Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Thanking the people who got me going

When we embark on changes in our lives, we often leave behind people who have had a tremendous impact on us.

Recently, I was thinking back to the time in the late 1980s when I lived on Aztec Court in the Arbor Glen subdivision of unincorporated Palm Beach County, and the people who lived there. At the end of our cul-de-sac of two-unit townhomes was a married couple, Dave and Linda (real names are different, of course, and I saw from the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser website that they’ve moved on, as have so many of us who lived in those starter homes).

Dave worked for a company that did employment evaluations for people who could no longer do their previous jobs. He and his wife, who was from Kentucky, regularly held Kentucky Derby parties every year and I was invited, as well as their neighbor in the unit, a fellow named Stan. (Not his real name).

Stan and I both tried the singles circuit – without much success – and we had another thing in common: we both worked for the Postal Service. I worked as a mailhandler in the main Hell on Summit Boulevard in West Palm Beach, and he worked as a mailhandler at a post office in Boca Raton.

In fact, Stan and I had an acquaintance in common: Lou had been a postal supervisor who – amazingly – was a decent fellow and tried to fix Stan up with women. Even though the results had been disastrous, Stan still liked Lou. Through some process I never really got the whole story on, Lou ended up leaving management and became a mailhandler at the West Palm Beach main facility, and he and I became fast friends. We’d recite dialogue from the movie “Do the Right Thing,” (he loved to imitate Radio Raheem’s “Love, Hate, routine) and tell each other stories to pass the time.

(I suppose I should note that Lou was African American; his imitations were meant to honor, not ridicule, the movie and its characters.)

Of all the people I worked with at the post office, I missed Lou the most when I left.

Stan had worked in the past at the infamous Lordstown, Ohio, General Motors plant, and had been part of the big strikes that had taken place there over working conditions and abuse by the bosses, so he felt right at home in the post office of the time, except for the strikes. We weren’t allowed to strike at the post office, but I sometimes thought we should have done it.

It was probably Kentucky Derby day in 1987 and Stan and I had sat there and whined about our jobs to Dave, and he finally said he’d had enough.

“Do something about it,” he said, and offered to help us both.

“We’ll have you both over for dinner some night soon,” Dave said, “and I’ll give you the testing I give clients at my job, and then do the same evaluation.”

Dave was an amazing guy, and he and his wife soon had three adorable children. He said the testing normally cost hundreds of dollars, but he’d do it for us for free.

“I will note that how it turns out depends on your attitude, and how eager you are for a change,” Dave said. “I have seen that postal workers often don’t do very well because they can’t find a comparable job outside the post office.”

I didn’t care at this point. I wanted some direction and a few good ideas as to what I could do. The Postal Service had told me that I had nothing, no abilities, no skills, no opportunities. I needed an objective view, and Dave was offering it to me.

A couple of weeks later, Stan and I came over to Dave and Linda’s house, and after we ate he set everything up. Soon, Stan and I were taking tests, filling out forms and following instructions as Dave timed us.

We finished the work and relaxed in the living room with a drink or two, and Dave said he’d contact us in a few days with the results.

One day I saw Dave, and he said, “Come over tonight and I’ll talk to you about the results.”

I did. We sat down and he said, “Stop wasting your life at the post office.”

His evaluation of my results was that I had everything I needed to go to college and succeed, and that I should go to Palm Beach Community College (as it was called then) and register for classes as soon as I could.

The details are lost in the mists of time, and I’m sure Dave told Stan a similar story, but I realized that I needed to make a decision here.

It can be tough to get off a treadmill. I could have spent the rest of my life in the post office, wasting my talents and skills on a job that was never going to give me any satisfaction; in a corrupt, mismanaged organization that never was going to change; and I could look back on a life wasted in my old age.

Or I could take a chance, and do something. I had done it before, when I left Queens a scared teenager and came back a confident Marine. When I had left Long Island and moved to Florida. “It’s time to change,” I told myself.

Dave, thanks so much for showing me the way. Thanks to Dave, I have the great career that seemed impossible 30 years ago.

I overcame my fears, registered for college and soon was on my way to achievements that continue to this day.

I don’t know what happened to Stan. I hope he moved up to bigger and better things, too.

My path was hard, though my postal salary got me through college without any loans or grants as I worked my way through.

Amid the negativity of some of my coworkers and nearly all my superiors, all the way up to the top dope in the Postal Service, the postmaster general, I left the disaster area and soon was working in my chosen field.

What does this story mean for you?

Well, many years ago, there was a made-for-TV movie called “The Burning Bed.” The late Farrah Fawcett played a brutally abused woman – in a true story – who eventually waited until her drunk and passed-out husband was asleep, then covered him and the bed with flammable liquid and set it on fire. She then turned herself in to the police.

She was charged with murder, went to trial and was found not guilty because of the abuse she had endured.

The movie fictionalized some aspects, but when I saw it in the 1990s, one thing really touched me. In an effort to get away and develop herself, the wife began to attend college. She found other women there and a community of help.

But her husband kept coming back into her life, and there’s a climactic scene where he decides to burn her college schoolwork and textbooks. He picks up one of the textbooks, looks at it, leafs through it, and then snorts and shakes his head as he tosses it, and then a match, on the pile of books and papers.

In a symbolic way, he’s reasserting his power over her. In effect, he’s saying, “All this book knowledge is meaningless in the face of my power over you.”

Indeed, I often heard that the “book knowledge” I was pursuing would be useless in my future, and there were many nights when I would lie awake in bed and worry about my planned giant step into the unknown.

What if they were all right, and I was wrong?

But at college, I got the reinforcement I needed to go on.

I used to say that some of the smartest people in the county – the people at the community college and university – thought I was pretty darn smart.

And some of the dumbest people in the county – my bosses at the post office – thought I was a moron.

“I’m going to bet on the smart people every time,” I said, “ and not the dumb ones.”

In the end, I was right. Leaving the post office was the best thing I ever did.

What relevance does this have for your own life?

If you’re considering beginning the process of change, no matter how old you are, go for it. Try to avoid student loan debt but show that you’re determined to follow your dream, whatever it is.

It’s OK to be afraid. When I was in the Marines and was training for electronics at a Navy school, a petty officer in charge of the training said, “It’s normal to be afraid when you go out on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier during flight operations. But if there’s ever a day when you’re about to do that and you’re not afraid, that’s the day you better not step out onto that flight deck.”

