TOM AND HIS SONS

Tom O’Donnell was a singular person in both my professional and personal life. It was not as if I saw him very often, but his appearance as a gadfly in public discourse and as a personal friend was significant. Tom came from an area in Pennsylvania known as the “Coal Country.” For those who are natives of PA, or have lived there most of their lives, that means something. Their long history as the center of the coal mining industry, their growth as a labor movement, and their rawboned politics stamped them forever in the minds of most Pennsylvanians.

You could not say coal country without conjuring up images of the Molly Maguires and the bushy eye browed John L. Lewis. The politics of the area was openly hostile to outsiders and to those who saw them as corrupt politicians. In the eyes of the locals, politicians were there to bring home the bacon for the folks who lived there. Jobs were bought and sold to the satisfaction of those who needed those jobs. For those outside the pale, nepotism was a no no. For coal country folks, it was a way of life.

The demise of most of the coal business to the EPA and the effects of hurricane Agnes in 1972 changed the area. Congressman Dan Flood did much to try and revitalize the area. He was the archtypical coal country politician. As he ended his term in office, his wheelings and dealings caused him to be accused of many shady activities. Tom O’Donnell was to be Dan Flood’s successor. It never happened.

I met Tom, a true child of the coal country when he became the Intermediate Director of Luzerne I.U. 18. His Wilkes Barre connection enabled him to take over a mordant organization that was going nowhere. He brought in some fresh blood and energized the place.

Since there are 29 I.U.s (regional education service agencies), there were 29 I.U. Directors. We met every month in Harrisburg to get our marching orders from the Secretary of Education. I had become an I.U.. Director in 1982, Tom, a few years later. He had been teaching at Kings College. I may be off somewhat about Tom’s career, but I do remember his first meeting. Tom had a great deal of trouble putting up with b.s. He spoke up at the first meeting that he attended. Before that time, I had only felt close to another I.U. Director, Pat Toole. He was someone who was far ahead of the rest of us in programming and technology. The fact that he was in a rural area made me want to see how he did it.

Tom seemed to be right on target about most of the things that I had been challenging. The suburban intermediate units were in full thrall in running everything. Between Tom, Pat and I, that changed over a course of time. It culminated with me being elected President of the intermediate units. I always had the feeling that through some back door shenanigans, by Pat and Tom, I had been crowned. As I look back at those times, I wonder if there was some ethnic combination between two Irishers and a Jew. Since both Tom and Pat are no longer with us, I will not know.

Tom and his wife had four sons. I got to know all of them during our friendship. Kevin worked with his dad at the vocational technical school. Tom left his position at the I.U. to become the Director of the Wilkes Barre school. Kevin ran a program within the school and had been there for quite a while. He was a sharp and outspoken guy. Kevin and I had many discussions about what he wanted to do next. He eventually wound up as director of a vocational technical school in Mifflin County. A superintendent of schools in a school district in the north central part of the state and finally as director of a vocational technical school in the western part of the state and an acting superintendent. Kevin and I still communicate quite often as he heads towards retirement and a new life.

Neil is an attorney. Somehow, he and I have developed a relationship because of his dad’s retirement and the way Tom was treated on his way out of the vocational technical school. Neil had some desire to run for public office. I am not sure if that was good for him or not. He is a wonderful attorney and someone I would want in my corner if I needed a consigliere. I have called on Neil to help with certain problems with school superintendents, even as late as a few months ago. He is a reader of my blogs and always has something positive to say.

Tom Jr. is one of the sons that are furthest from me personally, but a continual reader of my blogs and reactor to what I have to say. He worked in state government and spent the last year of his dad’s life taking care of him. That is a symbol of the way the O’Donnell family operates. When their mom passed away a number of years ago, they surrounded their dad and took care of him.

Brian and I spent lots of time talking about how he should approach running for the school board in Wilkes Barre and what to do when he got on, which he did. He is very child oriented and is a local optometrist. His time on the school board was a good thing for the kids in the school district.

I last saw all four at Tom O’ Donnell’s funeral. There were many dignitaries there, including Senator Bob Casey. Carol and I were at the church and loved the ceremony. It was befitting of Tom.

In the last years of his life, Tom had a job in Harrisburg. He and I, and sometimes Carol, went out for lunch from time to time. His deep baritone voice (he had a gig in N.Y. doing voice overs) still rings in my ears. “What the hell are you supporting that for? As the smartest Jew that I know, you should know better.”

 

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HOW COME SOME PEOPLE WITH HORRIBLE BACKGROUNDS MAKE IT AND OTHERS DON’T?

