Zoellner ’91 hopes to shake Lawrence out of apathy

Naveed Islam

Tom Zoellner ’91 will be visiting Lawrence Tuesday, April 27 for a talk sponsored by Amnesty International titled, “The Importance of Being Unpopular at Lawrence.” He hopes to cure the campus community of the cancerous need to stay in each other’s good graces and allow for a passionate intellectual discourse between students that is both informed and meaningful.
“The biggest mistake Lawrence students tend to make, by far, is devoting an unnatural level of care to what other people think,” says Zoellner. “We’re hardly unique in this regard, of course. But the timidity tends to be thicker here for a few cultural reasons which I’ll talk about.”
Zoellner is a firm believer in the freedom that a liberal arts education awards but acknowledges the somewhat limited scope of that education at Lawrence. He argues that Lawrence nurtures a culture of indifference instead of empowering students to speak out and initiate change, an essential skill for engaging and surviving outside the bubble.
“These are the years of voice-finding,” Zoellner says. “Time that ought to be spent laying hold of the natural dynamism of your passions is instead wasted on the cultivation of a palatable style. That’s valuable only up to a point. It might be fine training for office politics, but it is pretty lousy training for a life.”
As an author and journalist, Zoellner cites The Lawrentian as the most valuable learning experience he got during his time at Lawrence. He served as editor-in-chief during his senior year and learnt to fight for information and to work hard for what he believed in, while trying to shape the paper with his vision.
“The greatest and most common sin of a college newspaper is to be boring. The world is many things, but it is not boring and I tried my hardest to make the paper reflect the color and verve of it instead of draining all the life away from it. I didn’t always succeed,” says Zoellner.
Zoellner graduated from Lawrence an English and history major and eventually went on to write for numerous publications, starting with a few small newspapers in Nebraska and Wyoming and eventually reporting for the San Francisco Chronicle. In between Lawrence and his journalism career he herded sheep at a ranch in Colorado.
He has written books dealing with heavy issues such as the billion-dollar diamond trade and uranium’s role in global affairs along with co-authoring “An Ordinary Man” with Paul Rusesabagina, who sheltered 1,268 Tutsis during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. His work has taken him to many different countries in an effort to see and understand more than what research in a quiet library could tell him about these subjects.
“Diamonds are a premier cultural token in the West,” Zoellner says, “but they mostly come from Africa. Uranium is at the core of nuclear weapons and its geographic reach is immense. I resolved to be austere in my personal life but extravagant with what I put into the books, so I spent and then borrowed deeply to travel wherever the story led.”
“The Heartless Stone,” Zoellner’s first book, took him to 16 countries while “Uranium” took him to 12. He is currently working on his third book, which will look at the railroad industry’s role as a crucial force in shaping the modern world.
In his talk next week he hopes to promote free thinking and a free expression of that thought in the Lawrence community. “I want to encourage Lawrence students to start a more vigorous and plainspoken conversation about the things they find important and stop fretting so much about pleasing others. Don’t extinguish the spark. I have a great dislike of rudeness, but I have an even greater dislike of that collective silence that stems from too much fear.”
Zoellner will be speaking in the Warch Campus Center Cinema at 8 p.m.