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Home » Chalk Talk – Extraordinary


February, 2009

I have looked for words to describe Paul Henkels, and they all add up to one word – extraordinary.

I don’t think he knew I felt that way, and maybe that’s a lesson for all of us after seeing someone pass from this earth who did so much for so many, perhaps with little thanks.

Thanks, however, is not what Paul Henkels sought when he began the real fight for expanded educational opportunity for children in his native state of Pennsylvania and beyond.  He unceasingly reached out to Governors and legislators, newspaper editors and even Presidents of the United States – no matter what their party – to call their attention, patiently, to facts and figures to help prove his point.

I’ll never forget one of the many copies of such correspondence I’ve received over the years since I met Paul at some early gathering of school choice fans who came to meet with Bush 41.

It was 1993, and Paul had written to President Bill Clinton. Though staunchly opposed to many of Clinton’s policies, Paul’s letter started out, as always, respectfully, and proceeded to clearly, but briefly, lay out his case:  “School choice is a fundamental right,” was one of the lines I recall. “Children going to private schools in Pennsylvania save the taxpayer tens of millions of dollars,” it went on to say.  He would always enclose an article or two for the president and others to read.

He didn’t win with that president, but his consistent push over the years influenced countless legislators, members of Congress, and yes, presidents, to grow in their appreciation for what school choice can do for children, and all of us.

That today Al Sharpton would be saying the same thing as Paul Henkels did more than twenty years ago is, well, extraordinary.

The result, in no small way owing to Paul and people like him, is an unprecedented (albeit small) federal program to allow D.C.’s neediest children to enjoy the same access our nation’s leaders have to private education. It’s the multi-million dollar corporate tax credit program in Pennsylvania that is enabling new opportunities for thousands of children there, as well as the more than half a million children that benefit as a result of other states following his model.

As I argued for incremental change along the way, Paul would call or write and tell me, directly but nicely, that I was wrong to settle for less. A charter school is great, he believed, but the ultimate service to families is when everyone has a choice. This wasn’t a market-based ideology. It was an ideology that came from his belief that no child should suffer as a consequence of his lot in life. Paul came from little, built a significant company, and took care not only of his family, but countless others. Quietly. Like the great John Walton before him, Paul never wore his wealth on his sleeve. To the contrary, he was modest beyond definition.

As many of the children that Paul had generosity helped filed into the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia for his funeral Mass, I shed a tear in both sorrow and joy. Sorrow, that most would never know him, and joy, that he in his humility fought for millions he never did and would never know, for one ultimate gain – to please God.

As his son Paul said in his beautiful Eulogy, reflecting on the parable of the talents, God must have said but one thing to his servant as he entered heaven after his 84 years on earth: “this is another of my beloved sons in whom I’m well pleased.”

Thank you, Paul Henkels. I’m sorry I didn’t say it sooner.

To support one of Paul’s great passions, please visit the REACH Alliance.