This question pops up now and again with people who are convinced that some people are lazy and don’t try to succeed. Other people with negative backgrounds, poverty, real dysfunctional families, abuse, neglect, drugs and so on do make it. The conclusion by some is that the ones who do not succeed are lazy and don’t try hard enough. If you tried hard enough, you would do well.

Most of you find this to be a large crock of burnt parsnips. The road to success is varied, as is the road to failure. There are many public stories of folks who have inherited wealth, had good family upbringing, had all of the advantages and failed as human beings in many ways. There are even stories about siblings coming from the same background and going in different directions. I have a personal story of that kind.

A friend of mine had four other male siblings. His success in life was obvious to me. He had worked for a large corporation and wound up as their chief financial officer. While this was happening, his brothers were working on becoming ne’er do wells and felons. I spent some time discussing this happening with my friend. Our only conclusion was that he must have been a genetic anomaly. Some would say that his siblings were lazy and he was ambitious. That does not hold water in any circumstance. Why would he be more ambitious than his brothers?

The nature nurture thing goes just so far before it falls apart. In searching for answers, using anecdotal information, it appears that somewhere in a person’s growth period, one becomes attached to some sort of mentor. The mentor does not have to be someone in the family. It could be a teacher, a boss, a friend, a colleague, or anyone else. In working with students in two scholarship programs, we noticed that those who failed seemed not to have hooked up with an adult in their schools, or even in their lives.

It could also be true that the found mentor leads certain people down to the road of perdition. It is also apparent that those who think that trying harder is the answer apply their philosophy to large groups of people. You can guess what groups that might be.

 

LISTEN UP OLD PEOPLE

 

Yes, I do mean you. If you are over a certain age, you must have children and some grandchildren. Some of you, I know this for a fact, have great-grandchildren. So what’s the game? Even if you have no children or grandchildren and have some feelings for the generations to come, this still applies to you. You have been hearing so many loud words in the past year or so about how our country should be. It is all a political kabuki theater.

No person on this green earth can accurately predict what is even going to happen next year. If you have been made to be afraid, and you have believed what comes out of the mouths of political grandstanders, cut the crap. You have evidently lived through lots of these kinds of threats before. Vote for so and so. He will keep us out of war (how many times have you heard that). He will create millions of jobs and grow our economy. He will keep us safe. He will bring back civility and transform our education system so that it will be the wonder of the world. He will save social security and we will increase the middle class.

If you just put some money in your 401k account it will grow much faster than the pitiful pension that you are getting from the . . .All of these investments are insured by the FDIC or is there still a FSLIC? Then hear some say that we should eliminate half of our federal government, or abrogate laws that are presently on the books. We will cut our imports and be the exporter to the world as we once were. Let us be as powerful as we once were.

If all of these things seem familiar to you, and you have heard them before, time and again, take the time to look at the evidence on you own. As people with a passel of experience, you can separate the wheat from the chaff. Think about how your children will fare in a world where only certain people have the right answers. Sit back for a moment and think of your children and grandchildren and how they will fare in a world where only some people have the right answers to things. Then go back a year or two and see how the stiff necked predictors have fared. Didn’t one of the loudmouths, who predicts the stock market have to apologize for making a grand mistake? I still think he is selling his wares on pt. and in books. As grandma used to say to some of her annoying acquaintances, “ Gey in drerd areign” (literally, go into the earth, or drop dead).

THE LAST WORD ABOUT THE LAST WORD

 

I usually watch Lawrence O’Donnell before going to sleep. He has a somnambulant effect on me. Most of what he says is interesting, sometimes sophomoric, but always spoken in an angry tone. His work with getting desks into schools in Malawi with the U.N. is altruistic and fine. The other night, however, he did not make me drowsy, he made me really angry.

L.O. blamed the current lack of uncivility in discourse in both the current primary season and within the country, on our educational system. I do not know how he knows this. He demeaned our system of public schools by calling them failed. His cocksure vision of what’s going on in schools in the United States brings into question his views on a plethora of other things.

This general view of schooling in our country is echoed by other non-thinkers in our current batch of critics and circus clowns. Their information is so lacking evenhandedness that I am shocked that there has not been a widespread response from educators. Our education system is not failing; it is our uneven system of funding schools and the raging poverty in many of our metro and rural schools.

The studies of the relationship between poverty and success in schools are many and convincing. Having worked in those kinds of places for a good part of my life and even today, displayed to me why these children are not making it. You may also want to check who takes the international tests in Singapore, Iceland, Shanghai and others. Public schools take everyone.

Right, you are going to say that so and so crawled out of his/her circumstances and overcame their background and went on to invent the …, or discovered a cure for …, or was elected to . . . Yes, there are those who have done such things. However, they are not the norm, nor do they represent a statistically significant part of any study. Kids living in poverty do not do well in school. Some do not do well in life in general.

