Many people would feel they led a notable life if they had accomplished just one of the things Alan Page has done. He was an All-American defensive end who played on Notre Dame's national championship football team in 1966. He followed that with a Pro Football Hall of Fame career, playing in four Super Bowls as one of the Vikings' "Purple People Eaters," and becoming the first defensive player (and only one of two defensive players ever) to be named as the NFL's Most Valuable Player.
While he was still a pro athlete, he started a second career as a lawyer that led to his election to the Minnesota Supreme Court. He was on the court for 22 years until he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. He's been a collector of art and artifacts of the African American experience and a children's book author with his daughter Kamie Page. With his wife, Diane, he created the Page Education Foundation, which has awarded scholarships to thousands of students of color in Minnesota. In 2018, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
No wonder why so many people were baffled when Twitter recently rejected his request for a blue check mark verification as a "notable" tweeter.
But he's not resting on his laurels. In recent years, the 76-year-old Page has been behind an effort to amend the state's Constitution to close Minnesota's academic achievement gap. In an interview edited for space and clarity, we talked with Page about the amendment proposal as well as his thoughts about racial equity in the justice system, pay for student athletes, bow ties, sousaphones and the love of his life.
The Page amendment proposal by you and Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis President Neel Kashkari would put an amendment to the state Constitution on the ballot, saying quality education for all children is a civil right. When you started proposing this in early 2020, it got bipartisan support. It also drew opposition from the state teachers union and some conservative commentators. What's happening with the proposal?
We haven't gotten it through either house of the Legislature. And obviously, we have to do that before it gets on the ballot. We still have strong support from the people we've had from the beginning. And opposition from those who, for whatever reason, stated or unstated, disagree. Our goal is to get it on the ballot. We're working toward that. I'm not going to speculate about the odds. Because until it's done, it's not done. I'm still excited and committed and believe this is the one thing that I have seen which will create the catalyst for change. You know Neel and I don't have any monopoly on the best answer. But nobody else has come along with anything better. We're going to proceed as though we're going to get it on the ballot, because we think if we get it on the ballot, the people of Minnesota will pass it.
You've argued that when similar initiatives have been passed in other states, it's made a difference.
It's made a difference. And our proposed amendment goes a bit further than most. As an example, Florida. They've amended their constitution, their education clause, maybe it's two or three times since 1998. And they have moved the needle. Their constitutional provision makes education a fundamental value. We would make it a right. A right, which could be vindicated, if it's not fulfilled.
It's something you could take to a court.
Yes. You know, when you think about some of the most basic rights, voting, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, those rights are fundamental and foundational. And it seems to me that educating children, ensuring the future, is both fundamental and foundational.
With both this amendment and your work providing scholarships to students of color through the Page Education Foundation, it's obvious that education is important to you. Can you talk about the role education played in your own life?
Whatever success I've had, whether it was in the law, on the athletic field, in life generally, it's grounded in having been prepared. That's what education is all about. Ideally, it provides you with the ability to think critically, analyze a problem and make decisions based on knowledge. That's been critical in my life. Education is also a tool that can mitigate the effects of racial discrimination. It's not an answer to racial discrimination. But it is a tool which can mitigate the effects of it. And clearly, in my lifetime, that has benefited me.
It's been a year of reckoning with the murder of George Floyd, and the conviction of his killer, ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. But as a nation and a state, we've long grappled with issues of equity in the treatment of people of color and low-income people in the criminal justice system, in arrests and charging decisions and sentencing and bail ...
Every step of the process.
As a Supreme Court justice, you had a view of the workings of the system. How do things stand today? How equal is our criminal justice system?
I don't know that we have made substantial progress. We have a long way to go to ensure that everybody who enters our justice system is treated fairly. There is work to be done.
We've known about the problem, like ...
And there's been sentencing commissions and so forth. But ...
Shortly after I joined the court, we issued a report from a task force which studied racial bias in the judicial branch, and the report had over 120, 130 recommendations. We went about the task of implementing those recommendations. And around the edges, they made a difference. But I think the problem we face is that our justice system, our system as a country is grounded in discrimination. Go back to our Constitution and the original version: three-fifths of a person. We as a country have developed with that as our foundation. We fought a civil war over slavery. And in the end, while we ended slavery, we did not end the racial animus that was connected to slavery.
You received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, from President Donald Trump in the White House in 2018. What was that experience like?
