Bill Gates and the other wealthy philanthropists throwing their money on unproven projects in public education could learn a thing or two from my friend Leonard Turkel.

Len, who died last week at the age of 80, led a double life in Miami. He did exceptionally well in business, creating a number of successful concerns (early in his life, in just one of his pursuits, he became Florida’s pioneer condominium builder, and in an area where condos were king, that is saying something).

But his animating principle wasn’t about making money but about helping people. And he did this in a most unusual way: He saw a human problem and he found a practical way to fix it. Then he worked to cut through red tape and rally the people in the community to help themselves.

Time and time again, one decade into the next, Lenny was instrumental in improving the lives of thousands of people in South Florida – poor kids in public schools, families in impoverished neighborhoods, middle-class professionals who needed affordable housing, hurricane victims who needed roofs on their decimated homes.

You may have learned in school tha tthe first anti-segregation sit-in in the Deep South was in Greensboro, N.C. on Feb. 1, 1960 (and you can see the famous Woolworth’s lunch counter where it took place in the Smithsonian Institution). Actually, Lenny and his wife Annsheila, led a sit-in on April 29, 1959 at Grant’s and McCrory’s in Miami.

Lenny thought it was preposterous that black workers weren’t allowed on Miami Beach after dark, were restricted to living in just three Miami neighborhoods — and couldn’t sit at downtown Miami lunch counters. He got furious, and he did something about it.

Years later, Len thought it preposterous when he learned that kids in Miami-Dade County public school students were given eye screenings — but that nobody did anything with the results. He got furious, and he did something about it. He assembled a vision laboratory in a bus that pulled up to schools, gave vision tests to kids who needed them — and then made glasses for those who needed them — for free. The program is now in most Florida counties and has helped many thousands of children see the blackboard.

What a simple, elegant solution to a very real problem. That’s how he did everything. He built shelters for the homeless and started a midnight basketball program for at-risk teens. He was a darn good basketball player himself, yielding a great left-handed hook shot. And he threw a lot of elbows.

Len was a reformer extraordinaire, a most highly effective teacher who just happened to do his best work outside the classroom, who taught by example. What Lenny didn’t do was jump into a project without research and a clear understanding of how something could actually be fixed. What he did do was talk to people to see what they really needed and helped them get it.

And here’s something else extraordinary about Len: He never drew attention to himself — because, he said, that way nobody would get in his way. But if that meant that he wasn’t a household name, he preferred it that way, and, besides, the people he helped knew exactly who he was. I once went with him to Overtown, a poor Miami neighborhood where he founded a clinic and created a way for black residents to buy their own homes and maintain them. He knew everybody and every single person we ran into was happy to see Len and had a story to tell him. He listened to every painful detail. And by the time we walked away, he was already plotting a way to help that person walk around their latest problem.

The last time I saw Len we talked about the modern public education reform movement — and, of course, I complained about everything that I thought was wrong — and later, I started to wonder how things would be different if he were in charge.

For one thing, he wouldn’t ignore the elephant in the room: poverty. Len knew that in the United States of America, kids who live in poverty most often go to school with heavy burdens. Trying to get kids to pass a standardized test without figuring out whether they can see the exam is ludicrous. Anybody who stops to think about it would realize that — but very few people stop to think about it. Instead, too many people in the education world today launch into hugely expensive and too often wasteful projects that sound highfaluting but are only monuments to their big ego.

I already fiercely miss Len; he was a huge support for my sisters and when our parents — with whom he was close friends — passed away, and he was somebody to whom you could tell absolutely anything and never fear that he would turn his back on you. Friendship like that is too rare in our judgmental world. He was also just a hoot to talk to; he seemed to know something about almost everything, and that something was always worth hearing.

But what I will miss most about Len is his presence in the spaces where others don’t go. He was a hero, unique in vision and action. It was one of the deepest honors of my life to be his friend.


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