Original article no longer available
By John Fensterwald
Article Launched: 04/20/2008 01:35:36 AM PDT
A decade has passed since Gerald Hsu pledged $1 million to two second-grade classes in Alum Rock. His promise was to pick up the tab to college if they graduated from high school.
Some dismissed his gesture as a PR stunt, since the then-chief executive of Avant! was facing criminal charges for pilfering trade secrets. (He and other executives eventually pleaded no contest.) Certainly Hsu, a Korean immigrant turned self-made millionaire, never imagined the struggles that the mostly poor, Latino and Vietnamese children would face, or what it would take to get them through high school.
No one did – not even Stephen Lehane, whom Hsu hired to run the Avant! Foundation. For all of Hsu’s bad decisions, hiring the “Doc” may have been his finest.
For 10 years, until his death two weeks ago, the wildly eccentric, sometimes frenetic former professor of early childhood education devoted his life to the 40 students from Lester Shields and Grandin Miller elementary schools. He was their confidant, scold, sugar daddy, surrogate father, nag.
When they were little, he cooked green eggs and ham in honor of Dr. Seuss and took them to museums and baseball games. When some families moved or lost contact, he hired investigators to find them.
When his STAR KIDZ matured, he bought them laptops, hired tutors, got them jobs at a swanky health club and internships at Merrill Lynch, paid for dance lessons and a coach for a promising boxer. He coaxed some to leave big high schools in East Side Union for Downtown College Prep and other charter schools.
And he never gave up on the ones in trouble, through pregnancies, drugs, gangs and terms in juvenile hall for assault and shoplifting. He’d confront prosecutors, principals and immigration officials. If that failed, he’d dispatch a threatening letter from P.N. Occhio, the law firm of his fertile imagination.
Lehane had his own struggles: periodic bouts of depression, which he hid well from the kids. With the latest recurrence, he was taking medication and had requested a leave from his job. No one knows whether he was disoriented or made a conscious decision when he stepped in front of a train in Menlo Park early April 7.
But he went to his death knowing that 16 of the original 20 Shields students, now seniors, will probably go to college next year. One will attend University of California-Berkeley or University of California-Los Angeles, seven will go to other public four-year colleges and others will attend community college. One is in juvenile hall, another has disappeared, a third is a high school junior, and the fourth may still graduate from Mount Pleasant High.
The same proportion of Miller students, now sophomores and juniors, appears to be on track for college.
In poor, urban neighborhoods, fewer than one-fifth of children graduate from high school and go on to college. Lehane and assistants Kamne Thomas and Lisa Jones beat the odds; they shoved the bell curve way to the right. And it’s not over. Knowing that so many low-income students never get past freshman year, Avant! will continue its support.
Doc, known because of his doctorate from Columbia, was my friend. He knew I was interested in his KIDZ, so he’d update me over coffee. I saw he was special from the first time we met, when this wiry man with curly hair, wearing Bermuda shorts and tennis shoes drove up in a big, old Cadillac piled with junk. He’d leave voice messages at 3 a.m. (“You won’t believe this . . .”) and e-mails in Doc code (“school year starting off w a THUD=kidz already falling behind”).
As the endowment grew, the foundation spent about $200,000 a year on the 40 kids and their families, including tutors, English classes for parents and trips. I have wondered – but not made up my mind – whether spending all this on a few randomly chosen children was a smart use of philanthropic money. But I never stopped admiring Doc’s intense, at times desperate, commitment.
He truly believed, as he wrote three years ago in a memo to his board: “In my mind’s eye, each KID is a charcoal ember, coated in thick ash, which can suddenly burst into a red glow.”
In his memory, may all 40 catch fire and light the world.
JOHN FENSTERWALD is a Mercury News editorial writer.