Well, you know, you don't set out to have any of this happen. You set out to do what you do and try to do it well. And when things like that happen, it is quite an honor. But it's also very humbling. But at the end of the day, it's not about me. It's about, from my vantage point, about those people who allowed me to be in the position to do the things that I've done. There are far more people deserving than I am, who are nameless, who are unknown. But it is those people who gave me the opportunity. Particularly with respect to the Medal of Freedom, it was about honoring those people.
Who were the people that came before?
My ancestors who came here in the belly of a slave ship. The slaves who made the bricks for the original White House. The people who died during the civil rights struggle of the '50s and '60s, who gave their lives so that someone like me could have the opportunity to do the things that I've done. Whatever I've done pales in comparison.
But you have accomplished a lot. I think Minnesotans see you as a wise elder. From that perspective, are you optimistic about how things are going in this country, state and community?
When I look at the young people, and maybe one of the things that draws me to the education arena, is young people. They give me hope. They inspire me. When I look at what we adults have done, it's pretty depressing. But I think hope springs eternal like our youth.
A couple sports-related questions. Before your pro career, you were student athlete at Notre Dame. What do you think of the recent court rulings and the NCAA rule changes that will make it easier for student athletes to make money, to profit from their talents?
I think that makes perfect sense. Of course, as with everything else, the devil is in the details. But in terms of compensating people for the contributions they make, that just makes perfect sense.
Also recently, Raiders defensive lineman Carl Nassib became the first active NFL player to publicly declare that he's gay. What was your reaction to that?
My reaction was isn't it sad that we're in a place where acknowledging that you're gay is somehow, I'm searching for the right word and not finding it ...
... that it took some act of courage to do this?
Right. So he's gay? So what was the issue? It's normal. It's natural. It's who we are. Some of us are gay, some of us aren't. Obviously, being the first it's been difficult for a lot of people. Why? Why are we in that place? He's gay. Can we move on now? Why do we make this an issue?
You're known for wearing bow ties. What's your argument in favor of ties, specifically bow ties?
I don't have an argument for ties. Bow ties, they're fun. They have personality. I just think they're neat. They really are fun, both to wear and to tie. I don't have any other ties other than bow ties.
You're also known for serenading runners at the Twin Cities Marathon with your sousaphone. How long have you played and how did you get started on that instrument?
Well, I don't know that I've been playing. I've been making noise with it. I was in the band in junior high school, seventh and eighth grade. And my instrument was the sousaphone. I started playing football in the ninth grade and didn't touch another sousaphone until I think it was 1992 or '93. I decided that I would try to take it up again. Of course I didn't. I just bought the sousaphone and never got around to taking it out. But then, I don't know 20, 25 years ago, I can't remember now. We live close to the marathon course. And we'd gather on the corner [during the race] and one of our neighbors said "We're having a party, bring a noisemaker." Well if you've got a sousaphone, you've got a noisemaker. And that's why I started bringing it to the marathon.
Is that something you recommend? Especially as an older adult, to pick up your old instrument again?
Absolutely. I also took piano lessons when I was a child. And I fought them every step of the way. Hated it. Absolutely couldn't stand it. But do I wish I had had some discipline back then? In retrospect, yes. And right now, I've got four grandchildren. Two of them play the piano. And two of them play the cello and have been doing it for years. And now they've got a lifetime of having that to do in front of them.
It's been a long year and a half for all of us. How have you fared in terms of the pandemic and isolation? How are you doing?
I've fared just fine. I tend to be a bit of a loner. And so being forced to be alone is not exactly the worst thing in the world. That said, it's good to see other people relaxing and being able to be out and about. It's good to be getting back to somewhat normal. To the extent that it's been tough, it's been tough because I haven't had Diane to share the experience with. (Page's wife, Diane Sims Page, died in 2018 of breast cancer at the age of 74.) She was my ... I shouldn't say was, she is the love of my life. And that's been hard. But that was hard before the pandemic. You know, sometimes I sit around and think what having gone through the pandemic would have been like with her and how much I could have learned and grown. Because she was so good at dealing with things like that.
I'm sorry about your loss.
That's been difficult. That's been difficult. That said, in a sense, I couldn't have been more fortunate. We had 45 years together, 45 years in which, I mean it just couldn't have been better. I can't imagine anything that could have been better than those 45 years.