Friday, May 7, 2010

The Rodda Memorial: Eulogy by Greg Geeting

Greg Geeting first worked for Sen. Rodda as an intern. He later returned to the Senator's staff as a legislative assistant and later as a consultant to the Senate Finance Committee. After service with the State Board of Education (executive director) and the State Department of Education (administrator), Greg was elected to the Sacramento County Board of Education. The Rodda family invited Greg to speak at the Senator's memorial service on April 23, 2010, at which he delivered this eulogy.

Memorial Program for Albert S. Rodda, Jr.
Comments by Greg Geeting

Friday, April 23, 2010
Sacramento City College Auditorium

Of all the people I have known, none has been more remarkable than Albert S. Rodda, Jr. For that reason, I’ve encountered two distinct challenges in preparing comments about his life. The first has been deciding what to leave out when considering a life so rich, so full, so deep in courage and contribution. The second has been deciding just where to begin.

I’ve settled on beginning at the end. Margaret Rodda alerted me to the potential that Albert might pass away on Saturday evening, April 3. I made my way over to the house and had the great honor—and I do consider it that—of putting my hands on his shoulders and saying one last time, “You, sir, are a great man. We are all privileged to know you and to be your friend.”

As I prepared to leave—all of us choking back tears—I complimented Albert’s long-time caregivers—Ana and Eli—on the graceful dignity that they had enabled him to maintain over the past five years. King of his recliner, he usually greeted visitors with a smile and a laugh, and he was always so well cared for. I said I would return the following day, Easter Sunday, but we acknowledged in some unspoken way that the end appeared near.

On Easter morning, my daughter and I spotted Eli while walking around Curtis Park, and he informed me that Albert had passed away. Eli had gotten that sixth sense that Albert’s passing was imminent, and he called Ana to return quickly from the pharmacy. Then he said, “Albert, you must wait until she gets back.” And somehow he summoned the strength to do so, holding on until Ana returned, then quietly passed away.

We forged on around the park, and as we came up the eastern side—honest to Pete—if there weren’t two young boys playing ball—about 10 years old, one a bit older, one a bit younger—just as Albert and Richard might have done some nine decades before. It was spring in Curtis Park, and the cycle of life was renewed.

Now, I believe I first met Albert Rodda in 1964. I was 11, and my father and I were traveling around to the local democratic clubs with a black-and-white, 16 millimeter promotional film for the Lyndon Johnson-Hubert Humphrey ticket. My dad absolutely loathed dealing with the film projector. I’m pretty sure I met Senator Rodda at one of the local clubs. My dad said they had been colleagues back when Sacramento State College was co-located here on the Junior College campus. I also remember him saying, “Senator Rodda is a quiet man, but he really gets things done!” Now, I like to think that he added, “I hope you’ll be just like him.” However, that may be wishful recollecting.

In any case, fast forward 10 years to 1974—I joined Senator Rodda’s office as an intern. From the first minute, it simply felt like the right place to be. I didn’t want to leave, and—as fate sometimes makes possible—I remained for seven years in different capacities. I truly believe that all of us who worked for Senator Rodda during some part of those splendid years knew that we were participating in a rare golden age. It was a privilege of destiny; a providential turn of events in our own lives. During my own seven years, and in the 30 years of friendship that followed, I came to learn much about this outstanding and truly gentle-man.

Now, as my time is limited, I have chosen to focus on three of the many fine qualities that made Albert so remarkable.

First and foremost was his noteworthy academic accomplishment, as his many papers attest. The memorial program notes his degrees from Stanford University and his graduation Phi Beta Kappa. And, that was during the hardscrabble existence of the Great Depression, while he worked for pennies an hour in a box factory. Importantly, though, he did not put his intellectual pursuits on the shelf—so to speak—but kept current. He always had a book in hand, such as Barrett’s Irrational Man, exploring the intricacies of Jose Ortega y Gasset among other existentialists—and the books were always stuffed with newspaper clippings and handwritten notes.

