Believing in Angels!

Adapted from the 2nd book in Joseph Batory’s trilogy, Joey’s Story, 2002, Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD and London, UK.

I have a dream, a fantasy
To help me through reality
And my destination makes it worth the while
Pushing through the darkness still another mile

I believe in angels
Something good in everything I see
I believe in angels (ABBA)

As the superintendent of schools in Upper Darby over a 15-year period, I attended 453 consecutive evening School Board meetings. Most of them were not fun! That is because the democratic openness of a School Board meeting can sometimes be a painful and challenging experience for School Board members and their superintendent. Every one of our Upper Darby meetings was open to public comment, complaints, and sometimes personal attacks.

In 1984, I had only been a superintendent for a few weeks when I got my first experience as a target. Nothing too serious, just a bunch of disgruntled citizens ranting and raving about school taxes and making me as the guilty party.  I was not used to this. But I stayed quiet.  Best to bite your tongue during public attacks. No sense in making things worse. And the public barrage soon ended. However, I do believe every superintendent should have an underground bunker for such occasions. I could have really used one.

When the next School Board meeting rolled around a few weeks later, I was very apprehensive. The last School Board meeting chaos had received lots of coverage in area newspapers. One headline termed me “the beleaguered superintendent!” I was now thinking that being a school superintendent might get tired in a hurry. And then just a few minutes before the start time, I saw Rocco, of all people in the back of the board room. Rocco was one of my very Italian friends from many years ago in the neighborhood in Southwest Philadelphia where I grew up. I bolted from my chair and sprinted to the rear of the room. I hugged the muscular and ponytailed black-haired Rocco and asked him what he was doing at, of all places, a School Board meeting in Upper Darby.

Rocco‘s answer was chilling. The word back in my old Philly neighborhood was that Joey (that’s me!!!) needed help. Any future attackers of me were to be straightened out. I nearly fainted on the spot. The meeting was about to start. My knees were shaking. I was now sweating large droplets of fear about what might happen.

However, one thing about School Board meetings is that they are never predictable. Thankfully, contrary to the last meeting’s pandemonium, this School Board session was orderly and peaceful. No attacks and just a few public inquiries about routine school business. The session was over in 45 minutes. Rocco just stood there glaring. No enemies to dispose of! Thank heavens! I said goodbye to my old friend with great relief.   But then Rocco told me not to worry.  He would be back! Oh dear! I knew I had to do something.

A few days later I traveled back to my old neighborhood after work. I had an appointment with another old friend from my youth, Salvatore, the boss of the organization to which Rocco reported, in the back of the local Catholic Church.  After reminiscing a bit about the days of our teenage days, I pleaded with Sal to back off and let me sink or swim in my new job as superintendent of schools.

Sal said I was being stupid.  He argued that I was trying to help kids so why should I have to put up with public abuse.  Finally, after much back and forth (and intense begging from me), Sal agreed to call off my “protection.”  I knew that Sal was disappointed.  He just wanted to help and so did Rocco and others. Maybe I was being dumb in refusing their help.

Nevertheless, I changed the subject and quickly veered off our discussion about “protection.” I remembered that Upper Darby guidance counselors, social workers and principals were constantly coming across families and students in Upper Darby with financial needs of all sorts.

There were heartbreaking stories of Upper Darby kids who were not able to participate in nominal cost activities because of economic circumstances at home. There were young people who could not afford the cost of the SAT exam or academic enrichment activities that involved fees.  Some kids could not pay the cost of educational field trips or for other related school activities or for the senior prom. There were students who needed winter clothing and others with health needs unattended because they were poor.

I tried to lighten Sal’s mood.  I told him that I was thinking of establishing a Superintendent’s Student Assistance Fund to be used for kids with serious financial needs.  But, by this time, Sal’s eyes were glazed over.  He seemed to have lost interest and he went up to the front of the church to say a private prayer or whatever. Clearly, my “protection” days were over.  Somewhat despondently, I headed back to Upper Darby.

Two days later when I arrived at work in the Administration Building, I found a plain white envelope on my desktop. The typewritten lettering on the envelope read: To Joey’s Superintendent’s Assistance Fund for Needy Kidsfrom an anonymous donor. Inside the envelop, there was $1000 in $10 bills. No other message accompanied the money.

I hesitated only for a millisecond. I decided not to think about where this money came from. My Superintendent’s Student Assistance Fund was born that morning!

Years ago, there was a television show called The Millionaire. Its weekly stories were basically the same. Some good person each week was desperate for money. The millionaire sent his representative with the money to solve the dilemma and saved the day.  

Similarly, I was now able to dole out assistance for educational and enrichment activities to Upper Darby students and families with financial needs. Of course, I was handing out gifts much smaller than $1 million. But in all my years as a school superintendent, nothing ever felt so good.

             ____________________________________________________________________

Watchful principals of my schools would bring educational financial needs to my attention. And then I would make something possible that had been impossible for deserving young students.______________________________________________

As time went on, word quietly spread through the school system regarding the Superintendent’s Student Assistance Fund. Fresh donations then came in periodically from alumni, teachers, administrators, School Board members, area business owners and others.

I especially remember some larger gifts to the Superintendent’s Student Assistance Fund. One was ten thousand dollars in cash, given by a prominent Upper Darby resident who asked that his donation be kept anonymous. I used most of that money in a myriad of wonderful ways to make things happen that would never have happened for Upper Darby students.

So, there you have it. Caring people, not seeking any credit, donating money to help needy Upper Darby students. Angelic intervention! Lives positively and significantly touched for the better.  And what could be more important?

As I faced school system challenges and problems during my long tenure as superintendent of schools, Teresa Furey, the legendary president of the Upper Darby School Board, often lifted my spirits by telling me to always believe in angels.

And so, that’s just what I did.  In Upper Darby because of caring and giving people, I began to believe in angels…and I still do!

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