John Engler and Me

Long-time Michiganders, especially those of a certain age, have probably seen the latest news blast about our hefty ex-governor, John Engler. No, not the incident where he, in his role as Interim President of Michigan State University, accused sexual predator Larry Nassar’s victims of ‘enjoying the spotlight.’  And not the story about Engler’s unauthorized offering one of those victims a quarter of a million dollars, later claiming he was engaging in a ‘philosophical discussion’ about how much money would satisfy them.

The latest on John Engler is his non-appearance at investigative interviews being conducted by Michigan’s Attorney General, about the Nassar affair. Engler has been claiming he’s out of town, but then turned up courtside at an MSU basketball game.  The AG, Dana Nessel, sent a letter to the MSU Board President:

“We must lead from the top. The reluctance of the former interim president of the University to cooperatively participate in a law enforcement investigation into the largest sexual assault scandal in the history of higher education — yet happily sit court-side to watch the men’s basketball team on multiple occasions — speaks volumes about allegations of a culture of indifference on campus.”

Exactly. But Engler doesn’t see it that way.

Today, his lawyers sent Nessel a letter saying that nope, he’s not coming in for any interviews, unless and until Nessel recuses herself. Because she doesn’t like him. That’s right. Specifically—“You have prejudged Mr. Engler’s veracity and motives without ever talking to him. You have launched unfounded attacks and besmirched Mr. Engler…” 

It goes on like this at some length, besmirching Ms. Nessel herself, calling her inexperienced and lacking integrity. Your typical heavyweight bullying and mansplaining.

I’m not worried about Dana Nessel, who seems to be pretty level-headed and courageous. But the re-emergence of John Engler has given me a chance to reminisce about the times I encountered—you might even say helped out and then got dumped on by– John Engler. It’s a long story, but it involves similar outsized bullying and setting up innocent people.

John Engler was Governor when I was Michigan Teacher of the Year, in 1993. And through a series of very unlikely circumstances, I worked with Engler on a funding initiative, Proposal A, in May of that year. (For veteran MI Educators, this was the first Prop A, the one that went down in flames. A second version, the one we’re still living with, passed in 1994.)

It started with a focus group, doing PR work for Republicans. Asked whose voice and opinion they would trust most on education issues, the group identified the Teacher of the Year, as #1 on a long list of public officials and civic leaders. And I was Teacher of the Year.

The MEA was partnering with the Governor on the ballot initiative, and my union urged me to shoot TV commercials and radio spots supporting the Proposal. I thought it was a good policy (it disconnected property tax and school funding), and so I did. I also did a one-day fly-around the entire state in a small 4-seater plane, to build local news coverage, the day before the vote.

I sat knee-to-knee in the plane with the governor (who shared his tuna fish sandwich with me, as I didn’t pack my own lunch). We were speaking at airports and at schools. My assigned job was just to shake hands with the locals—the Governor was supposed to be the speaker. But at the first place we stopped—a middle school in Saginaw—the gov was flopping, big-time. He kept pausing in his printed remarks for applause, which never came.

I was sitting behind him, on a folding chair, and suddenly he turned to me and motioned me forward, saying ‘Look, I brought Hillary Clinton with me!’  (No. I don’t really resemble the then-First Lady, aside from the fact that we’re both white women, but I suppose that’s enough for John Engler.)

By the time we hit our third school, I was the featured speaker, talking about how great their public school was and why we needed money to keep it that way, and Engler was just shaking hands with the locals. It was painfully obvious how awkward he was with high school and middle school kids. In between schools, in the air, he asked me all kinds of questions about teaching and my students. He was—not to put too fine a point on it—utterly clueless about the strengths of public education. And he used the Hillary Clinton line every place we went.

I got called a half-dozen times that summer to do education events with the governor—Presidential Scholars, Chamber of Commerce receptions, legislative gatherings at the Governor’s Mansion. I had two young children myself, at the time, but I always got a babysitter and showed up, in heels and pantyhose. It seemed like I might have some influence over his thinking, just by being present and articulately representing teachers.

But no.

Five years after I was Mi-TOY, I got a call from Governor Engler while I was on vacation, at a lakeside cottage in northern Michigan. He needed me to fly to St. Louis and appear on a television program with him, as part of a National Governors Association conference. In three days. It would be a panel discussion around ‘education.’ His assistant would call me with information about flights.

It was all pretty sketchy and involved ending my vacation three days early. Fortunately, his assistant had a bit more information on the topic—National Board Certification—but it seemed odd that there wasn’t more preparation, information about the panel, where to be when, and so on.

I flew to St. Louis, took a very expensive taxi downtown, arrived at the hotel and conference center and nobody seemed to know where I was supposed to be, although they had a name badge and tote bag for me.  I had flights in and out on the same day, and the televised panel was supposed to happen in a couple of hours, but nobody on Governor Engler’s staff could be reached.

Suddenly, across the lobby, I saw a teacher I knew, from North Carolina. She rushed over. ‘Where were you?’ she asked. It seemed that there were going to be six governors on the panel, and each had brought a National Board Certified Teacher to St. Louis. All the teachers were all flown in yesterday, had gotten to know each other and were given media coaching and sample answers, as well as a gala dinner with their governors, last night. My name was on the list, but of course, I wasn’t there. Neither was Engler.

My friend gave me that media packet with the sample answers—and I had already thoroughly prepared, back at home, on my own. We were led into the room where the program was going to be televised. It was exciting—President Clinton was there. I saw that I had a chair and a nameplate in the panel setup. But no Engler. Several governors asked me where he was—I had no idea. I sat down and studied the packet. I felt embarrassed.
Eventually the program began. The camera went around to each of the governors, who introduced their teacher partners, but stopped before it got to me. It occurred to me that I had flown to St. Louis to be stood up by my own governor, on TV. I could not imagine what I had done to deserve that.