Go out there.


You won’t regret it.


February 21, 2017 Posted by | Life lessons | , , , , | Leave a comment

Beware of those who downgrade a college education

A recent letter to the editor of the newspaper that employs me noted that, among the very many failures of our “socialist” education system, there is the idea that every student should go to college.

Whenever there is a shortage of a particular kind of blue-collar worker, one of the first institutions to be blamed is education because of the belief that teachers are inculcating children with the idea that factory labor is bad, and office work is good. When you consider how much American manufacturing has gone overseas, some might think it’s a good idea to direct students to education for career fields that have nothing to do with the factory floor, but there are many who are nostalgic for the old days when America was a manufacturing behemoth and believe that if we just had enough available workers we’d have factories humming again.

What most people who advocate these views fail to realize is that there is something in our nation called personal choice. Many, many students want to attend college for the very reason that they want to be employed in fields that will provide work, pay and benefits. Training youths for jobs that no longer exist may make people feel good about their own past careers, but it won’t put food on the table.

Many people say college doesn’t teach any practical skills. Well, I say that you have to start somewhere, and the skills that college teaches go beyond just the bare minimum. For me, for example, completing my degree opened so many doors that I could see why so many people I knew were opposed to me pursuing college.

Need vs. want
According to many people whose bad advice I fortunately ignored. I didn’t “need” to go to college. I had a job at the post office, and could spend the rest of my work life there, make a good, blue-collar wage doing work that was dull, repetitive and seemingly guaranteed to last forever.

But I was dying of boredom. There had to be more out there than what I was seeing, and the vehemence of the denials I encountered were, oddly, convincing me that I was being lied to by a lot of people. Some people – and I’m not naming names here, but you know who you are – deliberately gave me bad advice.

I’m glad that I learned the most important lesson you can learn when managing your life: Some people want you to not achieve because of their own lack of achievement. And they will advise you into the worst decisions of your life.

I dipped my toe into the water of college in the summer of 1988, against the advice of some who I realized had nothing to say to me.

Many of these people had never tried to do anything or take a risk. I looked like a whacko at the time. Look, at the postal facility I worked at, I was one of only two blue-collar workers actually pursuing a college degree. My thinking was that the organization had told me multiple times that I would never advance within it, so I would have to take the bull by the horns and take charge of my own career and my own development.

I did that, though many people told me that my pursuit of a college degree was more of a “want” than a “need.”

It wasn’t easy. It took me nearly six years to get a four-year degree. And I did some college beyond my degree.

But I want to point out that the college degree I worked so hard to attain began to pay off soon after I walked across that stage.

Take that job and leave it
I had decided that at some point after my graduation from Florida Atlantic University, I’d have to make a serious move. The post office was a sea anchor that was dragging me down and keeping me from achieving. I was job-hunting without much success and I realized that my current employment was preventing me from really chasing hard for a new job.

I had passed up opportunities before based on bad advice but now I needed to put myself into a situation where I had to find a job, so I decided that I needed to make a clean break.

I decided to quit the post office outright, then make a job search my full-time job.

Was it risky? Yes. Was it crazy? A little, maybe. Did it work? Damn right it did.

Soon after quitting the post office in June 1994, I landed a job at an Internet service provider. It wasn’t much, but it was a start. Soon, I also had a part-time job at a newspaper. Then a full-time job at a newspaper. And the rest is history.

There have been bumps along the way, I’ll confess.

But I have never regretted that decision in 1994 to quit my brainless job and basically roll the dice on something new.

College was the difference between me and failure. I have never forgotten that.

September 29, 2015 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , | 1 Comment

The paradox of becoming educated

Recent news at the newspaper where I work caused me to think a lot about education, and my past efforts to improve myself and my lot in life.

A top person at Florida Polytechnic University recently took the top job at Palm Beach State College, one of my alma maters. I graduated from PBSC, as it’s known now, when it was Palm Beach Community College, and attending the place was one of the greatest things I ever did. At a time in my life when so many wanted me to fail and so few wanted me to succeed, I succeeded brilliantly and moved on to Florida Atlantic University to finish my bachelor’s degree.

But the seeds of that achievement were planted by the dedicated teachers at Palm Beach Community College.

There’s a tendency in some segments of society to dismiss educated people and people seeking to improve themselves through education through a variety of dismissive and abusive terms and phrases. Believe me, I’ve heard them all and nearly all were directed at me at some time in my life. Even the venerable high school diploma can, in the right hands, be dismissed as a waste of time.

I first became aware of this derisive attitude when I reported to my first duty station in the Marine Corps in early 1979. I had finished basic training at Parris Island, then aviation and electronics training at the naval air station at Millington, Tenn., and was sent to Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, Calif., to get my next assignment.

It was an adventure for me. I flew on a 747 from New York to Los Angeles, and the plane blew several main landing gear tires on touchdown. We taxied to the gate and debarked, and saw the rubberized mess that was the planes’ main landing gear.

At El Toro, I learned that I would be going to Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona, and after a couple of weeks was given a ticket on a flight to Yuma. It was a night flight, and I remember looking out and wondering just where we were. It was pitch black outside. The plane landed and I eventually found myself at the receiving barracks. Mind you, it was a Saturday night, and the duty Staff NCO was watching a TV show that featured Prince.

He checked me in, got me assigned to a barracks room and I settled in. On Monday morning, I reported to the famous Hootowl hangar at the base and began checking in to VMA-513, a Harrier squadron.

Upstairs in the hangar, where the administrative offices were, the mood was typical office of the late 1970s. I handed over my orders and my service record to a corporal who didn’t seem all that receptive to new arrivals. I was a private first class at the time, I think, and was used to being intimidated by people above me in rank.

The corporal flipped through the thin record, then stopped and looked at something.

He looked up at me and declared, “Well, just because you have a high school diploma doesn’t mean you have any common sense.”

I was stunned. I hadn’t done more than hand over my papers, and suddenly judgment was passed.

I figured that the corporal was probably a high school dropout – as was common at the time – and he was just establishing that while I might have the piece of paper, he had the rank. So there.

