In a Kubrick-worthy parody of war and administrative overzealousness, it was while ducking sniper fire in Sadr City, Baghdad’s most festering and violent district, that Talley began getting his first cheery e-mails from an SMU search firm whose foot soldier was a woman named Mary-Louise.
“I immediately told her I wasn’t interested,” says Talley, whose engineering effort to return stability and services to the Iraqi people is considered a huge part of the Baghdad success story. Suffice it to say, Talley had plenty on his plate when the entreaties from SMU kept coming—and coming. “Maybe it’s a Texas thing,” he says, laughing, “but this Mary-Louise, she was very persistent. Every month I’d get another e-mail and I’d say, ‘I’m. Not. Interested. I’m very happy at Notre Dame. And, by the way, I don’t know anybody at SMU. I’ve never been to SMU. So how did you get my name?’”
The nagging continued up to and through February 2009, when Talley gratefully returned to South Bend, Indiana, and the comfort of Notre Dame. “God bless this Mary-Louise,” Talley says, “but she would call me on my cellphone every day. Finally, I lost my patience and sent her a note on Notre Dame letterhead. First sentence: ‘I am not interested in leaving the University of Notre Dame.’ Period. Second sentence, and this is where I maybe made my strategic mistake: ‘It’s not that I am not moveable, but I am extremely happy here and feel I’m making a difference. I wish you and SMU all the best, but please leave me alone,’ or something to that effect.”
The harder Talley tried to stand her down, the more dogged Mary-Louise became. “She finally just said to me, ‘Look, can I at least advance your name to the next group?’ I said to her, ‘I can’t tell you what to do, Mary-Louise, but I’m not interested.’ A week later, I get a call back: ‘Congratulations! You’ve advanced to the final six!’”
Only under duress did Talley concede to fly in and out of DFW for a one-hour meeting with the SMU screening committee, which encamped itself at the airport Hyatt for a day of sit-downs with its department-chair hopefuls. “Maybe I’ll make some friends in Dallas,” is how Talley rationalized the trip.
Mary-Louise greeted him at the terminal and walked him into a conference room crowded with 15 or 16 people. “Assistant professors, folks from the dean’s office, maybe somebody from the provost’s office,” Talley remembers. “It was very structured. And the first question they ask me is, ‘Why do you want to come to SMU?’ I said, ‘I don’t want to come to SMU,’ and you could have heard a pin drop. ‘I’ll be frank,’ I told them. ‘The only reason I’m here is that this woman Mary-Louise pestered the ever livin’ heck out of me. And I just gave up!’”
As a professional courtesy, Talley answered their questions for an hour and a half. Then, without ever having left airport property, he boarded his plane. When he touched down in Chicago, his cell rang. “It’s unanimous!” Mary-Louise said. “They want you.”
If Mary-Louise was the grunt in this assault campaign, Talley came to understand that Geoffrey Orsak was its strategic commander. In a follow-up call, he pressed Talley to come to SMU and give a seminar, not only about his engineering research projects, but a second talk detailing his experiences in Baghdad. Talley was intrigued.
“I’m not throwing Notre Dame under the bus,” he says, “but many of the folks there saw my work in the military as a liability. Most universities would. It took me away from my responsibilities at the school. Don’t get me wrong. They support the soldiers. But as an institution, Notre Dame was very anti-Iraq War. I don’t know if it’s an SMU or Texas thing, but the people here were very patriotic, very interested in what I did in the military.” Talley says SMU saw a link between the restorative-engineering initiatives he spearheaded in uniform and his aspirations to do similar work as an academic and civilian. “Notre Dame,” he says, “never saw that.”
Peter Kilpatrick, the dean of Notre Dame’s College of Engineering, holds Talley in great regard, but protests his claims of intolerance in South Bend. “Certainly, it’s the case in general that the American academy tends to be a fairly liberal place to be in terms of its politics,” he says. “And that is going to color perceptions. But there are a lot of people at Notre Dame who viewed Jeff as an American hero, including myself.”
Against Kilpatrick’s strong objections, Talley took Orsak’s bait and returned to Dallas for a second visit. On the third and last night of Talley’s stay, Orsak arranged for a special dinner, a high-powered summit he won’t discuss at all. “It was a private affair,” Orsak says, “so I don’t want to get into who was or was not there, because some of it had to do with the things we talk about late at night. You know, when the door’s closed.”
Talley is, above all else, task oriented. Today’s assignment, at the behest of the marketing-savvy Orsak: tell your remarkable personal story to D Magazine. And Talley is ecstatically on-task about Orsak’s secret shindig. “It was at this real swanky place called the Petroleum Club,” he says excitedly. “And we were in this private room with just an unbelievable view of Dallas. And the purpose of the dinner was for them to kinda get to know me and for me to meet some new folks.”
Talley fires off the names of the attendees: Dr. Bobby B. Lyle, the energy mogul whose millions in donations to SMU have made him among its most generous alumni and namesake of the engineering school; Delores Etter, the chair of SMU’s electrical engineering department, a former undersecretary of the Navy who will have a substantial role in Orsak’s “innovation gym”; Stephanie and her husband Hunter Hunt, a senior vice president of Hunt Oil, son of Ray Hunt, and grandson of H.L. Hunt; Orsak and his wife Catherine; and Bijan Mohraz, then the acting chair of the environmental and civil engineering department.
“Anyway,” Talley says, “we go into this bar area and drink for an hour, which is always a good way for an Irishman to get started. And they asked me what excites me, which, of course, is a setup. It was all choreographed, but I wasn’t smart enough at the time to figure it out. At dinner, Bobby B. Lyle asked me to talk about what I did in Iraq and how I thought I could apply the same use of engineering—the stabilization and enhancement of war-torn terrains—to South Dallas and other economically challenged places here and abroad. This whole thing went on for three, four hours. As I’m leaving, Geoffrey Orsak asks, ‘What are you thinking?’ And I said, ‘Not interested. It’s not about you guys. You’re great. I’m just happy at Notre Dame. Good luck.’
“I’m barely on the ground in Chicago the next day when I get a call from Orsak,” Talley continues. “‘Jeff,’ he says. ‘We’re not interested in you becoming the chair of the department anymore.’ And I said, ‘Hal-le-lu-jah. Nice meetin’ ya, gotta go.’ And he said, ‘Wait a minute! We want to offer you something in addition to being the chair. Remember Bobby B. Lyle? This morning, he came over to SMU and had a conversation with the president of the university. He has put down a large sum of money to endow a chair for you by name. We believe it’s the first such endowed chair in the United States focusing on leadership and global entrepreneurship. And it’s only for you. If you come, he puts down the money; if you don’t, we get nothing. And there’s more. The Hunt family, as you know, has put down a very large sum of money to endow an institute here to help the global poor, and they’ve been looking for a founding director. Based upon meeting you last night, they want you to be the founding director. So it’s a three-for. We think this provides you an unequaled academic platform to do the things you indicated were important to you.’”
Talley was speechless. “Well,” he finally managed, “this changes things, and I need to talk to my wife and pray about it. I’ll get back to you.”
The phone campaign continued unabated. Come-hither calls from Kay Bailey Hutchison and, to Talley’s astonishment, Roger Staubach. “Like hell this is Roger Staubach,” he barked into his cell.
On a third trip to Dallas, this time with his wife Linda, Talley met with Mayor Tom Leppert and talked at length about—what else?—the Trinity River project. Private audiences with the CEO of the Catholic Foundation and Bishop Kevin Farrell, chief shepherd of the Diocese of Dallas, were aimed directly at Talley’s faith. “Oh,” he remembers thinking about the scheming, “these people are good.”