I met Ollie Speraw at a coffee shop in Carlsbad about 4 years ago. We had exchanged emails after he read a column I wrote for the North County Times about school test scores. He asked if I had seen the film Waiting for Superman, which is about school reform. When I told him I had not, he promptly sent me the book as a gift and asked if I would meet him for coffee to discuss it. Before accepting his invitation I did a little online research about him. Discovering his impressive career in politics, I concluded he wasn't a flake. It appealed to my vanity to meet an important person who liked my writing.
I discovered two things about Ollie in that first meeting. He had a passionate interest in helping kids get a good education, and we didn't belong to the same political party. When introducing him to my friends I'd often explain, "he leans to the right, and I lean to the left." To which he'd always add, "I don't blame him for being wrong."
For the next four years we met for coffee once a month. In between we exchanged emails about how schools could be improved and whether he agreed or disagreed with what I wrote about in my latest column. My "Ollie" folder contains 866 emails. Knowing his sense of humor, I think he would have wanted me to quote all of them to make sure I reported accurately his positions on the issues. But I've picked just a few that best explain why I'll never forget him.
Ollie and I had some feisty exchanges in cyberspace. But they always ended in smiles. Once, after an especially contentious disagreement, he signed off with, PS, Although you are confused at times I still think you are a great guy. And again, after neither of us would budge on another issue: Richard, I’m not used to being right, so I am willing to be half right if you will accept the other half.
I heard echoes of Mark Twain in Ollie's explanation of how he controls his ego: Richard, The only way to remain humble is to force yourself to fail occasionally.
I missed Ollie's 90th birthday party. As it happened, my mother turned 90 the same week. So I was in Seattle celebrating with her. When I sent Ollie my regrets, here was his reply: Please extend my best wishes to her and tell her it probably seemed impossible at the time but that she did a great job on raising you. I would love to meet her.
After Karen and I sent Ann and Ollie a wedding anniversary card, Ollie sent me this email:
We just received a beautiful card from you saying you are twice as happy as we are. Can we define happiness before this goes any further.
My life has been enriched by the people and opportunities Ollie introduced me to. If it weren't for Ollie I would not have met our coffee buddies, Michael Lucas and Ken Noonan, as well as several others, who joined us occasionally at Mimi's in Oceanside for coffee, including his son Michael. In our bi-partisan coffee caucuses we were able to solve most of the world's problems.
Ollie arranged my tour of North County Trade Tech High School, opening my eyes to the way schools could prepare academically at-risk kids for careers in high-skill trades as well as college admission.
Another dimension was added to my life when Ollie forwarded this email from his son:
I thought you might enjoy this article about a young guy, Salman Khan,
who is not a teacher but who has created instructional video lessons
that are apparently very effective and free online.
That email message led me to enrolling in the Khan Academy in a quest to conquer calculus, for no other reason than brain calisthenics.
Here's an Ollie email that sums up for me his commitment to education. He circulated it to "friends and family," together with my column about North County Trade Tech High.
As you read this keep in mind:
-The shameful number of school dropouts.
-Those who graduate with their English and math well below grade level.
-The many who make it to college and then have to take remedial English and Math to stay there.
When I Googled "Ollie Speraw" before meeting him, I was impressed he'd been a State Senator.
I haven't voted for many Republicans, but I would have voted for my friend Ollie.