A few weeks later, I was up in the administrative offices for something and I noticed that he had taken a magazine page, cut it out and taped it next to his desk on a wall. Hustler magazine then had a feature called “Asshole of the Month,” spotlighting some politician who had earned the ire of publisher Larry Flynt. Taped over the caricature of a politician was a picture of me, taken for a new ID card. He must have grabbed the second shot taken and appropriated it.

I could never understand the reason for this hostility. I mean, I didn’t brag about my educational accomplishments to him. Maybe others hurt him and he realized that I couldn’t fight back so he targeted me, or maybe he targeted others, too.

The military is notorious for the ridicule heaped on educated troops, especially if they are enlisteds with either some college or an actual college degree. A familiar taunt aimed at those who try to act above the lowest military station in life is, “If you’re so smart, why are you in the Army (Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, etc.)”

Indeed, showing too much intelligence could border on insubordination, and some folks hid their intelligence, though it hurt them, to be more acceptable to their superiors.

I found it odd that this also happened in the Postal Service.

Brutalized for brains
It often shocks people when I describe the way the Postal Service viewed workers with an education. While my orientation in New York was normal, the one in West Palm Beach included a declaration that we were not to consider ourselves above anyone else in intelligence. It was not uncommon to be told, “People come to work at the Postal Service because they’re too dumb to get jobs anywhere else.”

There were almost no self-improvement programs or even formal training programs available for postal workers, and the few I found were correspondence courses that offered no formal recognition or training for understanding postal operations so you could do your job better.

Managers would tell me that the worst thing you could ever do to a worker was train them to do their job better, because it gave them “ideas above their station in life.”

There weren’t even very many formal management training programs in the 1980s and 1990s, though there was a college course through Palm Beach Community College in postal operations. I took it, and it was mainly a postal manager reading from the Domestic Mail Manual. Boring with a capital B. I took the course and got an A, but it offered no road to advancement for me.

I soon realized that if I was going to do anything useful and productive with my life, I’d have to get a college degree. I began the long, challenging process of getting myself into Palm Beach Community College. It was pretty intimidating, even for me. I had to fill out a lot of forms, study for and take the American College Test, get a number and wait on line to register and then finally begin taking classes. Since I worked at night I could take daytime classes, and soon found that I was finally respected for having intelligence.

People think my fondness for community colleges is because I’m going senile, but it’s because that was where things really started to swing my way and I found myself. It sounds trite, but it’s true. I began to see a world of possibilities where none had appeared before.

It was blasphemy in the post office to even imply that you might be qualified to work somewhere else, and I still had to deal with the negative vibes at the West Palm Beach General Mail Facility. My break and lunch times were spent munching meals and studying while listening to classical music on my Walkman, but I couldn’t help but hear the derisive and disrespectful comments.

“He thinks he’s better than everyone else,” I’d hear co-workers say to each other.

One boss told me, “Henry Ford said workers need to know just three things: what time to be at work, where to be and what to do. Everything else is just a waste.”

I’d hear one fellow declare loudly when he saw me studying, “You’re wasting your time.”

Everyone seemed to have a relative who had attended college and graduated, but “ha(d) no common sense” and was working at a minimum-wage job.

Postal bosses, many of them high school dropouts (and one elementary school dropout) would lord it over me that I was busting my ass in a “futile” effort to advance. “Look at me,” one female supervisor said. “I never graduated high school and now I supervise supervisors. Education is a waste of time.”

Many of those bosses who lack formal education are now high-level postal officials. If people wonder why they can never get a straight answer from the post office on a question, it’s because the organization doesn’t reward knowledge and education.

The great escape
Those who are negative about education and your attainments at school are just the losers of our society, and there’s a simple reason for their attitude.

They’re jealous.

I realized this and it motivated me to carry on.

When I quit the Postal Service, I was taking a leap into the unknown that was even bigger than when I left the Marine Corps. I was scared, but I did it, and I never regretted doing it.

It might seem that I was jumping from an airplane when I left the Postal Service, but that college degree was my parachute, and it has helped me to many a soft landing. I wonder about those who ridiculed me for my educational pursuits, and how their lives turned out.

Not as good as mine, I bet.

Never let others define your success. Keep at your education and remember that even if it takes you 10 years to get that degree, it’ll be worth it.

April 30, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Community college is where your future can happen

When I heard about President Obama’s proposal for free community college, I knew that it wouldn’t go over very well.

Sadly, most folks despise the president’s ideas. If he recommended beating children bloody in school parking lots for rules infractions, people would come out against that.

Still, encouraging people to get a two-year degree, even if it costs a lot, has to be less expensive than incarcerating people. A community college president once told me that it cost the state of Florida about $50,000 a year to lock someone up in prison; by comparison, even the most costly state university was a bargain at about $25,000 a year, and community colleges cost about half that or less.

Unfortunately for Florida, the state’s leaders fell under the influence of a well-meaning but terribly wrong adviser who recommended preparing for a tsunami of violent youthful offenders on their way up from childhood. Seeking to be ahead of the curve, the state built several very expensive prisons and staffed them up, waiting for the surge of criminality that never materialized. Out in rural areas, the prisons are still there, but the youths never appeared in the expected numbers.

The reality is that we now live in a society where workers need education beyond high school to get a good-paying job, and those who drop out are going to find themselves in an impossible situation. Back when I was a youth, there were all these ads pushing “high school equivalency diplomas” and I remember the pitches: “He can’t get ahead in business because he lacks a high school diploma.” You could replace “high school diploma” with “two-year college degree,” and you won’t be far off the mark.

I know all this from personal experience.

For me, Palm Beach Community College (now Palm Beach State College) basically reinvented my life. I went into that place in August 1988 as a frustrated veteran and disgruntled postal worker whose dreams of career advancement had been dashed because I thought the Postal Service existed to serve customers.

I left the community college with a two-year (associate’s) degree in journalism, a new peer group of smart friends and the confidence to continue at the university. In April 1994, I graduated from Florida Atlantic University with a degree in communications and within two years was working as a newspaper copy editor.

I worked hard in those years, taking night shifts at the post office and attending college during the day instead of sleeping. But my instructors at PBCC and my professors at FAU gave of themselves, and I am forever in their debt.

At community college, the confidence I gained was well worth the sacrifices I had to make.

I remember getting a variety of advice. Dorothy Martin, my second cousin Angelo’s sister-in-law, gave me so much encouragement. “Whatever you do there,” she said, “take Watson B. Duncan’s courses. He’s the greatest teacher.”

