John Laird: A trailblazing public servant

Stevenson '72, politics

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John Laird has watched his political capital rise over the years. In 1983, while serving on the Santa Cruz City Council, he became one of the first openly gay mayors in the United States. He went on to serve three terms as a California state Assemblyman before starting his current job as California's Secretary for Natural Resources.

But this proud alumnus never lost touch with his alma mater while ascending through the world of politics. In fact, he touched down on campus in 2015 to deliver a simple, bold, effective, and charming commencement address message to the crowd at Cowell College: take big risks, and always make sure to pay it forward.

"When I graduated from UC Santa Cruz, it was illegal to be gay in all 50 states," Laird told the crowd. "When I sat at my graduation, I was just coming to terms with the fact that I was gay. And I thought I would have to choose between being clear about who I was, and moving ahead in the field of public policy that I thought I was best suited for.

"I took a risk," Laird continued, "not knowing whether I was on the right side of history—but knowing I was doing what was right."

UC Santa Cruz gave him an edge as he went on to pursue a lifetime of public service, he later said.

"I remember the first paper I turned in as a student," Laird said. "The professor wrote on it, 'If there is a point here, I'm missing it.' I went from that to writing an honors thesis and to being elected to public office. That's what a UC Santa Cruz education did for me."