Walt Kelly? Don Mitchell? Fred W. Bewley? Leon Shimkin? A. C. Monteith? W. Willard Wirtz? Hubert Humphrey? Howard J. Samuels? George H. W. Bush? W. C. Fields? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Walt Kelly authored the magnificent comic strip “Pogo” featuring hilarious wordplay. He has been credited with the following oxymoronic phrase:
Our problem is an insurmountable opportunity.
I have been unable to find a solid citation, and now I am unsure about this ascription. Would you please help?
Quote Investigator: QI has not found this saying in Walt Kelly’s oeuvre, and based on current evidence QI would not credit Kelly. However, the comic strip text has not been fully digitized, and this judgment is not definitive.
The earliest match for this joke located by QI appeared in the proceedings of a conference on advertising in 1956. Don Mitchell of the Creative Education Foundation in Buffalo, New York delivered the line while conversing with a staff member of the General Electric Company. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
Mr. Mitchell: Thank you, Ed, very much. You talked about GE having opportunities. I think we ought to tell the folks that GE call their problems opportunities, but there are quite a few people who feel there are some insurmountable opportunities around.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1959 Fred W. Bewley who was speaking to attendees at the American Association of School Administrators conference entertained his audience with a version of the joke: 2
I trust I shall not be found in the position of the teacher whose principal had talked to the staff about problems. The substance of what he had said was that problems were not problems at all; they were simply opportunities. And the teacher came to him a few days later saying that he needed his help because he had found himself confronted with an insurmountable opportunity. [Laughter]
The phrase was not always intended to be comical. In 1960 an article from the UPI news service mentioned three top tennis players: Neale Fraser, Rod Laver, and Bob Mark who were expected to produce a triumph at a tournament: 3
The Australian threesome—Fraser, Laver and Mark—appeared to give the Aussies an almost insurmountable opportunity to take our national title “down under” for the fifth straight year.
In 1962 a widely-distributed newspaper column reported that a powerful publishing executive employed the jest. The ellipsis was in the original text: 4
Leon Shimkin, head of Pocket Books, heard a Madison Av. agency boss tell his staff: “In this business there really is no such thing as a problem; it’s only an opportunity” . . . The next day an employe approached the agency boss, and began: “I have an insurmountable opportunity.”
In 1963 electrical engineer A. C. Monteith received the Edison Medal for his professional accomplishments. His message of acceptance described an interaction with a fellow engineer: 5
I remember years ago, when I was manager of Central Station Engineering, a promising young engineer in my department used to come into my office and say, “Mr. Monteith, I have a problem.” After a few months, I decided to get him to think positively, and the next time he came in with those words, I said, “John, don’t say you have a problem. What you have is an opportunity.” He went back to his desk and thought about this. The next time he came in to see me, he said, “Mr. Monteith, I have an insurmountable opportunity.”
In March 1968 the gag was linked to Walt Kelly’s comic strip “Pogo” by a high-level U.S. administrator. This version was deliberately ungrammatical: 6
Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz, talking to hundreds of the nation’s leading businessmen the other day, felt called upon to quote Walt Kelly’s Pogo:
“We is faced with insurmountable opportunity.”
He was talking about providing work to the poor, of matching the jobs and potential jobs of a plentiful economy with the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of jobless persons in the nation’s big cities.
Also in March 1968 the U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey used the gag during a speech: 7
Vice President Humphrey, unexcelled in providing the “rousements” at a rally of this kind, all but apologized for the necessity of government. He sounded as though he were making an acceptance speech after having been elected president of the United States Chamber of Commerce. The major threat to this country, he said, was that of “insurmountable opportunity.” And the businessmen loved it.
In April 1968 U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce Howard J. Samuels attributed a different version of the saying to “Pogo”: 8
Samuels began by saying that the last seven years have seen “the greatest economic growth in the history of this country.” Then quoting Pogo, the comic strip character, he said America is a land of “insurmountable opportunity.”
In June 1968 a conference on the “Status of Women” was held in Washington D.C. and Willard Wirtz attributed slightly different words to ‘Pogo”: 9
“What I have tried to say could perhaps be suggested more aptly, more directly, and more lightly in the terms of Pogo, that philosopher of the southern swamplands, who one day proudly announced, ‘We have met the enemy and it is us.’ A week later he declared he finally understood our problem, ‘Our problem is insurmountable opportunity.’
