A death in the family

What can you say about the terminal illness and death of Seattle Schools Superintendent John Stanford? “Nothing” has been the answer from the Seattle Weekly: Our news staff has sat silent while our counterparts in the mainstream media kept a running log as the dying superintendent traveled from hospital to home and back again, urging kids to read along the way.

Our silence hasn’t simply stemmed from fear that criticism of the media frenzy would be interpreted as a cruel attack on a leukemia patient (although that’s certainly a factor). It’s genuinely difficult to find words to express why the excessive, fawning coverage of Stanford seems so distasteful and unsettling.

Perhaps it’s that the ascension of the superintendent from ordinary mortal to civic demigod says nothing about John Stanford the person, but a great deal about the news media. He’s become our own local case study in the culture of celebrity. The TV stations and daily newspapers in Seattle proclaim Stanford’s greatness, the public accepts it, and the media bask happily in the reflected glory from their creation. The six-page memorial sections and “hero” headlines are unsettling because they are less a celebration of Gen. Stanford than they are of The Seattle Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and a host of television stations—and of their power to manipulate the public.

Many factors influenced the Stanford coverage. Obviously, he was a willing participant in the spectacle. The situation also touched many facets of our collective psyche: We like strong leaders, we like to see celebrities humanized, and many of us have suffered personal losses to cancer. People have an unmistakable fondness for the image of a “battler” or “fighter” in regard to terminal illnesses, largely to soothe our inescapable feelings of helplessness. But as the Stanford coverage has shown, these analogies are harmful if carried too far.

Let me use a personal example. My mother, Catherine Gibbons Bush, died in 1982, five years after being diagnosed with breast cancer. She was a dedicated volunteer and political campaigner, active in every school levy campaign. Because of her belief that an integrated community (Shaker Heights, Ohio) should have African-American political representation, she was part of a group that worked to elect the city’s first black city council member and school board director. She had the innate ability to conduct a conversation with any person on any topic. She deserves credit for providing the groundwork for my interest in politics, my sense of fairness, and my sense of humor. She was an impressive person—but not because she battled a fatal disease.

I have vivid memories of visiting my mother in the hospital, of driving her to and from her chemotherapy treatments, and of my last talk with her before her death. She was undeniably brave, but she still cried a lot. We all did. It could be said that my mother “battled” cancer, I guess, but it wasn’t a fair fight. To me, she was a hero, but that has nothing to do with the manner of her death.

Which is what gets lost when we press sainthood upon John Stanford for “bravely facing death.” Regardless of his accomplishments in his first couple of years on the job, it’s silly to pretend he was running the school district from his hospital bed. The claim that a man with three years experience as an education administrator “devoted his life to children” is insulting—and not just to the teachers, child-care workers, and coaches who have actually done so. It’s a platitude that fails to credit his many real accomplishments.

In some ways, Stanford’s most amazing achievement as superintendent was to be offered the job despite having no experience in the field of education. This was a man whose leadership abilities were apparent early on—one of the few blacks in his Pennsylvania high school, he was nonetheless elected class president. Joining the US Army after earning his college degree, he commanded troops in Vietnam, served as an aide to the Secretary of Defense, and directed the transportation planning for the Persian Gulf War’s Desert Storm offensive. His exemplary 30-year military career was impressive enough to earn him the job of county manager for Georgia’s Fulton County (Greater Atlanta). Equally impressive was the recent statement of his son, a multisport athlete as a child, that he doesn’t ever remember competing in a game without his father on the sidelines. A handsome man who exuded energy and charisma, John Stanford would have lived a notable life even if he had never ventured west to take a chance on Seattle and a job in education.

It’s unfortunate that, in this sort of piece, a writer generally takes care of condolences in an introductory clause (Of course, we extend our sympathy to his family, but . . .). That’s a bad mistake to make. We can, and should, express our sympathy as a community to the Stanford family for their great loss. It’s not idle speculation to assume that this energetic 60-year-old could have created another 20 years of accomplishments, had not leukemia cruelly intervened.

But we should remember John Stanford the man, not his media-created image. It can be enjoyable to live as a celebrity, but no one strives to be remembered that way.

Rest in peace, Gen. Stanford.

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