The late Congressman William Frenzel was a good friend of mine but, even more so, a great mentor. As far as think tank life goes, it is rare that a friendship such as ours evolved beyond the normal work-related interactions.
Our relationship emerged out of a number of coincidences. The first was that when I joined Brookings in May of 2009, I was assigned an office on the 6th floor of the main building (1775 Massachusetts Avenue NW), and Bill’s office was next to mine. From the elevator, he would pass by my office on the way to his. On my second day at Brookings, he walked in to my office and introduced himself. I did the same. It was quite a shock to me that, coming from my simple background as a university professor, the person next door was a senior statesman who had served in the U.S. Congress for two decades.
The second coincidence was that both Bill and I reported to work very early. I would normally be in the office before 6 a.m. and he would, without fail, come in between 6:45 and 7 a.m. For almost an hour, we would have the 6th floor to ourselves and, for at least twice a week, we spent that hour discussing various issues—which, though starting with our professional work and current affairs, increasingly also touched on our personal lives.
The third coincidence was that we both liked to have coffee at around 8 a.m. We found ourselves heading to the cafeteria almost at the same time and would meet there. Soon we would go down together, and sometimes Bill would tell me that he was going down and would bring me some coffee.
Bill was passionate about social security reform, and we started talking about the topic on various occasions. He would ask me about the same challenge as relates to Africa. He was also very keen on trade matters, and we often discussed my work on Africa’s regional integration and U.S.-Africa trade. He gave me many pointers on who matters in Congress for Africa policy and the various committees that dealt with the issues that I was working on. He also was involved with a group working on international taxes, which was an area of interest to me. He introduced me to the key people in that organization.
Importantly, Bill served as co-chair of the Bretton Woods Committee (BWC), and he shared with me the work that the committee was doing. The BWC focuses on proposing priorities for the Bretton Woods Institutions to achieve global development goals such as poverty alleviation, financial stability and strategies to accelerate growth. It is in these aspects that I found Bill’s work most relevant to my work on Africa’s development. We discussed a great deal the need to reform the governance of the Bretton Woods Institutions and specifically improving Africa’s representation. He later recommended me to the committee and supported my membership. I joined the BWC in 2011 under Bill’s mentorship. I will be ever grateful for the professional support that the late congressman extended to me.
A Mountain of Humility
The greatest lesson I learned from the late congressman was one of humility. After he introduced himself to me, I was quite unsure how I should refer to him. So I started calling him Hon. Frenzel and Congressman Frenzel. Soon he gave me a rather stern warning: “Mwangi, please call me Bill.” From then, he was to Bill to me, though I always felt like I was disrespecting him. From where I come, even a failed local council representative would expect to be referred to as “honorable so and so.” Bill taught me that you do not need titles to be honorable.
The fact that such as senior statesman would offer to bring me coffee was also quite humbling. This was totally unexpected even to me.
The other admirable thing was that Bill really cared about family. I came to know all about his family, and he was especially proud of his grandchildren. He talked to me often about going to see a grandchild at a university in Virginia. He also always asked about my family’s well-being, and we got to sharing these thoughts during our coffee break.
Bill truly cared about my family—which was yet another humbling experience. Bill was especially proud of my son Francis who is a captain in the U.S. Marines. At one time my son was involved in a major humanitarian mission in the Philippines, and I shared his activities with Bill. He wrote back this kind note:
That’s a great picture! How wonderful that Francis is able to be involved in that rescue mission. You must be very proud of that young man.
I suppose I am as aggressive as most Americans about defending our legitimate interests wherever they seem threatened, but I really love to see our Service-men and -women engaged in humanitarian work around the world, and I am especially proud of those efforts.
The poor Philipinos! [sic] When Mother Nature is aroused, she is surely redundant.
As I told you, I am worrying about a couple of other young Marines. Now I shall add Francis to my worry list.
In another occasion when we had to cancel a date with him on account of an international trip, Bill responded:
Thanks, Mwangi –
I apologize for being remiss in coffee scheduling. I will make a note to call during the last week in September.
In the meantime, have a great trip! I assume you are taking your bride, and hope whatever vacation you can steal is wonderful. See you the end of next month.
I had the good opportunity to meet with Bill just a few weeks ago, and he shared with me about his illness and hospitalization. I have personally lost a good friend, professional colleague and mentor. I send my most sincere condolences to his family. Rest in peace, my friend Bill.