I took those courses, and Dorothy was right about him.

Others were less enthused. My postal bosses were downright negative, advising me that college was a waste of time, and wouldn’t help my advancement in the post office. “We don’t like to promote college people,” I was often told. “They think knowing things is the key to getting things done right.”

What they feared, I later learned, was the worker with a brain and the willingness to use it. I later used the skills I learned in community college to start my own underground postal employee newsletter, “Samizdat,” and even sent copies to the postmaster general. Unfortunately, they were written above his reading level, and his minions were not impressed with my brilliance.

The education I received at community college gave me the tools I needed to counter the anti-education rhetoric I heard at the post office, and I can still remember the last night I wasted at the post office, leaving that shithole facility in West Palm Beach with its cheating on the Price-Waterhouse testing, exaggerated mail volume reporting, mail destruction in the machinery and human destruction by managers such as Gary Miller and Terry Cahill, not to mention Barbara Shaler and Shirley Cordle.

I drove off to an uncertain future, but one that had limitless possibilities. On the way home to my house in Lake Worth, I drove on Congress Avenue in West Palm Beach past Palm Beach Community College.

It was on the left, and I remembered that first day when I had gone on the campus and requested a course catalog and began the process of getting myself admitted.

Now I was heading into a future that that wonderful place had opened up for me, and I gave the place a hand salute as I drove by.

Today, I read about community colleges like State College of Florida (formerly Manatee Community College) and I wish I could go back there, take classes, sit in the sun before the classes start, talk with my fellow students, pull all-nighters at home, spend lots of time there on the student newspaper and just be a part of the academic community.

Community colleges are wondrous places, and I’m not the only one who got a life-course correction in those classrooms.

So let’s support community colleges and get behind plans, no matter where they come from, to get more people to attend community college. Our nation will benefit, of course, but so will the many people who find a new life and a new career in a place where learning is treasured, and students matter.

That’s what happens at community colleges.


January 12, 2015 Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Colleges that drop football should be cheered, not jeered

When the University of Alabama at Birmingham, also known as UAB, announced it was going to drop football, it was as if the Marines had decided to stop training for amphibious invasions or the Air Force was dropping fighter plane training.

There’s a dangerous notion afoot in the realm of higher education that goes something like this: “Real universities do football.” It’s been around since the turn of the last century and it brings up the heroics of Knute Rockne, George Gipp, former President Ronald Reagan in the movie on Rockne, the phrase “Win one for the Gipper,” the culture of football in states like Texas and Florida, and the belief that football can redeem young men from the scourges of drugs, drink, poverty and premarital sex.

A recent article in the Tampa Bay Times took readers to one of the worst parts of Florida, an economically deprived town of South Bay on the south edge of Lake Okeechobee, where high school football was the key – not to better education – but to escaping from the town to colleges where the educational expectations are minimal but the gridiron hopes are astronomical.

The message young men get is simple: Football pays. Learning doesn’t.

It’s easy for teenage boys to buy into this culture. Older men are out there pitching it every day and offering approval for those who worship at the altar of athletics. The one or two former players who actually make it into the National Football League are lionized as the examples of what can be achieved if one gets the breaks. And for good measure, there are those who reached the heights and fell back, tempted by the evils of the big city: drugs, booze, easy women, easy paychecks that vanish.

Or their body fails them. A turn the wrong way can turn an ankle into a mass of bone and gristle that never regains its former form. Knees break, brains get squished around and you see the result of the old joke of the baseball scout: “Want to sign for a bonus or a limp?”

I was of the most despised class of student at Florida Atlantic University in the early 1990s, the commuter student. Oddly, the professors and adjuncts didn’t imbibe the culture of denigrating the commuter student. There were many in the administration and the student body who viewed the older undergraduate as a kind of hit-and-run driver. We came to the college for venal purposes, just for our own selfish benefit, and left with education and a degree, but hadn’t really put our hearts into it.

One professor told me that the commuter students he knew made his work worthwhile. “You guys show up on time for class, turn in your assignments, sit in the front, participate and have life experience to bring to class,” a political science professor told me.

Sure, there were bright folks among the traditional-age students, but there were a lot of people who lived in the horrible dorms at FAU, joined every club and extra-curricular they could find and whined that they were bored.

“Where’s the football team?” students at FAU would sometimes ask, and they were stunned to learn that they had signed up for a Florida university that had committed the ultimate sacrilege: it did not have a football team.

Though FAU had a good complement of other sports in which it competed with other colleges, including baseball, basketball, soccer, tennis and more, the one that really counted was football. Some students left FAU, and an editorialist on the student newspaper declared that if you thought coming to the university was a mistake because they forgot to tell you about the lack of a football team, you probably were right.

One year, an April Fool’s Day issue of the University Press, the student newspaper I worked on, had a fake front page announcing that a football team was being started.

Florida Atlantic University was less like the University of Florida or Florida State University or Florida A&M, and more like the University of Central Florida or Florida International University or University of South Florida.

The student body was skewed older by people like me who were writing the checks for our tuition, living in our homes and ambitious to change our lives. We didn’t live on campus and didn’t have to cope with the dislocation of leaving our parents’ home because we had dealt with it years before.

Perhaps the traditional-age students of that time (the late 1980s, early 1990s) were frustrated by the lack of a unifying ideal like a football team. But even back then there were many colleges without football teams.

One thing that stands out is an AT&T commercial from the late 1980s that played to all the stereotypes of the young college freshman. The voiceover went like this: “AT&T understands the special relationship between fathers and daughters.” (It was a more innocent time. Today that has a mind-bending double meaning.)

It went along the lines of an 18-year-old girl heading off to college and dealing with the dislocation of being away for the first time. She repeatedly calls her father, often late at night, in tears over being lonely.

Then, one day, she attends a college football game and the team stages a stunning come-from-behind victory. She again calls her father late at night, in tears but in tears of joy, to announce, “Dad, we won! We won!”

The message is: college football is my new family structure.

Football and college have been associated, as I said, since the late 1800s.

Corruption in the college game has been endemic, and the movie “The Freshman” from 1925 and starring Harold Lloyd, was a comedy that, according to Wikipedia, told “the story of a college freshman trying to become popular by joining the school football team.”

