Photo illustration of David Hackney

David Hackney ’87 Traces His Career in Public Service Back to Lessons Learned on the Hill

Alum’s introduction to Cornell was via a distinguished seatmate on a journey to Ithaca

By Joe Wilensky

It was 1983, and David Hackney ’87 had just boarded a plane in Houston—the first leg of his trip to campus for a six-week pre-freshman summer program.

“I sit next to this gentleman, and as I look over, I see that he’s writing on Cornell letterhead,” Hackney recalls. “I said, ‘Excuse me, sir, do you work for the University?’ And he gave me a big smile, and said: ‘Some say I do; some say I don’t. Actually, I’m the president.’”

That gentleman, of course, was Frank H.T. Rhodes—then in his sixth year of an august tenure as leader of the University that would last until 1995.

Once Hackney realized that Rhodes’s wife, Rosa, was sitting directly behind them, he offered to switch seats. “Absolutely not,” the president replied. “This is an incredible opportunity to be with you on your first journey to Cornell.”

They went on to talk for the entire flight. Says Hackney: “He was the most pleasant conversationalist, and he wanted to learn about me—what I was nervous about, what I was excited about, what I thought I was going to do on campus—and he was giving me suggestions. It was amazing.”

In Newark, the two parted ways. “He, of course, was flying directly to Ithaca,” says Hackney. “I couldn’t afford that. I was flying to Syracuse and then catching a bus to Cornell.”

A financial aid promise

David Hackney in the team photo for the Big Red football team his freshman year
Hackney played football for the Big Red his freshman year. (Photo: Provided)

Hackney arrived on the Hill as an ILR School student and football recruit (though he only played one season). He’d go on to earn a JD from Harvard Law School and an MPA from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government before launching a distinguished career in public service that includes his current job as an elected state representative in Washington State.

But for Hackney, completing his Cornell degree was never a sure thing. He was the youngest of three children; his paternal grandfather was a Pullman porter and a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first African-American union in the nation.

His maternal grandfather was a sharecropper who fled the Jim Crow south and worked in the automotive industry for decades.

Hackney’s parents—who had both started college but didn’t graduate—made sure that he took college prep classes and helped him get a combination of scholarships and financial aid to attend Cornell, though affording tuition and expenses each semester remained a struggle.

On the Hill, Hackney became a student activist; he remembers one protest in particular during his freshman year by the Black Students Association, in which they called for divestment from South Africa, more investment in the Africana studies program, and increased financial aid for minority students.

President Rhodes came out of Day Hall, and after receiving a list of student demands, he spoke to them and seemed sympathetic, encouraging them to prioritize their requests.

Rhodes then addressed the financial aid concerns. “And I’ll never forget it,” Hackney recalls. “He said, ‘If any student has to leave Cornell because of finances, they should come see me first.’ It just stuck in my head.”

And I’ll never forget it—[President Rhodes] said, ‘If any student has to leave Cornell because of finances, they should come see me first.’

David Hackney ’87

Hackney buckled down academically, going from a 2.1 GPA to making the dean’s list every semester by his junior year. He learned public speaking skills, and credits his collective bargaining professor, Harry Katz—later the school’s dean—for teaching him how to write well and persuasively.

Toward the end of his junior year, Hackney’s mother experienced a recurrence of throat cancer, which had been in remission. His father had been laid off, and when he resumed work, her disease was considered a pre-existing condition and their health insurance denied coverage for its treatment. As Hackney took his finals, his mom went into a coma and later died; the family was left not only with the tragic loss but with daunting medical bills.

When Hackney returned to Cornell that fall, he was unable to register for classes since his tuition was overdue. After financial aid staff tried to work out a payment plan, they put him on the phone with his father—who told him, regretfully, that he’d have to come home.

Then Hackney remembered Rhodes’s financial aid promise to the student protesters. Thinking he had nothing to lose, he headed to Day Hall and was eventually given a meeting with staff in the president’s office. Shortly thereafter, Rhodes authorized a direct loan for Hackney that covered both his remaining semesters.