In 1971, he delivered his paper “Freedom: With God or Without God?” contrasting the views of Nietzsche, Sartre, and Kierkegaard. He did so not to give a tidy pirouette of academic prowess, but rather to pose deeply introspective, challenging questions for his audience to ponder.

Albert often frustrated a press increasingly hungry for short, quotable quotes. His obituary in the Sacramento Bee mentions one. He was asked to state simply his personal religious views. He responded, “I used to call myself an agnostic humanist existentialist, but now I call myself a theist humanist existentialist.” Academically precise, but probably not destined for Rick’s List on CNN!

Second, Albert Rodda was a most atypical politician. He was generally quiet and restrained—rarely given to bombast. Moreover, even back then, politicians did not apologize—it’s a sign of weakness. But, Albert would typically get in three “I’m sorrys” during your first minute of conversation. Clarice used to gently chide him by saying, “Oh, it’s Albert S-for-Sorry Rodda,” which was one of the rare humorous references I recall about him. Another I recall was that he was “the mouse who ate the cat.” Both are very genteel humor to be sure. So, I called my good friend John Mockler to ask for a humorous anecdote about Albert, and he provided me instead with this insight: even though Albert was a very good-humored person, he was not someone people found “funny,” meaning an object of humor. Rather, he was someone people recognized as civil and gentlemanly, and you don’t make fun of them.

As I pondered John’s remarks, I realized that while Albert was “comfortable” with the burdens he carried as a legislator and a politician, it was a studied, tenuous, cautious comfort. His fondness for the Arden Fair Food Circus provides an example. With a number of small food vendors surrounding a vast sea of tables and chairs, each person—including lobbyists who chose to tag along—bought his or her own lunch, and Albert treated all to a dish of ice cream. He once told me that he enjoyed the anonymity of the place. So, there’s a scene for you: chair of the State Senate’s most powerful committee, freed and refreshed by linoleum flooring, Formica tabletops, and plastic trays!

Finally, Albert Rodda was remarkable for his record of accomplishment. Not silly bill counts, though he carried many bills to successful completion, including SB 160, his landmark bill on teacher collective bargaining. Consistently, though, content and substance were Albert’s objectives. He was willing to let someone else author a bill, provided the content and substance were agreeable. Not infrequently, he would carry his own bill for purposes of developing a Senate consensus on a critical issue, then graciously allow a fellow Senator or an Assembly Member to amend the consensus language into another bill and take credit.

He was also willing to fight even the most powerful interests when content and substance so demanded. In 1972, for example, Senator Rodda was one of the very few who opposed SB 90, which simultaneously endeavored to tackle school finance reform and property tax relief, doing neither very well. In an exceedingly rare public display of anger and frustration, he said that schools would be better off eating out of a garbage can than accepting the bill. Everyone from CTA to Wilson Riles to Ronald Reagan patted Albert on the head and thanked him for his passion. Subsequently, when SB 90 proved woefully inadequate, who was it? it was Albert who carried stop-gap measures and then helped shape a longer term solution—as was his custom, content and substance, not “I told you so.”

So, now it’s my turn to say I’m sorry. I’m sorry for all of the great stuff I had to leave out of these remarks to pare down to these three essentials: pursuing intellectual/academic excellence, being an atypical politician, and—in my father’s words—getting things done!

I close with a paraphrase from the great American poet Edwin Markham’s homage Abraham Lincoln: the Man of the People. In that poem, Markham employs the metaphor of Lincoln as a lordly cedar green with boughs that goes down with a great shout upon the hills and leaves a lonesome place against the sky. Unlike Lincoln, Albert lived a long and full life, and died quietly as had been his way of living. Yet, we all regarded Albert as a lordly cedar, and his passing—just as Lincoln’s—leaves no less of a lonesome place against the sky.

1 comment:

Douglas said...

Tremendous eulogy for for the gentleman senator!