One of the funniest quotes is an intertitle: “Tate University — A large football stadium, with a college attached.”

For many people, especially parents struggling to pay for their children’s college, the thought of having to pay to have their progeny attend what is basically a minor league football team with a college attached adds insult to injury.

UAB noted in its press release that it was giving up football because it was “financially unsustainable.”

Here’s the full quote, from The fiscal realities we face — both from an operating and a capital investment standpoint — are starker than ever and demand that we take decisive action for the greater good of the Athletic Department and UAB,” (President Ray L.) Watts said. “As we look at the evolving landscape of NCAA football, we see expenses only continuing to increase. When considering a model that best protects the financial future and prominence of the Athletic Department, football is simply not sustainable.”

Far from being the source of financial largesse, the football program was sucking the university dry in a financial sense. According to an article in The New York Times by Joe Nocera:

“Watts, it turns out, is a Birmingham native who played football in high school and who attended the university. He gets how important football is in Alabama. But in pulling together a five-year strategic plan for the school, he came to the obvious conclusion that it simply made no sense to continue fielding a football team. (The school is also eliminating its bowling and rifle teams.)

‘Our athletic budget is $30 million,’ he told me when we spoke. Of that amount, $20 million comes directly from the school — either through student fees or direct subsidies from the overall university budget. A consultant Watts hired concluded that it would cost an additional $49 million over the next five years to keep the football team competitive with the other schools in Conference USA.
‘We could not justify subsidizing football if it meant taking away from other priorities,’ he said. Then he added, ‘This is driven significantly by the changing landscape of intercollegiate athletics.’

Not surprisingly, students, players and boosters were horrified that an economic decision was being made to drop football, but why is that so surprising? Other colleges have made the decision to leave the gridiron and have gone on to great success in an academic sense. In fact, some have reinvested the money in intramural sports, allowing more students to actually play sports than watch sports.

Sure, there is dislocation. Scholarship players dreaming of an NFL deal can go elsewhere and retain eligibility, but students claim that the heart and soul of the college is being cut out.

That’s nonsense. UAB didn’t even have a football stadium. It’s true that a stadium is a sunk cost that makes it harder to cancel the game, but other uses can be found for a facility that’s maybe used 12 times a year at most for its intended purpose.

Florida Atlantic University finally did get its football team. In late 2001, the team, attenuated by about half because of academic eligibility issues, played its first game.

The need to use Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale and Dolphin Stadium in Miami limited attendance at first. The opening of a $70 million stadium, to be funded by private donors, student fees and naming rights, had to be delayed until 2011.

Florida Atlantic has won some games, but gets beaten badly by stronger opponents. When I was working for the Gainesville Sun, FAU was paid $750,000 to play the University of Florida in then-coach Will Muschamp’s coaching debut on Sept. 3, 2011. UF won easily, 41-3.

The battle over whether FAU should have a football team had gone on through the 1990s, and a rigged survey seemed to show that local businesses were in favor of it, so long as they didn’t have to pay for it through higher taxes.

The argument at the time was that the Boca Raton area was not a community, and having FAU football would make the area a community.

It’s a common argument when a sport that is not present in an area is trying to establish itself against strong opposition. “We’re not a community” is a catch-phrase that you hear a lot when someone wants the government to front them the money for a stadium.

I always thought that FAU was a special place with a focus on academics and developing people in the community who would go on to great things, and that sports would be in the background. Watching it succumb to the football culture hurt. This college, opened by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, was to be the kind of place where learning and scholarship ruled.

It would stand apart from UF and FSU, but now it longs to be in that august company with football teams that mostly are paid to lose. It’s sad. Very sad.

Many colleges have made the calculation UAB made and turned in their helmets and shoulder pads. Sure, you take a big hit up front, but in the end UAB will find its way.

It saddens me that FAU will probably struggle along. Maybe, with enough time and effort, the team will become a winner, but the opportunity cost will be incalculable.

UAB made the right choice. Let’s hope more follow.



December 17, 2014 Posted by | Education, The business of sports | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Don’t judge Florida Atlantic by its football stadium’s name

I don’t get all teary-eyed about my alma mater, Florida Atlantic University, but sometimes I think I should.

The thing is, I was in my early 30s when I went to FAU as a junior after finishing the first two “years” of my college degree in community college. I didn’t live on campus, never went to sports events and my only extracurricular activity was the student newspaper.

Still, I found my future there in many ways. While my Postal Service job was the deadest of dead ends, I could see a bright future ahead after receiving my diploma. Those dreams came true thanks to very, very dedicated professors and some amazing fellow students.

To me, that more than makes up for the embarrassment of the school selling the naming rights to its stadium to a prison company, the GEO Group. Like others, I was frustrated on hearing the news but now have decided that it may not be the most ideal situation, but I’ll have to live with it. And so will everyone else.

I have learned that in life, there are times when things are just not going to go the way you’d like them to. I have found that you can spend all your time, treasure and effort fighting things that won’t change and decisions that won’t be reversed or just go on with your life.

FAU should never have had a football team in the first place, and the stadium is just another wasteful extravagance, so my solution to the whole mess has been to act as if they don’t exist. My diploma and my degree exist, and that’s good enough for me.

February 25, 2013 Posted by | Education, Life lessons, The business of sports | , , , , | Leave a comment

Debt for education may be the worst idea ever

I’m a bit of a know-it-all, I openly admit, and there are a few topics on which I cannot shut up.

One of them is student loans.

I am not opposed to debt. Indeed, I actually have lived a goodly proportion of my life on borrowed money, and it always was an article of pride that I paid back the money I owed. I’ve borrowed to buy cars, houses and used credit cards.

After I got out of the Marines, I took out a student loan to attend what was then called the Academy of Aeronautics, near LaGuardia Airport in New York. It had been a dream of mine since I first saw the place as a child. Back then, student loans were tough to get and I was very worried that I was taking on this kind of debt, betting that the airline industry would recover. Shortly after starting school, I quit school because I had landed a job with the Postal Service.

The job paid well, and it was clear I couldn’t take classes and work nights and weekends. I think that then I made the right choice. I gave back the loan, and have never regretted abandoning those studies.