“At Commencement, as I’m walking to the Arts Quad, President Rhodes was there,” Hackney recalls. “And he shakes my hand and says, ‘David, I was here on your first day, and I’m proud to be here on your graduation day. Congratulations.’ So he never forgot.”

Attorney and activist

After working for the Ford Motor Company as a labor relations representative—and successfully repaying the loan Rhodes had facilitated—Hackney headed to Harvard for grad school. He went on to build a varied résumé in public service that includes working as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Department of Justice; a teacher of trial advocacy at the National Advocacy Center; a war crimes prosecutor for the United Nations in the Hague; and senior counsel for global human resources at the Nature Conservancy.

Hackney moved to the Seattle area in 2016 to work in HR for Amazon. He became heavily involved in the community, volunteering for an organization empowering minority-owned businesses and for a nonprofit that works to prevent gun violence. He was appointed to the Washington State Human Rights Commission in 2019, and joined the adjunct law faculty at the University of Washington.

Hackney, a state senator in Washington State representing south King County, attends a Habitat for Humanity Seattle event earlier this year
Hackney speaks at a Habitat for Humanity Seattle event earlier this year. (Photo: Provided)

In his 2020 bid for state legislator representing his south King County district, he unseated an 18-year incumbent and fellow Democrat, winning with 61% of the vote. In office, he has worked to bring broadband access to economically disadvantaged communities and advocated for human rights, civil rights, and responsible gun ownership.

The Washington State legislature is part time, in session from January through April. The 2021 session was held entirely online, but it was nevertheless one of the most significant in the state’s history—passing a cap-and-trade bill, a low-carbon fuel standard, and a capital gains tax. Hackney’s goals for the next session include facilitating the state’s transition to a green economy while remaining economically competitive, and advancing bills to protect consumers and tenants (the majority of his district’s residents are renters).

Over the decades and through the various stages of his career, Hackney has periodically reflected on his long-ago encounters with Rhodes. He notes with some regret that he never reached out to the then-president emeritus—who died in 2020 at age 93—to tell him how much his help and encouragement had meant to him.

“I didn’t recognize the gravity of what he did for me until years later,” Hackney says. “I hope he would have been proud.”

Top image: David Hackney in an illustration by Cornell University.

Published: December 22, 2021


Comments

  1. Elizabeth Suarez, Class of 1984

    This is such an inspiring story. Dr Rhodes was instrumental for many of us. He believed in inclusiveness and provided many of us with the means to attend Cornell. I was a scholarship recipient who came from Puerto Rico as a way of expanding diversity across the university. I was one of 20, who attended Cornell, a place that changed all of us.

  2. Gail Stoller Baer, Class of 1987

    Dave, I nearly jumped out of my chair when I saw your name! This is outstanding, and I love everything you have accomplished. I think of you often as the friendliest guy living across the hall from me in our Sperry days freshman year. You always had a smile for me and a huge hello. What a year that was! Frank H.T. Rhodes certainly had an impact on all of us. Well done!

    • David Hackney, Class of 1987

      Gail, great to hear from you. Let’s reconnect.

  3. Timothy Muck, Class of 1992

    That is an amazing story! I am a Washington state resident and a retired public interest lawyer. Retired because I have been sidelined by multiple sclerosis. I have worked hard to overcome many of the side effects of the disease, including double vision, which I overcame, I believe, by removing my mercury amalgam dental fillings. These days, at age 61, I live in an adult family home in the city of Shoreline, a small city located geographically adjacent to the city of Seattle. Maintaining my status as a member of the Washington State Bar Association seemed impracticable. So, I retired. I am still a public policy activist, and I am currently working with a group of other public policy activists to create a public bank for the state of Washington. I am far from being an expert on the subject of public banking, but I have not let that deter me. In the early 1990’s, I was so disgusted by the mass incarceration that the “war on drugs” was creating, I started a public drive to create an alternative to incarceration for nonviolent, first-time drug law offenders. When the drug court was finally created in 1994, it was the ninth such court in the US. Today, there are more than 3,000 drug diversion courts in the US. I am eager to write to Mr. Hackney and see if the Washington state legislature can provide any funding to get this public bank project started.

