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Jule Sugarman dies; Head Start founder was 83

Jule M. Sugarman, a public administrator whose skill at navigating the federal bureaucracy made him a key figure in the founding of Head Start, an early education program meant to prepare poor children to succeed in school, died of cancer Nov. 2 in Seattle. He was 83.
Jule M. Sugarman, a public administrator whose skill at navigating the federal bureaucracy made him a key figure in the founding of Head Start, an early education program meant to prepare poor children to succeed in school, died of cancer Nov. 2 in Seattle. He was 83. (The Washington Post)

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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2010; 6:09 PM

Jule Sugarman, a public administrator whose skill at navigating the federal bureaucracy made him a key figure in founding the Head Start early-education program for poor children, died of cancer Nov. 2 at his home in Seattle. He was 83.

A behind-the-scenes liberal stalwart, Mr. Sugarman had a distinguished career as an administrator in New York City, Atlanta and Washington, where he served under President Jimmy Carter as vice chairman of the Civil Service Commission and deputy director of the Office of Personnel Management.

He was perhaps best known as an architect of Head Start, conceived in 1965 as a way to close the achievement gap between low-income and middle-class children.

Five-year-olds "are inheritors of poverty's curse and not its creators," President Lyndon B. Johnson said when he introduced Head Start as part of his War on Poverty. "Unless we act, these children will pass it on to the next generation like a family birthmark."

Scholars advised Johnson and Sargent Shriver, head of the Office of Economic Opportunity, to proceed deliberately, beginning with a pilot program serving 2,500 children.

Politically, that wouldn't do - Johnson was seeking to launch a revolution, not a quiet test run. In the summer of 1965, Head Start opened its doors to more than half a million boys and girls in 2,500 communities across the country.

It was an unusual display of bureaucratic speed. Just months earlier, Project Head Start - nicknamed "Project Rush-Rush" - had been a scrap of an idea; suddenly, it was a $96 million federal program with grand aims to fundamentally reshape the lives of poor Americans.

"It would have never gotten off the ground, I do not think, without Sugarman," said Yale University psychology professor Edward Zigler, who helped plan Head Start in the 1960s, ran it in the 1970s and has written several books about its history. Although Mr. Sugarman was not a specialist in child development, "he was smart," Zigler said, "and he was a magnificent administrator."

The program, which offers training for parents and medical care for children in addition to standard preschool fare, was designed by a host of pediatricians, educators and psychologists. It was shepherded by the president's wife, Lady Bird Johnson, who served as the project's honorary chairman and chief cheerleader among the political classes.

But it was Mr. Sugarman who dealt with the all-important, ever-mundane job of chopping through red tape to turn vision into reality.

As secretary of Head Start's planning commission, he had organized the meetings that resulted in an outline of the new program. He developed a streamlined grant application process to push money out the door quickly, and he recruited hundreds of volunteers to help the country's poorest districts apply. He went on to run Head Start's daily operations for its first five years.

Mr. Sugarman admired the ideals of Johnson's Great Society programs but favored expediency over perfection. When Shriver prepared Head Start's first budget, he gave Mr. Sugarman an hour to figure out the program's per-child cost.

"So another fellow and I sat down over a ham sandwich at the Madison Hotel," Mr. Sugarman once said, "and arrived at $180 per child for an eight-week program."

That figure was low enough to be embraced by Congress, but educators said it was far too little to pay for a quality program. The episode came to symbolize the sacrifices bureaucrats made to get the program off the ground.

Since 1965, Head Start has become an $8 billion program serving more than 900,000 children a year. Research shows that its graduates enter kindergarten better prepared than their peers; whether the program changes their lives in the long term is a matter of debate.

Jule Meyer Sugarman was born Sept. 23, 1927, in Cincinnati. He graduated from American University after serving in the Army for two years.

He began his federal service in 1951 as a budget examiner for the Civil Service Commission. Over the next 15 years, Mr. Sugarman worked his way up the government-career ladder at agencies including the Bureau of the Budget, the Bureau of Prisons and the State Department's Bureau of Inter-American Affairs.

His first wife, Sheila Shanley Sugarman, died in 1983. Their son, Christopher Sugarman, died in 2002.

Mr. Sugarman's survivors include his wife of 21 years, Candace Sullivan of Seattle; three children from his first marriage, Maryanne Sugarman Costa of Arlington County, Jason Sugarman of Middletown, N.J., and James Sugarman of Seattle; and eight grandchildren.

After helming Head Start, Mr. Sugarman was New York City's human resources administrator and the chief administrative official of the City of Atlanta before he returned to Washington under Carter.

Later, he was a founding board member of OMB Watch, a nonprofit advocacy organization, and was secretary of Washington state's Department of Social and Health Services.

In 1990, while serving as executive director of Special Olympics International, he proposed a payroll tax to create a "children's trust fund," a dedicated source of funding for services targeting poor children.

He said at the time: "I've been in Washington long enough to know that something that looks impossible, six months later it can happen."


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