Sunday, December 16, 2012

Goodbye Andy

Photo courtesy North Coventry Township's Facebook page.
North Coventry Supervisor Andy Paravis, who died Friday, introduces
former governor Ed Rendell, right, during a 
2010 visit to 
Camp  Fernbrook, the preservation of which was dear to Andy's heart.
"You should be writing about this. What's the matter with you?" said the deepest, most gravely voice you've ever heard rumbling over the phone line.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard that in a conversation with Andy Paravis, I wouldn't be struggling to get by on a reporter's salary.

As I prepared the story about Andy's passing Saturday, I kept hearing that voice in my head, and then the "heh, heh, heh" chuckle that always followed it.

I tell people who tell me I'm too liberal that I've voted for plenty of Republicans, and it's true I have.

But, being a resident of the borough, I never had the honor of voting for Andy Paravis.

My loss really.

As I spoke to people about Andy Saturday, the examples of his leadership kept popping up, and I knew I couldn't fit them all into the newspaper. (The story was already too long....)

But I also couldn't keep them to myself.

Although I am a huge fan of the work Andy did preserving forest, agricultural and open space, and firmly believe that to be his greatest legacy, my favorite memory of Andy had to do not with success, but disaster.

It was June, 2005 and the Schuylkill had blown its banks again, creeping into South Pottstown and making long-time residents shake their heads, and new residents wonder what the hell they were thinking when they moved there

I remember it was hot, very hot, and a town meeting had been called in North Coventry Elementary School where hot, unhappy people were looking for answers.

"People were on their last nerve," recalled Supervisor Jim Marks, who also remembered the day.

I've seen my share of such gatherings and they are a minefield for a public official. The slightest error in phrase or fact can be the trigger for shouting and angry recriminations.

But Andy, who I'm pretty sure had recently completed another round of therapy to keep his cancer in check, climbed up onto the stage without hesitation.

He spoke plainly, and plainly felt the anxiety of his neighbors.

When he didn't know the answer to something, he said so, but promised to find out.

And they believed him.

"We know you're doing all you can Andy," said someone in the crowd.

Color me impressed. Not that I wasn't already impressed with how dedicated and relentless he was about keeping as much of North Coventry green as he could.

But this was in a whole different category.

This was not policy, this was leadership.

It was evident, these people believed and trusted what an elected official was telling them.

When the crisis came, they believed him because they knew him, and they knew he had never lied to them, or prevaricated or side-stepped an issue they cared about.

This meant he could be blunt.

All the better.

"What's the matter with them over there in Pottstown?" he once asked me several years ago after a particularly lunk-headed vote. "We've been trying to figure that out for years," I replied with a sigh.

Although, being the Pottstown and Pottsgrove reporter, I covered few North Coventry meetings, I did see Andy regularly at the meetings of the Pottstown Metropolitan Area Planning Committee.

It was here, where matters of regional significance were discussed, that Andy most often sidled up after the meeting to tell me about some obscure state legislation that would make open space preservation worse, or better.

"What's the matter with you? You work at a newspaper, you're supposed to know this stuff," he would growl with that sideways smile of his. "You should be writing about this."

"Ahhhh, I'm just kidding ya, pal" he'd add after a pregnant pause, hitting me on the arm.

But he was just letting me off the hook. He was right. I should have been, or someone should have been writing about this stuff. It's boring, but vitally important.

We often lamented the decline of watchdog journalism together and I knew this was his way of pointing out that this was just another example of something that was slipping through the cracks.

I would tell Nancy (that's Nancy March, the editor at The Mercury) and we would agree something should be done.

Then, one of two things would happen.

John Strickler, The Mercury's photo editor, a lifer if ever there was one, would stride up to her desk and say "fire at ---fill in the blank -- I'm going" and we would forget about HB 365784B that we had just resolved needed exploration.

With a smaller staff, that stuff gets left on the cutting room floor when spot news happens.

The other thing that would happen is Nancy and I would both pause, and realize with four reporters covering  30 towns, three counties and nine school districts, we quite simply could not devote the resources necessary to do the job properly.

But that wouldn't stop Andy from trying again the next time he saw me. I would explain the above and he would say "come on, this is important."

Despite what many might think, 25 years of local journalism has not completely soured me on elected officials.

When you cover the issues and decisions they face, the taxpayers who want better services and lower taxes, the meeting gadflies who consume their meeting time complaining about not getting return phone calls, the boring meetings, often for little or no pay, you develop some sympathy for the shoes they walk in.

It doesn't excuse some of their behavior, ineptness or self-dealing, but it makes it understandable.

Nearly all those I've known, get involved out of a sense of civic duty, a belief that they can help, or, never good, the belief that no one can help but them.

I always had the impression that Andy, like many, got involved because something happened he didn't like -- the Town Square development off Route 100. That's not unusual.

What was, in my experience, was that his interest in public service did not evaporate once that issue was settled. More unusual, I think, was his discovery that he had an aptitude for this kind of work.

He said once that he remembered as a kid watching with dismay when a mall was built in Montgomery Township, right along the township line, so at least half the traffic, police and storm water impact was burdened on a neighboring town which got none of the tax benefit.

(Sound familiar West Pottsgrove?)

That was his driver, he said, for pursuing regional cooperation with such vigor.

And he walked the walk.

When the Pottstown Regional Comprehensive Plan was being developed, Andy's was the loudest voice insisting that commercial development had to be pushed into the borough.

He knew that the best way to keep open space from being developed, was to give that development an alternative place to go.

"Pottstown should be the center of the region," he said over and over as he tried to coax township officials from West Pottsgrove, New Hanover and Douglass (Mont.) away from the siren song of property tax revenues offered by strip mall and cookie-cutter housing developers.

But "local control" has a long and selfishly guarded tradition in Pennsylvania and officials used to being the bosses of their own kingdoms chafed at the suggestion that people from other towns should have a say in how THEIR town gets developed.

"Plays well with others" is not often a high grade among municipal officials in the Keystone state.

Andy fought the fight anyway, mostly because he was not selfish. he did not have an out-sized idea of his importance in the larger scheme of things, he did not crave higher office, he just wanted to make his little corner of the world a little bit better and he didn't care too much who got the credit, as long as it got done.

And in many ways, he was a better friend to Pottstown than many of the borough's own officials.

And I'm proud to say I considered him mine as well.

Andy had the bad luck to die in the midst of a news event that is bound to overwhelm the news of his passing. Part of me thinks he might have said "just as well" and not wanted people to make a fuss over his absence.

But when the news of Newtown has faded, too soon and too likely overshadowed by another gun-fueled tragedy, Andy's absence will still be felt in the regional conversation.

His death leaves a big hole in greater Pottstown's political and environmental landscape; one I only hope someone else will step up to fill.

Seems to me we owe him that.

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