The current primary season shows just how wrong Mr. O’Donnell is. Of the six candidates left on both sides of the aisles, four of them went to public schools. Care to guess who went to private schools? How about Mr.Trump and Mr. Cruz. The others went to public schools.

Civilized discourse is not a reflection of our educational system. It is a direct result of upbringing and the world brought into our living room.

 

 

 

GYM RATS

You may not have heard that term before; it is not a term of derision. It refers mainly to young men and now young women who spend inordinate amounts of time in a gymnasium. It was, at first, applied to men who played basketball without surcease. I was one of those people from the time I was 13 to the age of 19. In some of those years, I would play 7 hours a day, and then come home to a meal of a gallon of milk and a box of Nabisco chocolate chip cookies. I assure you that those days are gone.

Down here in adult Disneyworld, there are three gyms, called amenities centers. Yes, they do have restaurants, meeting halls, pools and suchlike, but the gym is the focus of the interest. I appear at the gym somewhere around 4 or 5 times a week. During my seven months here, I have become interested in some of the characters at play during exercise time.

I have become friendly with Jim (the other brother) Smothers. I name him because he really does know the Smothers Brothers and has been in their company a number of times. Jim has a wonderful smile and winning ways. He is way beyond helpful. At the moment when a new person comes into the gym, he is quick to say hello, answer questions and direct the people to the appropriate piece of apparatus. He is careful not to give out advice about physical training. He leaves that to the trainers.

The Virginian is an annoyance. I have been directed by my orthopedist that did my knee replacement to only use a stationary bike where you sit up and pedal. There is only one such bike in the gym that I go to. In another gym on the premises there are none and two at the furthest amenity center. So, I go to the one nearest me. No matter what time I get there, the Virginian is always there. He seems to be following me from my home and hops on the bike as soon as I get out of the locker room. He is a tall man with snow white hair and seems to enjoy the competition.

I call him the Virginian because he once remarked when I was wearing my Roanoke Colleg80 e hat that he was from that area. He was explicit about where his town was. As soon as he said it, I forgot everything that he said because I was signing in to ride the bike. One can only be 30 minutes on the bikes or treadmills. I am now doing serpentine driving to the gym (a la Peter Falk in the “In-laws”) in hopes that he is not following me.

There are as many women at the gym as men. Some are in pretty sad shape, as are some of the men. However some are really well conditioned and are serious about physical activity. My own wife swims 36 laps of the pool (½ mile) every other day. She does a few mile walk on the other days. I ran into a woman the other day that I will describe as, “The Pretzel.” As I was doing my own stretching exercises, she was lying down on the floor doing everything possible so that she could fit into someone’s suitcase. I have only seen such doings on the Ed Sullivan Show.

I have trouble describing how she can put her head down on the floor between her knees while bending over. Her hands extend way beyond her toes. She can do a split very easily. When I commented on her flexibility, she said that anyone can do what she was doing. I begged to differ with her. She then admitted that any gymnast could do it. Of course, she used to be a gymnast.

There are also men and women who can push fantastic weights, either with free weights or machines. I am now in the 60-80 lb. level on most of the machines. I have to be very careful when I get on to any machine because most of them are at 150-200 lbs. There are very few overly muscular men and women. For some reason, 60-80 year olds don’t seem to develop those kinds of muscle mass. However, most of the men and women don’t have batwings (figure that one out).

The locker room is always a good laugh. In it, you can find singers, tall tale tellers and men from where you come from. There are often great political discussions by men in towels. I tend to be fairly quiet there. Once in a great while I run into someone from Pennsylvania who knew where I had been a superintendent of schools. I actually met John B. there. He was a teacher in a district in Western Pa. where Carol and I had done some work. That’s a story for another time.

I am always anxious to get to the gym and even more enthused about finishing my one hour stint there.

 

IN _____ WE TRUST

 

Yes, I know what word should go in there. Right now, I am not referring to the almighty; I am trying to find someone on the national stage to trust. I am not just talking about politicians or faux politicians; I am talking about a well-known person. Are there any people out there who can say, “I really trust so and so? He/she has been straight with us for many years.” Who would those people be?

This is not just an older person talking about “in my day we had. . .” If you continue to think that way, the rubber truck will be by on Friday afternoon to take you to the cookie factory. This is a broad question about the state of our country right now. If you have been watching the news, or reading the news, or internetting the news, have you found someone that seems to be a straight arrow? Are we now left with late night comedic hosts, serious looking news purveyors, bloggers with an axe to grind, or political pundits? When you get down to it, do you trust anyone on the public stage?