In my 40 years as an education reporter, I have been helped by more people than I can name here, but I owe my career to one man, Samuel Halperin. Sam knows this, because I’ve told him on more than one occasion, but now I’d like to express my admiration for this remarkable man, not so much for helping me but for all that he has contributed to building a fairer and more just society.
As his friends know, Sam is very ill. He’s resting comfortably at home with his family, looking back on a life well lived. He and Marlene raised two terrific children, Deena and Elan, and are the proud grandparents of five grandchildren. In this space last week I wrote about ‘Seizing the Day,’ and I can think of no one who exemplifies what I wrote about more than Sam.
Some of you know Sam as the lead author of “The Forgotten Half,” a ground-breaking examination of widely accepted educational policies that were trying to put all young people into the college-bound track–and doing lots of damage to about half of our kids.
Older hands know that Sam was Deputy Assistant Secretary at the old HEW, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and Assistant U.S. Commissioner for Legislation at the old U.S. Office of Education.
The thread that runs through his resumé is service to others and fairness to all. Sam is both a ‘small d’ democrat and a ‘Capital D’ Democrat. For me, the best proof is in a program he created and ran at IEL called “Education Staff Seminars’ or ESS. Recognizing that, in a hectic Congress, staffers were most often the key to passing effective legislation, Sam dreamed up a way to educate them about education. He did this by taking them out of Washington, their comfort zone, and immersing them in some new and foreign world. So, for example, Sam might take 20-30 House and Senate staffers, an equal mix of Republicans and Democrats, to a Native American reservation for three days. When they got on the plane, all they had in common was that they worked for a member of Congress who served on an Education Committee or Subcommittee. After three days of nearly 24-7 immersion, including meals and bus rides, however, these men and women understood much more about education and about each other. And while Sam most likely held strong views about various programs he would take ESS to visit, that was never his agenda. He wanted full and free discussion, and let the best ideas win.
What Sam did for me is a variation on a theme, because he has mentored hundreds, probably thousands, of young men and women over his long career. I met Sam in the early 70’s when I was writing my doctoral dissertation; my subject was the legislation that created the Teacher Corps and a few other federal programs, and I interviewed Sam at least twice. While other interviewees clearly spun the story to favor their world view, I remember Sam’s telling me that I had to speak with this man or that woman to get the full story.
By 1974 I was job-hunting, and IEL hired me for a job that I think Sam may have created for me. The position, something like ‘Communications Coordinator,’ came with the vaguest of job descriptions. I clearly recall Sam’s urging me to figure out what I felt I HAD to do. “When you know, tell me,” he said, “and I will do my best to help you be successful.”
IEL was basically a ‘think tank,’ an environment that I am neither temperamentally nor intellectually suited for, and before long I told Sam that I was feeling restless.
“So do something,” he said. “Start a forum, like the Ford Hall Forum in Boston,” he advised. He meant rent an auditorium, recruit a famous speaker, publicize the event and fill the hall. He gave me a budget, $10,000.
While that sounded like an OK idea, I had heard about a new organization, National Public Radio, so new that the people who worked there found themselves explaining, ‘Well, it’s like public television, but there aren’t any pictures.”
When I knocked on the door at NPR and said that I had $10,000 to spend, I was ushered right in and invited to make a program. At that time about all NPR had in the way of programs was ‘All Things Considered” in the evening, a weekly folk music program called “Voices in the Wind” and a catch-all series called “Options,” where it stuck everything else.
With NPR’s blessing, I invited a couple of experts to come to the studio to talk about education. For some bizarre reason, I chose ‘school finance’ as my subject. The two guests droned on and on, but NPR was thrilled. As I remember, the producer turned it into TWO 1-hour programs, “School Finance: Where the Money Comes From” and “Whence it Goes.” (If I owned the rights to those programs now, I would market them as a safe alternative to Ambien.)
After we made a few more programs for the “Options” series, NPR wanted to turn it into a semi-separate series, “Options in Education,” but to do that, I would need money, more than $10,000 for sure.
I went to Sam and told him that I had finally found what I HAD to do. I said I thought a weekly radio series about education could have a positive impact. As he had promised he would, he went to bat for me. He told IEL’s major supporter, the Ford Foundation, that he wanted to green light his newest staffer’s idea, a weekly program about education on National Public Radio. He couldn’t promise thousands and thousands of listeners because NPR had no audience figures, but he persuaded Harold “Doc” Howe and Ed Meade that it was a worthwhile venture.
I don’t remember the budget number, but I vividly remember Sam’s advice–more of a demand. He made me promise to come to him when I screwed up. “You will mess up,” he said, “because everybody messes up. Whatever you do, don’t cover it up. Come to me, and I will help you dig out of the hole.” (Remember, this was the year after Watergate.)
That’s the best professional advice I’ve ever gotten, from the best boss I have ever had. When I screwed up, he helped me clean up the mess, just as he had promised he would.
I ended up staying at NPR for 8 years and more than 400 programs, and “Options in Education” became one of NPR’s most-listened to programs. I learned pretty quickly to get out of the studio and then out of Washington, DC, and into schools, colleges, pre-schools, juvenile detention facilities and anywhere else where young people were learning.
In 1982 I got the itch to try television, and Sam supported my decision to give up “Options in Education” and devote my time to fundraising for a PBS series that we called “Your Children, Our Children.” In 1985 I joined what was then known as The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, where I have been working ever since.
When I established my own non-profit company, Learning Matters, in 1995, Sam was the first person I asked to serve on the Board of Directors. That made him my boss again, and more than once he and other Directors reined in some of my more questionable enthusiasms and kept me from taking the young organization off the track, or off the rails completely.
Sam mentored me–and so many others like me–because he believes in people. However, he was never a soft touch. He always set high standards for himself and everyone around him, and, when he caught you not doing your best, he told you so, directly and forcefully. Even his anger, however, was founded in love and generosity. He believed then and believes now that the only moral course of action for every human being is to use whatever gifts he or she may have been given in the service of others.
Thank you, Sam. I love you.
If you would like to let Sam know your feelings, write to him at his daughter’s email address, email@example.com, or post your thoughts here. Thank you.
- 1. He’s actually Dr. Halperin. Sam earned his bachelor’s degree, his master’s degree, and his doctorate in political science from Washington University in St. Louis.↵
- 2. Sam’s contributions have not gone unnoticed. He received HEW’s Superior Service Award, HEW’s Distinguished Service Award (twice) the National Association of State Boards of Education Distinguished Service Award (also twice), the Distinguished Service Award of the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps, the Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award from Jobs for the Future, the President’s Medal of the George Washington University, the Harry S. Truman Award of the American Association of Community Colleges, and the Lewis Hine Award for Service to Children and Youth from the National Child Labor Committee.↵
- 3.Today’s polarized Washington needs programs like ESS more than ever. Unfortunately, they don’t exist.↵