88-year-old Pete Giesen is a part-time political science professor at JMU who’s served under nine governors in the Virginia House of Delegates for more than three decades. He served in a bygone era when politicians of opposing parties played basketball together.
“Some years I passed as many as 10 bills or 12, sometimes one or two,” Giesen said. “People would say ‘How come you don’t pass many bills?’ Because I’m down there to kill the bad ones.”
Giesen grew up a Republican in the historically liberal town of Radford with a state senator as a neighbor and a congressman a block away. Politics also ran in the Giesen family as both his father and grandfather were mayor, and his mother was on city council.
“The chairman [of the Republican Party in Staunton] said, ‘Pete, you said you wouldn't have an election without a campaign.’” “Well, I did say that. They said ‘Well, it looks like it's on you’ [to run for the House],”’ Giesen said.
Giesen first ran for the Virginia House of Delegates in 1961 at age 29, straight out of college wearing horn-rim glasses and a crew cut. He looked so young, that he’d powder his hair to look older so he’d look more experienced.He ended up losing that election by 88 votes to two 14-year incumbents — at the time certain areas could have multi-member districts, but he ran again and won in 1963 by over 250 votes.From then on, he won every House of Delegates race, 17 total, compiling 31 years of service.
When Giesen took office in 1996, he was one of 11 Republicans in the 100-person House of Delegates and never had the majority in all his years there.
Giesen put most of his efforts into bills for improving the mental health system. This became a main focus of his after his mother visited the three major mental health hospitals in Virginia while she was delegate-elect as well as vice mayor of Radford in 1957 and told him what she saw.
“She talked about the horrid conditions there,” Giesen said. “Mattresses on the floor, patients running around half-dressed, no individual cubicles for patients, the stench of human waste in the wards and locked doors all around.”
His passion for improving mental health continued after his time in the House. He hosts the Pete Giesen Golf Tournamentto raise money for the Mental Health Augusta-America chapter. The tournament has continued for 24 years, raising a net of about $10,000 a year, though its 2020 event was canceled because of COVID-19.
“Pete is not only a good fundraiser in the sense he's good with people and he can help draw attention to the cause,” former Political Science Department Head Charles Blake said. “He's also good at making people feel at home at the event.I'd say in general that's a strength of Pete’s.He’s good with people.He's somebody who is interested in other people and their well-being and he lets you know that.”
He said the majority of his last 20 years in the state legislature was focused on the Appropriations Committee where he was on five subcommittees; he passed amendments that don’t show as bills passed.
Along with his numerous accomplishments in politics, he’s also interacted with many significant politicians in his career — one being former president George H. W. Bush. Giesen flew on Air Force Two with Bush once while the Vice President was campaigning for President Reagan. Having graduated only two years apart from each other at Yale, Bush arranged for Giesen to fly with him.
“We talked about Yale and not about politics,” Giesen said. “We exchanged notes.”
Giesen wanted the House speaker position but knew he couldn't win the seat because the Republican Party had shifted so much. He said the party was more conservative by the early 1990s.
“One election I had Republicans come up to me and say, ‘I know we have a Republican candidate, but I'd really like to vote for Harry Byrd [Democrat].’ What do you think?’ If that's what your conscience says then you vote for him, and I hope you vote for me next year, and they say, ‘Oh I will.”
By 1996, Giesen said he felt it was time to move on to something else, partly because of the fact that the House had evolved into wanting everyone to vote the same way based on party loyalty, which he said he didn't support. One bill was up for a vote in the Republican caucus that Giesen didn’t agree with, and everyone wanted it to pass just because of party affiliation, so Giesen and three others got up and left the caucus.
“We believed in the word compromise, and you just don’t see that anymore,” Giesen said. “We would argue on the floor of the House about a bill and then go play basketball together or go out and get drinks and socialize.”
Politics continues to evolve and change over time.
“He's from a different era,” Political Science Professor David Jones said. “But I think he represents the best of that area.”
Giesen said it’s difficult to think of a moment in his lifetime that the nation has been as polarized as it is currently. He said President Trump has done “some good things” but isn't as “smooth” as a president should be. He said he changes his mind frequently.
“I think some of the things he says just aren't quite true,” Giesen said. “The way he appoints people and fires them, to me, is just not good administration.”
Giesen said that both candidates didn’t act presidential nor showed respect.
“I thought the first [presidential] debate was a disgrace,” Giesen said. “Neither one acted as a gentleman. They acted as teenagers in a high school debate interrupting and not paying attention to the moderator, that bothers me.”
Giesen reflected on his lifetime to think of a political climate that relates to the one we have today.
“The U.S. has not been as divided as it is now since Brown v.Board of Education in 1954,” Giesen said. “But it wasn't quite as severe, it didn't seem, as we have today.”
Giesen said he blames the current political climate on social media as well as the news media in general. He assigns his political science students to write about why the world has changed recently, and he said the common theme is word travels much faster nowadays.
Staying in the field of politics, from2001 until 2007, Giesen represented JMU in Richmond as its legislative liaison, serving JMU’s president at the time, Linwood Rose. He’d lobby for bills in the Virginia Senate and House that’d help the university. Giesen said he knew the ropes and had connections because he’d just left a few years prior. He said he could get JMU officials appointments with legislators thatthey normally couldn’t on their own.
After his connections in the House and Senate began to fade, Giesen moved to teaching state and local government and topics in American politics at JMU to stay connected to politics. He appreciates his classes because students come wanting to learn’ and he can pass on some of the lessons he’s learned as a legislator and the ins-and-outs of state and local government. He said his favorite part is interacting with his students whenhe encourages them to think, evaluate and findsolutions.
“I try to get them to think, to get them to do their own thinking, not to listen to the media or just one side,” Giesen said.
Though Giesen asks his classes some tough questions, he said his students listen and want to learn.
“He is highly loved by all students,” Program Support Tech Sherry Cory said. “He teaches because he enjoys it.”
Giesen admits, along with his colleagues, that there are no short conversations with him, but those long talks are always full of interesting content.
“The department recognizes his expertise and insight,” Political Science Department Chair Jonathan Keller said. “He draws in students with his experience in politics and personal experiences.”
Giesen said he takes his classes on field trips to Richmond and Washington D.C. to see government at work up close as well as meet members of the state legislature. He’s been unable to take those trips this year due to COVID-19 or enjoy his favorite part of teaching, personal interaction. However, this hasn’t stopped him.The department has given him four aidesto help with his transition to teaching online.
“He’s not very tech-savvy, but he does not give up,” Cory said.
Professor Pete, as many of his students call him, said he doesn’t plan on teaching much longer, as he’s “slowing down.”
“Pete’s a friendly guy and he's a warm person, and that comes through in everything Pete does — in his work, in his social life, in everything,” Blake said. “Pete's joy for life and his joy in being with other people rings through and shows in everything he does.”
Contact Michael Bellu at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.