Childhood mentor helped mayoral candidate Butkovitz learn to express himself effectively

Mayoral candidate Alan Butkovitz sees the irony in the fact that everything he had trouble with in school, he ended up having to do as part of his work or part of his life.

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Democratic mayoral candidate Alan Butkovitz. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Democratic mayoral candidate Alan Butkovitz. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In advance of next week’s primary election in Philadelphia, WHYY’s Morning Edition host Jennifer Lynn is airing snippets of conversations she’s had with Democrats running for mayor: incumbent Jim Kenney, former city controller Alan Butkovitz, and state Sen. Anthony Williams.

These are things the candidates said that struck her as not too “campaigny,” if you will.

Lynn sat with Alan Butkovitz a few weeks ago at his campaign headquarters at MakeOffices at 17th and Markets streets.

She asked him to recall a transformative moment in his life, well before he became a trial lawyer and before he got into city politics as a controller.

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He recalled a time during his days as a student at Overbrook High School.

I was kind of a self-contained, disinterested student. I liked history. I used to read books to my grandmother while she was cooking. Of course, she thought I was brilliant, but the schools begged to differ. Guidance counselors in junior high school thought that I should forget about college. And what happened the first day I went to Overbrook was I tried out for the debating team.

It’s one of those memories burned into my brain. I actually did the audition in this kind of gray, checked overcoat. I remember one of the buttons was off and [I had] dirty hands. And Chester Plummer was an English teacher who was the coach of the debating team. And they had me do a little snippet and a little question and answer. And I was pretty good on the question and answer. And Chester Plummer, I guess he’d been an English teacher for six or seven years at this point, said, “You know, this guy’s got talent.”

Basically, he became a substitute proxy father figure. I had a really dysfunctional family. My father kind of terrorized us, and I guess by the time I was in high school my parents were divorced. Because Mr. Plummer took an interest in me, I returned the favor by taking an interest in English instead of just loving history, I started taking the rules of grammar and of persuasion and expression seriously. A lot of my compatriots went to Central [High School]. We got out of Beeber Junior High School, and they were all going to Central, and I was going to Overbrook, so I was kind of the ne’er-do-well of the group. Other than that, high school was trying to survive mathematics and particularly physics … and gym (laughs).

OK. You know, gym, physics. Mathematics, though, that’s interesting because I think of city controller and the watchdog … and looking at data.

Yeah, it is kind of ironic that everything that I had trouble with in my life, I ended up having to do as part of my work or part of my life. I had a similar experience when I went to law school with environmental law. I was never able to get past the first page. I’d fall asleep. Ultimately became an environmental insurance coverage lawyer, so that taught me about hubris and thinking that you know where you’re going and what’s going to happen to you. And really it’s important to just have all around curiosity.

I don’t know when that changed because I’ve got algebra backwards and forwards now, but I couldn’t get it in seventh grade, and I couldn’t get it in 10th grade. And that’s one of the things that I think is important as we look at the schools now, to understand that children have much more native ability and much more potential about where they can excel. And what I recall in my own life was that I had this impatience about getting into the adult world, wanting to be taken seriously. Why do I have to sit at the children’s table? If they would just let me out of this school … And once I got over that and started to enjoy aspects of being in the school environment, I was open to learning.

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