About 40 minutes into the 90-minute program, Engler strolled in, and sat down. He turned to me and said cheerily ‘You made it!’ Governor Jim Hunt (NC), who was moderating the panel, stopped the discussion to announce that Governor Engler had arrived, and asked him to introduce me. He did, getting my hometown, subject discipline and school district wrong. I noticed he was clutching a handful of handwritten notes.

‘Governor Hunt, now I have some questions,’ Engler crowed. Reading directly from the notes, he began to question the value of National Board Certification, using some cheesy, disproven research from a right-wing, anti-union organization. There were a number of questions—of the ‘Isn’t this just another useless way for teachers to make even more extravagant salaries?’ variety. And he was directing the questions at me.

I looked over at Governor Hunt and he was shaking his head, subtly—no, no, don’t answer.

But I was prepared. I debunked his so-called research findings. I cleared up falsehoods in his questions and statements. I noted that teachers in his and my state paid their own money to be assessed and didn’t receive a salary stipend. I talked about the value of the process to me, in my classroom, as a professional teacher. I threw in bits of the sample answers for good measure and told him where I really lived and worked since he’d gotten that wrong in his introduction.  He argued back, from the notes. At one point, I remember saying ‘You’re wrong, Governor.’

Then I looked at my watch. I had less than an hour until my flight. The panel hadn’t even ended. I picked up my tote bag (I still have it) and ran out the door, calling for a taxi. A reporter chased me out—‘I’m from Education Week! Did you just tell your governor that he was wrong?’ I gave her my card, and Bess Armstrong called me the following week, and put the story on the front page.

I never heard from Governor Engler again. I sent his office my expenses—taxis, parking, mileage to/from the airport–but was never reimbursed.  A couple years later, I was rolling a suitcase through Reagan Airport in D.C. and saw him—it’s an unmistakable silhouette. Our paths crossed, on those moving sidewalks. Hello, Governor, I said. He looked blankly at me. Nothing.

So—good luck, Dana Nessel. I know something about this man’s character. Not that he’s hiding it, these days.

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21 Comments

  1. WOW! Bravo for you!!! Great article, by a well-articulated Michigan teacher.
    …and I’d be happy to reimburse you! Thank you and sorry you had to deal with a bumble head.

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  2. Brilliant! Thank you for standing up for teachers. I remember the Engler years all too well… this article brought back a lot of those horrible memories of his “administration”, and I’ve been retired since ‘99!?! It was a sad day when he reappeared as my alma mater’s interim president; another shameful act of our former governor. Good luck to our attorney general … keep fighting the good fight… we need you!

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  3. Such a well written article! Please send it to Dana Nessel. You also have to remember that John Engler is the reason that our teachers’ unions are very weak. He began the movement that took away our right to strike, started cutting salaries and benefits, imposed ridiculous standards and requirements…I could go on and on.

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    1. I could go on and on, too. The guy really did not like or trust public schools. At that time, ‘school of choice’ options didn’t exist, between or within public districts. One of the things he talked about, on the plane, was this big idea that all schools should be open to kids in nearby districts. It was a surprising idea to me, at the time–but he was convinced that this ‘choice’ thing would fly, once schools were getting their funding through a state tax, not property tax. When the money came from the state, instead of local wealth, there would be more state control…

      I remember him throwing up his hands and saying ‘Free the people!’

      I’ll think about sending it to Dana Nessel. She’s got a lot on her plate right now.

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  4. The teachers at my district always joked about what had happened to him back in school at Beal City that made him actually hate teachers as much as he did. Why he hates teachers still a mystery but you did an excellent job of telling it like it is

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    1. I believe Engler went to Catholic schools–at least, Catholic elementary school, but perhaps HS, too. He talked about going to Catholic schools (how they didn’t have band programs, for ex) while we were together. I tried to look this up–where did he go to school?–without success. His bios mention only college and law school. So maybe it was the nuns who scared him?

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  5. Nancy, a great story well told that lays out the truth. I have great memories of when we used to do presentations together PROMOTING National Board Certification…you do teachers, and especially Michigan teachers, proud 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Gretchen. I remember those presentations, in Grand Rapids. I don’t do National Bd work any more, although I’m still a supporter. Those were the days when the conversation was centered on teachers improving their own practice. Today, we’re just trying to keep the lights on, in many places. Thanks for your nice words.

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  6. I usually am not a fan of teachers,probably deep seated resentment of nuns. But I applaud the articulate and well done piece on a first class boob of an ex-governor. What is the Republican problem with education? Do they feel if the common man learns too much he will realize they only care about the wealthy and preserving the status quo??

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    1. Unclear about why one party seems less inclined than the other to support a public good–but I think that’s it. Republicans think if you want your kids to go to public school, you’d better live in a well-heeled neighborhood. Democrats think all kids should be offered a high-quality free education.

      Ironically, one place where some Repubs and some Dems find a meeting of mind is charter schools– a place where ‘choice’ and ‘serving the poor’ seem to come together. Of course, this ignores what privatizing a public good does to the rest of the people dependent on it.

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      1. It’s all about where the money flows. It’s about privitization and gutting the public institutions so the money flows to them on the backs of our students.

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  7. When State brought him on board, my first comment was, “What in God’s name could they possibly be thinking?” Anyone who knew anything about him recognized it was like throwing gas on a fire. Ugh! A true slime ball.

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  8. As a reporter, I once asked Engler a question about local control of education, which the Republicans championed when the Democrats controlled Lansing, but which they stopped supporting as soon as Republicans controlled Lansing and could ram through legislation. His response was literally “That was then, this is now.” A man completely without principle, other than cutting taxes for the rich, and a bully to boot.

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