In 1970 George H. W. Bush used the comical phrase. He later became the 41st U.S. President: 10
The United States has emerged from its “most troubled decade” and is taking new directions in what has been called an era of “insurmountable opportunity,” U.S. Rep. George Bush told the San Antonio Rotary Club Wednesday at the St. Anthony Hotel.
In 1971 an article in the “Journal of International Business Studies” credited the well-known comedian W. C. Fields 11
I have said my piece, responding I suppose to what W. C. Fields once called “an insurmountable opportunity”. By way of conclusion I would call for increased wariness in extending the past into the future.
In 1979 “The Book of Quotes” compiled by Barbara Rowes included the following entry without citation: 12
We are confronted with insurmountable opportunities.
In conclusion, the ascription to Walt Kelly’s “Pogo” comic strip is currently unsupported. The earliest evidence in 1956 revealed Don Mitchell of Buffalo, New York employed the line. Thus, QI tentatively credits Mitchell although the ascription may shift if earlier citations are discovered in the future.
(Great thanks to Mardy Grothe whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Mardy’s latest wonderful book is “Metaphors Be With You: An A to Z Dictionary of History’s Greatest Metaphorical Quotations”. Many thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake who accessed the 1956 and 1959 citations. Special thanks to Ben Zimmer who identified some valuable 1968 citations from W. Willard Wirtz. Additional thanks to John Baker and Robin Hamilton for their “Pogo” expertise.)
- 1956, Proceedings of the Thirteenth Annual Advertising and Sales Promotion Executive Conference, Held at The Ohio Union, The Ohio State University Campus on October 26, 1956, Brainstorming–It’s Application to Creative Advertising by Don Mitchell (Associate Director, Creative Education Foundation, Buffalo, New York), Start Page 4, Quote Page 19, Ohio State University, College of Commerce and Administration, Columbus, Ohio. (Verified with scans; thanks to the library system of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) ↩
- 1959, Your AASA in 1958-1959, Official Report of the American Association of School Administrators for the Year 1958, Section: 1959 Annual Meeting, Shankland Scholarships Presented by Associated Exhibitors to Fred W. Bewley and Roger C. Seager by Richard C. Chapman, (Quotation spoken by Fred W. Bewley), Start Page 215, Quote Page 216, Published by American Association of School Administrators, Washington, D.C. (Verified with scans; thanks to the library system of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) ↩
- 1960 September 9, The Akron Beacon Journal In National Net Win: Aussie ‘Cramps’ MacKay’s Style (UPI), Quote Page 37, Column 1, Akron, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1962 June 11, New York Post, The Lyons Den by Leonard Lyons (Syndicated), Quote Page 31, Column 3, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1963 March, Electrical Engineering, Volume 82, Number 3, 1962 Edison Medalist: Response of the medalist by A. C. Monteith, Start Page 192, Quote Page 193, Column 1, IEEE Society, New York. (IEEE Xplore Digital Library eeexplore.ieee.org) ↩
- 1968 March 24, The Sunday Star (Evening Star), Facing Up to the Job Crisis by James Welsh and Betty James (Star Staff Writers), Quote Page 1, Column 3, Washington D.C. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1968 March 26, The Journal News, Big Business Back in Town by Robert W. Lucas, Quote Page 18, Column 7, White Plains, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1968 April 22, Democrat and Chronicle, Samuels hits U.S. ‘Myths’ by Bruce Lambert Jr. (Democrat and Chronicle Political Writer), Quote Page B1, Column 7, Rochester, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1968: Time for Action: Highlights of the Fourth National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women, Held June 20 to 22, 1968, (Call to Action: Hon. Willard Wirtz, Secretary of Labor, Remarks delivered June 20, 1968), Quote Page 4, Published by U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (HathiTrust) link ↩
- 1970 January 8, San Antonio Express, Bush Predicts Reforms by Kemper Diehl, Quote Page 10F, Column 1, San Antonio, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1971 Spring, Journal of International Business Studies, The Future of International Management by Richard D. Robinson, Volume 2, Number 1, Start Page 60, Quote Page 70, Published by Palgrave Macmillan Journals. (JSTOR) link ↩
- 1979, The Book of Quotes, Compiled by Barbara Rowes, Quote Page 13, A Sunrise Book: E. P. Dutton, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