Tuesday, September 23, 2003

After 50 years, what makes Jack Gilligan run?

I understand that Jack Gilligan is running for office again. But I'm trying to understand the reason.

First elected to Cincinnati City Council in 1953, John J. Gilligan was Ohio's governor from 1971 to 1975. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives and as President Carter's administrator for international development. He has taught at Xavier, Notre Dame and the University of Cincinnati.

He is well connected, distinguished, smart.

If he served, for instance, on the board of directors of McDonald's, he'd be paid $35,000 plus $2,000 per meeting. Instead he makes $80 per meeting on the board of Cincinnati Public Schools. On a big year, he'll collect maybe $6,000.

Wednesday, he'll be standing on his 82-year-old feet receiving supporters from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Vernon Manor Hotel, raising money to repeat the privilege.

Hasn't he grasped the concept of the Golden Years? Kids raised. Reputation made. Mortgage paid off. Golf. Reading a good book. Maybe writing a good book. You know, getting some laurels, then resting on them. I think "thankless" is part of the job description for school board positions.

He smiles wearily when I wonder such things aloud. The former governor has been described as aloof. I don't see that myself. But he doesn't tear up or gaze into the distance, biting his lip and announcing that he feels our pain. Instead, he rattles off some well-rehearsed numbers.

He left Cincinnati, he says, in the early 1970s when there were 99,000 children in the Cincinnati Public School system. These kids were 70 percent white and 80 percent came from families with a working man's income or above. Now, the system has 41,000 students, 70 percent of whom are African-American and 68 percent receive free or reduced-cost lunches. About half come from single-parent homes.

"It's ridiculous to think we can run a school system like the one that worked 50 years ago," he says.

He presided over a Civic Forum report in 1998 for UC's College of Law, "The Challenge of Child Development in a Changing Society." He became convinced that schools should be neighborhood learning centers, providing health care and social services. He has been working on that for four years, and he'd like to continue.

His daughter, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, will fly into town Wednesday to host the fund-raiser for her dad. But first, they'll tour the site of the new East End School, which will include a health clinic, after-school programs run by the YMCA and a police substation where "kids get to know cops and cops get to know kids other than in the streets," he says.

Scheduled to open for the 2004-05 school year, it is the result of planning by parents, community groups, church leaders and teachers. It has been called "cutting edge" and "modern." Just what the candidate says is needed. But for a guy who is recommending a lot of newfangled school reforms, Gilligan has some decidedly traditional ideas. Especially when he is trying to explain why he is running for office.

"For some kids, the public school system is their one chance for a better life. If they don't get an education, they are headed for the scrap heap, and we can't afford to let that happen."

Concern for children. Responsibility. Duty. And no matter how I pushed and prodded, he couldn't give me a better reason.


E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com or phone 768-8393.

Pulfer: After 50 years, what makes Jack Gilligan run?
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