennedy got us to reach beyond ourselves. Everyone can summon the words “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” After he made his inaugural speech, 63% of Americans thought of something they could be doing for their country. It was a time when we were far more united as a nation, with greater trust in government and greater trust in ourselves. I’m encouraged today that young people are thinking more about how they can serve the greater good. The drawback is fewer and fewer see government service or running for elective office as viable means to give back.

Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev clashed over the Cuban Missile Crisis. How would JFK respond today to Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine?

JFK had a remarkable ability to rally people through his oratory. Without question he would make a stirring speech to bring the world together around defeating Russian tyranny, just as he did when at the Berlin Wall when he proclaimed, “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner (I am a Berliner).’” I’m sure he would say that at this perilous moment all free men and women are citizens of Ukraine.

You’ve also written about, and devoted much of your career to, President Lyndon Johnson…

LBJ is one of the best environmental presidents we have ever had. The Wilderness Act that passed in 1964 protected over nine million acres of federal land. He signed the Clean Air and Water Acts, the Highway Beautification Act, the Rivers and Trails Act. On and on and on. It was LBJ who created the Pacific Crest Trail and warned us of dangers of climate change. This was back in the middle of the 1960s. We were getting warned that climate change could pose an existential threat to our world.

Do you see a way forward on that front?

I just mentioned my concern for the preservation of our democracy. If we don’t have democracy, we don’t have a country as we know it. But if we don’t resolve climate change, we won’t have a planet as we know it. Everything else will be irrelevant. This is the biggest crisis that we face as a world and we need to figure out practical solutions to make sure we have a viable planet to hand over to future generations.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

Visit the SCA100k page for more information on our ten ambassadors.

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