Years later, when I began attending Palm Beach Community College, I had a steady job and a decent paycheck from the Postal Service. I loved then and love now to complain about the post office, but the regular schedule and pay enabled me to go through college and get a degree at Florida Atlantic University without borrowing a cent. Thanks to the taxpayers of Florida, I had a well-subsidized education, for which I am very grateful.

At the time, I had a mortgage, a car loan and credit card debt, but attending college part-time was well within my financial means. I was worried, however, about my peers.

Part of the orientation in 1988, when I first matriculated at PBCC, was the mandatory financial aid session. Everyone there was told that student loans were an integral part of higher education, and the logic was that everyone else was going into debt, so why not you?

Step onto any private or public college campus, and the “Financial Aid” office usually is pretty large and very, very busy. (At least, it was when I was in college, up until 1994). Brochures touting student loans showed smiling people working at good-paying jobs with benefits. This was what was possible if you had the gumption to borrow the money for your education.

I was hesitant, despite the pressure to take out a loan, because being older I knew the financial risks at hand. I wasn’t really borrowing for anything tangible, like a house or a car. If I didn’t pay the mortgage, they’d take the house. If I didn’t pay on the car, they’d take the car. I’d take a hit on my “credit rating” (that’s what the credit score was called then), but what could they seize if I didn’t pay on a student loan? My brain?

In the 1980s, there were stories about people who had gone to medical school on student loans, and just never paid them back. The parody group The Capital Steps wrote a song equating medical students with the federal government’s budget writing:

Do medical school on credit,
Take a student loan and then, forget it.
Look at me.
A doctor, exalted, my debts I defaulted,
My schooling I got for free.

And later:

When writing a federal budget,
If it doesn’t balance you can fudge it.
Like we do.
What’s $200 billion, on top of a trillion?
It won’t matter when we’re through.

The need for financial aid among those not making good money led to cottage businesses that were downright exploitative. For example, I remember one fellow coming into the student newspaper to buy an ad pitching a service to help students find loans and grants. In actuality, all the information was available for free from the financial aid office. The help, for which the student would have to pay about $100, seemed to be just putting it all together and giving it to the student.

The pressure to borrow more continued at the university. At Florida Atlantic University the mandatory sessions were ratcheted up, and more opportunities to go into debt were offered. Short of cash on Friday? Just sign and walk away with a few hundred dollars – added to your balance, which you will pay off later – for weekend fun.

I had very serious misgivings, all of which were dismissed by other students and financial aid personnel. I was labeled as being some old worrywart and against debt, but to me debt is a tool and a very good one for getting things you cannot afford to buy in cash if, and only if, you can pay it back.

After college, it might take a few years to land a good job, and then all that debt would be hanging over you like a vulture. You might want to buy a car, a house, start a family, etc., but that debt is always there, knocking points off your credit score and demanding priority. Private student loans are even more troubling than the federally backed ones, and cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. They always are there, and you are tripped up financially.

Why won’t anyone listen to me on the dangers of student loans?

Maybe it’s because I’m just an old fogy now, and no one listens to you unless you’re a drug addict in recovery, or they think I’m just an arrogant old fool.

Thanks to my debt-less college degree pursuit, I was able to take a job that paid less than my postal job in the field for which I had attended college, and advance in that field. Not having loans due meant I could move around, buy houses where I moved to for work and more.

My tendency to take responsibility, even when it wasn’t to my immediate advantage, left me free to pursue other interests as well.

I feel sorry for those who are deeply in debt – sometimes into six figures – for education that often isn’t even completed. They still have to pay back the loan, and can’t even begin to address it. That’s not a good way to live.

Going for broke
A big problem I’ve seen in a lot of media coverage about student loans and former students in debt is that the latter kind of went crazy and signed for more and more debt. It’s not uncommon for those pitching student loans to be incentivized monetarily for closing the loans, and often they act as unofficial financial advisers in their efforts.

Students may feel that there’s a narrow window for them to get their education, and that they had better just go ahead and borrow all that money now and register for 24 credits, and worry about the consequences later.

Also, it amazes me that students just out of high school would consent to allow themselves to be so deeply indebted so soon. Easy credit isn’t so easy when you have to start paying it off, and you don’t have a job that pays enough.

Here are some of the myths students will recite and my destruction of them.

1. I have to go to college now, when I’m 18, or I won’t have the full college experience.
OK, people, I know that every politician and businessman talks about his or her wild college years, but there’s nothing in stone that says you have to go to college at 18. When I was at Florida Atlantic University, some students were stunned to find students my age and older, and even senior citizens, taking classes with them. A few expressed the view that their college years were being ruined by all these “old people” on campus and supposedly getting in their way. (I think they included me in that category.)

2. I have to go to an expensive private school like Harvard or Yale, or I won’t be able to compete out there.
Private colleges and the Ivies are good at pushing the point that they are well-respected and their degrees carry a lot of weight. But the fact that you can’t afford Harvard or Yale doesn’t mean that you can’t afford college. Look, I can’t afford a Cadillac or Mercedes, so I drive a Chevrolet. It has four wheels, an engine and it gets me there, albeit in not as much style as others, but so what? Small, less-expensive colleges may lack the bells and whistles of the Ivies, but they have much more to offer. Sure, you may be interviewed by someone who is a fellow Harvard or Yale grad, but maybe not. And most of the folks who interviewed me for jobs only cared about my grades and work experience, not where I went to college.

3. I have to go at 18 and finish in four years, otherwise people will say I have a “night school” degree.
A degree is a degree, OK? I went to work at night at the post office, and to college during the day, and maybe I didn’t have the whole college experience, but I had some of it. I worked for the student newspaper, and believe me my determination to succeed impressed those who interviewed me for my first jobs after college, even if I didn’t get hired. I read once that a New York City mayor, the late Abraham Beame, worked his way through both high school and college. Hell, most of us have it easy; we just have to work in college.

4. America is desperate for technicians/chemists/doctors/veterinarians/anything else in the news, so I need to hurry and hang the expense and get this degree now.
A recent article noted that while there is much talk of the need for scientists, in fact many are unemployed. The pharmaceutical industry has cut hundreds of thousands of jobs, and research scientists often are working way below their skill level. It’s dangerous to try to time the job market. Here in Florida, they’ve been pitching biotech careers and using tax money to attract biotech companies for years, but no one’s hiring.

