my information

--- Issued June 21, 2012

Editor's Note: Below is the speech Erie Housing Authority Executive Director John E. Horan gave on June 21 at the Ambassador Hotel in appreciation of being selected for the United Way's Tocqueville Award. Because the award is such a prestigious honor, the speech is presented in its entirety.

Thanks to the United Way of Erie County for selecting me for the 2012 Tocqueville Award. As you can see from the program, over the years, the United Way has honored a distinguished group of individuals. I don’t see myself as equal to the standards set by those individuals, but I am most appreciative that you put me in such august company. Thank you.

The Tocqueville Award recognizes individuals who have, through volunteer efforts, made significant contributions to the Erie community. The short version of my 44 years in public service has been guided by my desire to give back for my good fortune to have had role models that helped to shape my life in a positive way.

Some of you have heard parts of this story, but this is probably the first time and no doubt the last that you will hear the rest of the story.

I was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, the second of four children of Francis and Anne Horan. For the first 25 years of my life I lived in the same two bedroom house at 6123 Laura Avenue.

In 1954 when I was in the 6th grade my father had a nervous breakdown. This was long before anyone understood chronic mental illness could be treated successfully with drugs. Back then, people were stuck in mental institutions with no patient rights. Electric shock treatment was routine. My father spent most of the next 10 years in the Missouri State Hospital for the mentally ill. Today, he would probably have been diagnosed as bi-polar and, with the proper medications, he would have led a happy, productive life.

At the age of 45, my mother became the sole supporter of our family of four children aged 5 to 14. She initially entered the workforce as a clerk at a local department store. When she retired at age 70 she was the executive secretary to the Director of Health for the City of St. Louis. Somehow she managed to see to it that all four children had an opportunity to complete four years at private Catholic colleges. To this day, I don’t know how she did it.

As you can imagine, it would have been easy to get in trouble with no father and a working mother. And I did my share of dastardly deeds. Like the time I shot the robin off the backyard fence post with a neighbor’s Daisy Ryder BB gun. I haven’t touched a gun since.

So, without a father, who were the all important male role models in my life?

The first was my mother’s brother John Hughes. Uncle John was married but had no children. So virtually every weekend for many years Uncle John, who was a mailman, would pick me up on Friday after work and take me to his house located in East St. Louis, Illinois.

In the 1950s, East St. Louis was not a bad place to live. I would spend Saturdays and Sundays working in the convenience store which was part of the dairy that his wife’s family owned and operated. I learn how to work a cash register, stock shelves, and clean milk bottling machines; make malted milk shakes, scoop ice cream and make cottage cheese, to name just a few.

I worked the 4th of July Knights of Columbus picnics and sold half pint bottles of white and chocolate milk along with orange drink, out of massive galvanized tubs that were filled with ice. My hands get cold just thinking about fishing around to find the right bottle to fill an order. The pay wasn’t much, but I learned how to work. In the evenings we would often end up at the “all you can eat chicken buffet,” where my Aunt Louise (John’s wife) would drill me on the proper utensils to eat with.

Early on Monday mornings, Uncle John would drop me back home on his way to work. For many years, whenever I got slightly out of hand at home, my mother would call Uncle John to the rescue.

My second role model was an African-American Benedictine monk who taught history at my alma mater St. Benedict’s College in Atchison Kansas. Father Columban Clinch was a combat veteran of WWII, with a PhD from Harvard. He instilled in me a love of history and an appreciation of other cultures. Father Columban knew more about European and American history than anyone I met before or since. He was the finest teacher I ever had. His sense of humor was undaunted by the trials and tribulations that he endured during his life under the yoke of “Jim Crow.” Father Columban was not a bitter man. He taught me about people and how to live life and enjoy every minute, regardless of what difficulties would come my way.

Then, there was Captain Steven Reddick of the St. Louis Police Department. In April 1968, on the Sunday following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, I marched together with thousands of others (mostly Black) in a demonstration in support of the non-violent principle for which Dr. King had given his life. Reddick, at that time, the highest ranking African-American in the St. Louis Police Department, spent the day working the perimeter of the marching mass imploring the demonstrators to remain peaceful in the name of Dr. King. St. Louis did not burn after King’s assassination—I was sure that Captain Reddick single-handedly kept the city from becoming another riot zone. The lesson learned was that one person can make a difference even in the face of overwhelming odds.

Finally, there was the one person that all of you know, at least by reputation, Lou Tullio. He took note of me shortly after I started working for the Erie Redevelopment Authority in the summer of 1968. The mayor never failed to notice the new person in the room. The mayor led from the front of the pack. He represented all the interest groups in Erie. He was the ultimate cheer leader for Erie.

He was non-partisan when he had to be. He never held a grudge, but he never forgot anything. Most importantly, He taught me that public service is the rent we pay for our time on earth.

So these four individuals—my role models—shaped my life. Shortly after I started my professional career with the Redevelopment Authority, I vowed that I would try to make a difference in the lives of those who were less fortunate than me. I was given the opportunity to do just that as the executive director of the Erie Housing Authority over the last 35 years. With the help of many dedicated employees, and members of a board that had no other agenda than to provide safe, decent and affordable housing with a pathway to self sufficiency, perhaps I have made a small difference in the lives of some of our most needy citizens.

Thank you very much for bestowing the United Way’s highest honor on me.

In closing, I leave you with words to remember that have become our mantra at the Erie Housing Authority—“It’s Always About People.”