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An appreciation of the past has served John Rowe well. After studying under titans of the history department in the 1960s — Mosse, Curti, Petrovich — Rowe became a lawyer focusing on the Milwaukee Railroad’s bankruptcy. In his mid-30s, he pivoted to a senior vice president and general counsel role at Conrail, which led to CEO positions at the Central Maine Power Company, New England Electric System and the electric utilities powerhouse Exelon Corporation. Turning to the words and actions of historic leaders helped him navigate work at the intersection of business and politics. 

Now retired, Chicagoan Rowe and his wife Jeanne passionately support UW-Madison, in addition to several other institutions such as the Field Museum of Natural History, the Illinois Holocaust Museum and two Chicago charter schools. Among their many generous contributions to UW, including the Rowe Center for Research in Virology at the Morgridge Institute, are three endowed chairs in history — Byzantine, Greek and American politics, institutions and political economy — to ensure others can find inspiration from the past. 

I grew up on a farm near Dodgeville and attended a one-room country school. The most important thing you get growing up on a farm, especially with two Depression-era parents, is the vast importance of work, accomplishment and focus. 

Putting my farm background together with being at UW in the ’60s was an amazing combination. My rural roots and university experience define who I am. 

I still have a few of the books I was assigned at UW. Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies from my first political science class and Carl Becker’s The Heavenly City of Eighteenth-Century Philosophers from my second George Mosse history course. 

An undergrad like medidn’t have a relationship with George. He was at the head of an auditorium, thundering at us. But he was inspiring as an instructor. Of course, he was not the only one. I also had Merle Curti and Michael Petrovich. 

I saw being a lawyer as problem solving. I constantly made decisions that expanded my opportunities. I knew I wanted to run a company someday. When I left Conrail to go to Central Maine, it was a big gamble. And when I left for New England, it was another big gamble. But if you want to work in the big leagues, you go for it. 

I’ve always been willing to move across the country for a better job. We used to tell people at Exelon that we believe in work-life balance, but not if you want to be the CEO. If you asked Jeanne if I lead a balanced life, she’d roll over on the floor in peals of laughter. 

Studying history meant a whole lot to me. I enjoyed it, and I still read history every day. And I’ve found it helpful in my professional life. You realize some of the things you face aren’t new and that the world changing is normal. It’s wonderfully relevant to a CEO, particularly one in a highly politicized business.

About a dozen years ago, my wife said to me, “You love universities and museums. But if we don’t help people earlier, there won’t be anyone to use those universities and museums.” Working in Chicago schools has given us the greatest highs and the greatest lows. I approached running my utilities as a calling. Now that I’ve been retired for six years, I call my civic work my calling. 

I’ve always been driven to be useful. Part of me feels like you can never do enough. It’s very much who I am and how I’m built. My mother felt if you weren’t working, you should be sleeping. If I’m not working, I’m reading. 


Byzantine Ties

With generous support from John and Jeanne Rowe, Leonora Neville is able to probe ancient history — and find remarkable relevance to today’s world.

Leonora Neville. Photo by Jeff Miller.

The Byzantine Age was the name given to the fascinating, turbulent era from 330–1453 AD. According to Leonora Neville, a Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor who holds the John W. and Jeanne M. Rowe Chair in Byzantine History, its politics and classical traditions of intellectual life, centered in Constantinople (now Istanbul), shed remarkably fresh light on many issues we face today. 

“They were dealing with ideas of authority and power, with constructions of gender, with migration and cultural assimilation, with religious clashes, and a lot of fighting between Christianity and Islam,” says Neville. 

The Rowes’ decision to endow the position in 2014 is “amazing and very rare,” she says. There are only five other professorships like Neville's across the U.S. 

Here at UW, the scholarly path to the era was opened in the 1920s, when the university hired an eminent scholar of Byzantine culture (a Russian-born historian named Alexander Vasiliev who’d fled his home country during the Russian Revolution). Thanks to that canny decision, “we have one of the best libraries for Byzantine research in the country.” 

Neville says that Rowe once told her that in order for UW to be a world class university, it had to “not only cover the bread-and-butter basics of history, but also pay attention to more exotic, less straightforward” ancient civilizations. 

And in pondering the Byzantine Age, in which philosophers and historians ardently debated “honor and proper personhood and what it meant to be a great hero in order to figure out how to behave,” she adds, students in today’s polarized climate “can actually step back and decide what their own system of morality is. It's a fabulous teaching tool.” 

– Louisa Kamps 

This story appears in the fall 2018 issue of Letters & Science magazine. 
Read the full issue here.