By Rich Harwood
Every so often I’ve written about people who have made a difference in public life and inspired me. Some of these individuals I have known, while most of them I have not. I am drawn to these stories because I believe that in an age of divisive politics, a lack of belief in our ability to get things done together and a flagging American Dream, that it’s essential to lift up ordinary Americans who help shine a light on a more positive path forward. Today, I want to talk about one individual I did know well: my dad, Gil Harwood, who passed away earlier this month.
One of his greatest gifts to me was a deep affection and love for Judaism. Upon his death, I was instantly reminded of my three favorite words in the Old Testament. They were spoken by Moses when he stood before the burning bush and God called out to him. Moses responded: “Here I am.” My dad believed that we are each called to step forward to say, “Here I am,” in our own way—to repair breaches in society and account for our daily actions. He believed how one lived their life mattered.
I saw him practice this approach first-hand time and again. When I was born, I was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. As a young child, I would often be up all night sick. My dad was there. He would take things out of our hallway closet and make up games. He would tell me stories. And sometimes, he would simply lay beside me to make sure I knew I wasn’t alone. Oftentimes this went on night after night, but he was still there, even while working 12- to 15-hour days, often seven days a week.
When I was five, I remember him taking me to drop leaflets for political candidates in Queens, NY, where we lived at the time. It was the start of regular conversations we would have about politics that would stretch out over 50 years. What I remember most from these conversations was his deep belief that politics should be—and can be—a noble calling to pursue the common good. And he taught me that for those of us who believe it should be such a calling, that it is our responsibility to work to make politics better.
During my teens, I can remember seeing the mail piled up on our dining room table, and every couple of weeks or so a white legal-size envelope would be there from the Saratoga County Mental Health Committee. This was during the 1970s, when it was still taboo to talk about mental health issues in public, especially in upstate NY. My dad fought to make sure that any individual who needed support could get it.
When I attended Skidmore College, I did a special project on urban renewal in Saratoga Springs. I had known my dad was on the Urban Renewal Commission for the city, but I hadn’t known what I came to discover until I later talked with his colleagues and city leaders. They told me that it was my dad who insisted, over many years, that every person had a voice in the redevelopment of the community, especially those directly affected by urban renewal.
Later on, after I had moved to Washington, DC, I was invited to a reception at a national, blue-chip law firm for the former governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, who had just joined the firm. My dad had served as Cuomo’s counsel for well over a decade. So, when the governor was told that I was there, he came over to me, and in front of his law partners and young associates, declared, “Now, your dad, he was a lawyer’s lawyer!”
What he meant was that my dad was disciplined and rigorous in his approach. But what the governor didn’t say, and what I was thinking at the time, is that my dad believed that no one in a position of power should ever use the law for their own personal benefit or political gain. The law was there to protect to the public good.
Just a couple of years ago, my dad asked me to take him back to his old neighborhood in Brooklyn where he grew up. We spent three days together returning to Borough Park, which, when he was a kid, was a largely Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. We went to Webster Avenue to his old home where he played stickball in the street with his friends. He took me to where he went to public school and to the synagogue where he went to religious school three times a week. We went to Sunset Park, where his father, my grandfather, owned his first pharmacy. What I remember from this trip, what I remember about my dad, is that he never forget where he was from, and he never pretended to be from someplace he wasn’t.
My dad could be a difficult man, often argumentative, at times biting in his critiques. For he was always pushing forward, always seeking out change, always believing that notwithstanding our human frailties and foibles, that we could do better, we can be better. I will forever be guided by these beliefs—and his call to step forward and say, “Here I am.”