5. I can’t work my way through school and take more than four years because people will think I’m a moron.
It took me three years to go through community college, and three years to go through university. At the post office, people thought I was as dumb as rocks, but out in the real world my accomplishment got a different reception. I was able to pay for my classes and books as they happened, and got good grades. I did, in fact, do one university semester as a full-timer while also working, but it was tough and I never did it again. Still, I got As and one B that semester. Not bad.

6. As an adult going through college, everyone will think I’m stupid and make fun of me.
I was really unsure when I started college in the late 1980s. About a minute after my first class began, I realized that this was where I needed to be. The instructors and professors – and the other students — treated me with respect, and even the ones where I didn’t agree with the instructors all the time were learning experiences. Look, things aren’t always going to go your way, and college is a good place to learn to deal with that.

7. People who work or go into the military after high school can’t succeed in college.
I joined the Marines in December 1977 and left for Parris Island in August 1978. After the Marines, I worked for the post office. By the time I started college, I had all that experience and perspective behind me, and it served me well in college. In a way, I had an unfair advantage because I had sown my wild oats. As an older student paying his way, I was committed and focused on getting my degree, not going to parties and feeling off the parental leash. (I’d been off the leash for years.) I could have gone on for a master’s degree, and even took a few graduate-level classes, but decided I needed to get back to work. It was the best move I ever made.

8. Why should anyone listen to you? You’ve been laid off twice from journalism jobs.
Very true. I always say that at least I had a few good years in the news business, and I know I have several more ahead of me. In any case, the experience, knowledge and skill are still there; that hasn’t been lost.

9. I have no choice. I have to do college now.
No you don’t. Here’s an idea. Join the military for four years, and come out with GI Bill eligibility. A free ride at a public college (what a deal!) or $75,000 for a private college. (Want my advice? Go to the public college.) You’ll go, get free military training, work with great people, see the world, gain life experience and come back with a credential that will help you for the rest of your life. Then go to college, and put the finishing touches on a great preparation for life and good citizenship. And if you decide to work after the service, college always will be there, and I bet its call will draw you in.

It sounds like the rantings of some lonely loon. COLLEGE WITHOUT DEBT!

But it’s the best way, people. Try it, you’ll like it.

July 9, 2012 Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hatred of others burns up the haters

Many years ago, when I was a student journalist at Florida Atlantic University, I sat through a class with one of the most extraordinary human beings I have ever met.

She died several years ago, but I won’t give her name. For about an hour in a classroom with undergraduates, she described her teenage years and left everyone in the room in tears.

Her adolescence – if it can even be called that – was spent during the years of World War II as a slave laborer of the Nazis. She grew up Jewish in a section of Poland that had actually been part of Germany during World War I but handed to the Polish when Poland was reconstituted after the war. There was anti-Semitism in Poland between the wars, she said, and she even remarked that like a lot of people back in the 1920s and 1930s, she laughed at Adolf Hitler, who was always screaming about Germany rising again and railing against the Jews.

One of her comments that really struck home was her belief, as a girl of around 13, that the Polish armed forces would be able to beat back any invasion from Germany. Sadly, she was wrong and she eventually found herself in a concentration camp, with a tattoo on her arm.

For her, the teenage years were not spent going to school, giggling over boys, listening and dancing to music, and dreaming of a future. This woman described degradation and mistreatment that seems almost beyond comprehension today. All she could do was work, and that was why of so many in her family, she managed to survive.

One of the stories she mentioned was about how the women seemed to be able to survive the almost impossibly hard slave labor even on very short rations, but that men would just come apart and die. The Nazis had seized some Greek men at one point, she recounted, and brought them to the labor camp to do the same labor the women were doing, but the men went from strapping and strong to thin and weak in only a few months, and all of them died.

Somehow, the women carried on and survived.

That she survived was, to me, nothing short of a miracle, and that’s saying a lot when you’re an atheist. That she found love after the war was to me only fair in an unfair world.

She had learned that her mother, on her way to the death chamber, had met another woman. That woman had a son who was a doctor. The miracle of human survival is that she eventually met that son, married him and came to the U.S. and made a successful life here in America.

Students cried as she described her life under the Nazis and the joy of liberation. William L. Shirer wrote in “Berlin Diary” that in the Europe of the World War II years, people’s personal lives ceased to matter. There were two people in the world whose views mattered, he said: Hitler and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, and everyone else was just in the way.

I watched her as she interacted with students, and then she adjusted the sleeve on her blouse and I saw the faded blue numbers on her arm. That made it real to me.

One of the students had asked the woman, “Do you hate the Germans for what they did to you?”

It was a fair question, and had she said, “I hate them always and forever,” I would not have blamed her. She had a right to be enraged at even the thought of a German.  Her answer might not be popular, especially with others who endured what she endured and lost what she lost, but I was floored. I can’t remember the exact quote, but it went something like this: “No, I don’t hate Germans. That’s the problem in the world: hate. Instead of having hate, we should have love.”

It’s easy to hate, though, those who’ve done us wrong.

I recently read of an Italian man of the Jewish faith who recently died, and he told about how Hitler’s plan for him was to die a slave laborer or become another statistic at Auschwitz. The man said that he always felt he got the better of the evil and wicked Nazi madman because he had had a full life after the war and had ruined the German nutcase’s plans.

It’s hard to have any sort of compassion for those who do evil, and believe me those who have suffered a loss have every right to mistrust those who are of the same nationality and/or faith of those who have done their family wrong.

She had every right to want every German in the world dead for what had happened to her and her family, and especially those who had served the Nazi regime, but she insisted that that would not change anything. Love would win out, she said. You can’t hate, she said, because that brought you to the level of those who hated you.

I wrote a story about her, and remarked in the first sentence on the faded numbers on her arm but the strong memories and the intense desire to make sure the Holocaust would never happen again.

We’ve seen in New York City, in Washington, D.C., and in a field in Pennsylvania just what hatred can drive people to do. We’ve seen it in Britain and in Spain. And we’ve recently seen it in Norway.

Maybe I’m just a mindless old liberal, but I cannot hold with the idea of repaying hate with violence, especially against the innocent who are just of the same faith or nationality as someone who is evil. There are bad people in the world, that’s for sure, and they must be dealt with because they won’t respond to entreaties of love, but if we descend into hate and turn it into genocide, we’re down to the lowest levels of what humanity is capable of.