  4. Will Andersen, Class of 1993

    Thank you for sharing Mr. Hackney’s career success story that started with plane ride to Cornell with President Rhodes. Later today, I look forward to share Mr. Hackney’s Cornell and work experience during a CAAAN contact meeting. As a member of the Class of 1993, I very much admire President Rhodes. I cannot count how many times I have met and heard about Cornellians who enjoyed and cherish the impromptu talks with President Rhodes on trips heading to or from Ithaca / Cornell. Today, I realize our CAAAN talks must have been inspired by President Rhodes. Today, there are many CAAAN volunteers who sit and listens to continue to this Cornell tradition to meet and listen to each person who aspires to be and who currently is a Cornellian.

  5. Jill Schwartz, Class of 1983

    Inspiring. Just what I needed to lift me up on a freezing cold day in the middle of a pandemic as I recover from my fathers death just a few weeks ago. Life goes on and there is good in the world.

  6. Linda Gavel Webb, Class of 1983

    Beautiful story. President Rhodes was so wonderful. Cheering for you,David!

  7. Mary Ann Arias, Class of 1995

    I enjoyed reading this incredible story and the impact of your encounters with Frank Rhodes, someone who truly empathized and cared for others, on your Cornell Career and life. I remember attending an Ice Cream Party with Frank H.T. Rhodes as a Freshman in the Fall of 1991, that was my first time meeting him. Have gave me his undivided attention about all my concerns as a new student in a conversation that didn’t last more than a few minutes, but seemed like an eternity. He really inspired me with his care and compassion for all Cornell students. I remember how he was always a larger than life presence on campus whenever you’d see him on campus, always approachable and seemed to have your back. It was incredible to take the last leg of his journey as President with him. I cried at his “farewell speech” at our graduation. ABD…all but degree, what a humble man. I believe this is our way out of and past this pandemic situation …to just care about the world more and how we live in it. A commitment for the greater good can outlast any pandemic!

  8. Jim Frontero, Class of 1987

    What a great story! Dave was one of the first Cornellians I met on the Hill. We were both Freshmen Football players and played the same position. I recall Dave being a good player and an even better person – a total class act!

  9. Todd Baker, Class of 1986

    David, Wow, what a story. There is no way you would remember this but we met during the summer in between our Cornell spring and fall (I was a year ahead of you and we met at a party in New York City I believe — can’t remember which year but probably 1985 or even 1986 after I graduated). You were so impressive — I knew you were going places and I’m so glad you are running for trustee because my memory of you then is now current after all these years, and my hunch that you would do important things has been verified. I do a lot of recruiting at Cornell, and I always stay at Statler. A few years back, my elevator stopped on a lower floor and in walked Frank Rhodes, with a walker, lots of aides assisting him, and of course with his wife as well. It meant so much to me to tell him the parts of his 1986 commencement address that resonated with me, and also to be able to thank him for the incredible experience I had at Cornell, and I’m sorry you did not have the chance to do the same even though your connection was very strong — I understand that. But if he were around, he would tell you not to worry about that — his time in the moment with you was obviously precious as he shut down your gracious offer to let his wife take your spot on the plane, and then he followed through on his promise about finances. He was a great guy, and you are a great guy — actions, not words — all in the moment. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your words. Good luck, and you definitely have my vote. All the best, Todd

  10. Jill Siegel, Class of 1975

    This story reminded me of a flight to Ithaca I was on with President Rhodes. He was seated on the aisle and directly behind me. A fellow Cornellian woman was climbing over President Rhodes instead of waiting for him, as he attempted to stand to let her pass by easily. She was carrying her backpack, which got squished as she passed in front of President Rhodes … and her blueberry yogurt squirted all over his face and shirt. She had no idea who it was seated next to her. He was cleaning himself up and she was horrified (imagine how horrified she would have been had she known who he was!). President Rhodes remained his charming, witty self … and kept assuring her and asking about her Cornell experiences … but she never understood the context. Meanwhile, I did my best to control my laughter because she was not “getting it”. I turned around and smiled at the person I consider “Cornell’s Best President”, and he winked at me … recognizing that I knew who he was and I WAS “getting it”.

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