The setting: the Campustown Steak ’n Shake. Or, as Marc Farinella will forever remember it, the “dumpy old Steak ’n Shake on Green Street.”
“I remember it for two reasons,” says Farinella (MA ’81), who went on to become the North Carolina state director for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and a senior fellow at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy.
“First,” he says, “they used to keep a jar of super hot peppers on every table. I think every Steak ’n Shake must have done this at the time. It was just part of the branding: red, white and black décor; a long counter trimmed in chrome; and hot peppers on the tables.
“In any case, I was there one day with a girl who ate them like they were popcorn. I remember thinking there is no need for this young woman to see a dentist that year because tooth decay requires living organisms and nothing in her mouth could possibly remain alive after that.
“But the second reason I remember it was more consequential.
“I came to the U of I in 1980 merely to drop off a friend who was finishing her BA. While I was there, I met the chairman of the political science department, who invited me to stay and get a master’s degree in political science, which I did — partly because I had no idea what else to do. While there, my faculty advisor was a professor named Steve Seitz. Toward the end of my MA coursework, Seitz and I were getting burgers at Steak ’n Shake one day and he encouraged me to stay for a Ph.D. I replied that I didn’t want to get a Ph.D. Instead, I wanted to ‘go do something real.’
“Seitz got visibly annoyed with me and said firmly: ‘Creating knowledge is real!’ I remember thinking even the peppers in the jar beside the ketchup didn’t look at hot as Steve did at that moment. In any case, I didn’t stay for a Ph.D. I became a political consultant, political campaign director and gubernatorial chief of staff — and then, after 25 years, went to work in academia at the University of Chicago.
“I finally decided that Steve was right, after all, and I am glad to be part of institution creating knowledge. I’ve sometimes thought about trying to call Steve and tell him, but I never have.”