August 3, 2011 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , | 1 Comment

Time for colleges to dump football?

With the big controversy over Jim Tressel and his performance at Ohio State University, and the behavior of his football players at the college, it’s time for colleges to consider what might be seen as unthinkable: Eliminating football.

There are plenty of other sports that can bring the name of a college forward. Granted, football is a marquee sport, like basketball, but when a team becomes a liability and starts to hurt a college’s reputation, something clearly has to be done.

In recent research, I found that the biggest reason colleges gave for eliminating football from their sports program was money. For example, Hofstra University on Long Island ended its Division II-A football program in the late 2000s for that reason. I’ve read of other colleges, also mostly in the low, non-scholarship divisions, that decided football was a non-starter.

It might seem I’m picking on football because I’m not suggesting that basketball be eliminated. There are plenty of dirty basketball programs, but the staggering size of the football program at many Division I colleges makes the other programs look like rounding errors on a balance sheet. The National Football League and the National Basketball Association both use the colleges as their “minor leagues,” though there is NFL-Europe and the NBA’s development league that are kind of minor leagues. Still, the major focus is on the college teams and they are the main pathways to the pros. The development leagues seem to be for injured and washed-up players whose best days – if they ever had best days – are behind them.

In baseball, players are signed out of college but often end up in a team’s farm system, not in the major leagues – unless the player has absolutely awesome talent.

Unless the NFL is ready to pony up cash to keep the colleges’ football programs going, I am sure that in the current economic climate, a lot of colleges are going to decide to end football.

I was somewhat present at the creation of Florida Atlantic University’s football program. Near the end of my time as a student there in the mid-1990s, there was much talk about the “need” for a program, and the old saw that “real colleges do football” was thrown around by the president of the college. I could point to plenty of “real” colleges that did not have football, but the president was insistent that football could do plenty for FAU.

The cost estimates were staggering, though, and naturally the local pro football team wasn’t about to pay more to help out. When FAU finally got a college football team, it was in Division III, with dreams of moving up, and in its first game, nearly half the team was ruled academically ineligible.

Anyone who criticized the college for deciding that it needed to be a “real” college and have a football team was deemed an obstructor of the holy goal. Then-president Anthony Catanese was determined to have a team, it was said, so he could then build a stadium and strong-arm donors in the luxury box as FAU played Notre Dame.

Well, right after FAU got the team, Catanese split for the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, and his departure was marred by the infamous red Corvette controversy, in which an assistant in the college’s foundation managed to purchase a Corvette for him through donations to the foundation. It’s a long, boring story.

In any case, FAU had a football team and the head of the search committee for the head coach, Howard Schnellenberger, managed to find himself to be the coach. The leader of one of the dirtiest football programs ever, at the University of Miami, became the head of the newest program.

FAU is close to having its stadium and has had the usual array of issues with its program, though nothing on the level of Ohio State.

But as noted in a recent article in The New York Times, colleges and universities are adept at gaming the system and cheating. A piece on Title IX noted that in an effort to inflate the number of women athletes, some women are counted two or three times if they are on one team, and men who practice with the women’s teams are counted as women even though they don’t play.

The lesson for all of us is that if there is a way to cheat, American college programs and athletic staffers will find a way to cheat, even if they don’t get away with it and are severely punished for doing so.

Years ago, I read about one college whose leader finally had had enough. The teams weren’t competitive with other colleges and the pressure to win was enormous, so the president ended sports and used the money to create intramural sports at the college: men’s and women’s softball, soccer, flag football, etc. The result was that participation in sports went up, the pressure to spend more and more to win was eliminated and the college saved a lot of money – and its reputation.

This should happen at public colleges, and even in the K-12 system. It will save taxpayer money and provide sports experiences to a wider variety of students. Private leagues could be started for those who wish to play more competitively in football and basketball, and the professional sports teams could be persuaded or forced to fund them as their minor leagues.

The current system is clearly not working and easily corrupted. That Tressel continued for so long in his lying, deceitful and corrupt ways is a clear sign that college sports is irretrievably broken. If the rules cease to matter, what’s the lesson for the rest of us?

June 5, 2011 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age, The business of sports | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

FCAT week full of importance – for Florida politicians

This past week has been the biggest week in Florida public education in recorded history.

When just about everything depends on kids’ performance on the dreaded Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, aka the “Eff-cat,” you can be sure that anybody in education, from the janitors to the governor, will be looking to take the credit if “scores go up,” and blame the teachers if “scores go down.”

I suppose the most hilarious statement of all came from a spokes-moron for someone in former Gov. Jeb Bush’s latest education reform scam, when it said that “we care about the children.”

Gov. Rick Scott says he cares about the children, too. He cares so much, he’s trying to destroy the education system in Florida, rid the state of its unionized teachers and voucherize everything to the Xian schools.

As I was driving to the library in Gainesville, I passed a few public schools and saw that one had a sign asking for quiet because of the FCAT testing.

I suppose the people who will be gnawing their fingernails to the bone in the months until the tests are graded – if they are graded – will be local elected officials, and not kids, their parents or their teachers. This test decides if county commissioners become state legislators, if state legislators become congressmen, if congressmen become senators and if a senator has a shot at being a governor, or even the president.

Every ward heeler sees school test scores as either something to run on, or to blame on someone else.

Ever since I worked on the campaign of a guy at Florida Atlantic University who was running for State House, I knew that running for office involved a certain degree of artifice. Thus, a photograph of the candidate in a classroom (with small desks, a blackboard and a child (preferably a black child) nearby, while the candidate looks like he’s listening) could serve as a symbol that – unlike everyone else out there – he’s for education.

Suckering the news media into showing up at a school so the candidate or incumbent can read to children and get taped and photographed doing so is what separates the hacks from the winners in this world.

I feel sorry for the kids. They’re just trying to get through the day, and here are all these adults, almost none of whom really has any interest or concern for them, acting like they care. At least those of us outside education know the truth, and many inside education know the politicians and candidates couldn’t care less about education, but appearing to care is the name of the game.

So long as the kids lose, no one really cares about them. It’s winning elections that matters, and the way to do that is to push testing like the FCAT, and pretend that it matters.

April 15, 2011 Posted by | Education, Living in the modern age, Politics | , , , , , | Leave a comment