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Local politicians show their support for literacy

By Marie P. Grady
Special to Reminder Publications

The first time I met Holyoke Mayor Michael Sullivan he was sitting at a table across from a group of newspaper editors, trying to explain why he would make a great mayor for the city of Holyoke. As I recall it, the conversation was colored by some of the great books he was reading at the time.
The last time I saw Springfield Mayor Domenic J. Sarno was at the end of a Springfield town meeting on literacy that featured MSNBC news personality Chris Matthews. Politicians, faced with dozens of commitments, quickly learn how to duck in and out of such events. But Sarno, like his Chief of Staff Denise R. Jordan, had been there for four hours. Congressman Richard E. Neal, who had just run an annual road race he sponsors in support of research into Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, also sprinted to the event to show support.
And this was on a Sunday, a day of rest. A day when the Patriots were playing, no less.
Sullivan went on to become mayor of Holyoke for five terms before deciding not to run for re-election. He never stopped believing in the city and never forgot the immense power of learning. Last month, as a parting gift, adult education students at Holyoke Works, a program affiliated with the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce, remembered his support.
So did Holyoke Works Director Larry Bay and Literacy Program Manager Maura Geary of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County.
It was not the first time Sullivan was honored for his support. In 2007, he received a "Literacy Luminary" award during an event at which adult education students personally thanked lawmakers for supporting programs that transformed their lives.
In the political scheme of things, literacy is as American as apple pie. It's easy to embrace and easier to swallow. But for municipal leaders grappling with budget decisions and burdened with gargantuan urban problems, it's not so easy to invest the time and financial resources necessary when the proverbial four-letter-word hits the fan.
And adult education students are often only on the road to success. They have yet to become movers and shakers munching at power lunches, capable of funding a campaign for office.
Still, those of us not too far off the boat were taught at an early age that education is the great equalizer. We know the immigrants and students of today will become the voters and even candidates of tomorrow.
Sullivan is a second-generation Irish immigrant and Sarno is a first-generation Italian immigrant. The cities they were elected to run are teeming with immigrants and mired in problems rooted in poverty. The poverty is perpetuated by a literacy gap that seems almost insurmountable.
But, for Americans, obstacles are never insurmountable. And the newest and most disenfranchised among us are as important as the movers and shakers of today.
"Imagine the courage it must take to stand up and ask a question in another language," Sullivan reflected after he had been honored by the students of Holyoke Works. "In front of peers and professionals. Exposing yourself to all the stereotypes that language and literacy embody."
Imagine a world where those stereotypes don't exist. Where a literacy gap is no more.
The newest mayors just elected, and those who have taken on the challenge again, should know this. If they remember the importance of literacy, they will never be forgotten.
Marie P. Grady has written on literacy issues as a journalist and consultant. For more information on literacy programs in Hampden County, contact Maura Geary, literacy program manager for the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County Inc. at mgeary@rebhc.org.


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