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Improving the world, one block at a time[an error occurred while processing this directive] By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist
© St. Petersburg Times
Paul Barco doesn't wake up every morning and clean the night's accumulation of trash along his block of sidewalk the way he did for more than 40 years.
"Now I go out in the early evening when the weather is warm," said Barco, 86.
A recent bout with the flu has made him a bit leery of cool mornings. But neither the flu nor cold weather has changed one whit his view that manhood begins with respecting yourself and your surroundings.
His is not a complex philosophy. It might even be considered corny in a world that lives its life according to the theory of the week, a world that calls reality the contrived situations television networks create around vain, greedy people.
Barco is not flashy. He has never done anything in his life that grabbed headlines, nor has he ever done anything to grab headlines.
Stability doesn't make news. Constancy doesn't sell newspapers.
For 38 years (from 1940 to 1978), he owned a grocery store just a couple of blocks from his home. He closed when construction of the interstate cut him off from his customers. Except for a stint here and there, he has lived in St. Petersburg since his birth here in 1916, most of that time along the celebrated and, in turn, accursed 22nd Street S.
Barco doesn't hop on fads. He says the things he learned at his parents' feet still work today -- if more people would apply them.
All those years of cleaning the 900 block of 22nd Street S every day was merely him applying a lesson his father taught him decades earlier. Assigned the chore of cutting the grass in the alley behind their home, young Barco reported to his father that their half of the alley was finished. "What if the neighbors don't cut theirs?" his father asked. "Anyone who sees it will just see that the grass in the alley needs to be cut. Cut the rest of it," his father directed.
Barco proudly tells the story of a young man who came to his store years ago. "The people over there told me you can tell me what I need to do to be a doctor," the young dropout said.
All of Barco's children were college graduates except for one, who chose trade school instead. So he had a local reputation for knowing his way around education. "My talk is about education," Barco says. "Everybody who knows me knows that."
So Barco laid out for the young man all the schools he would need to complete, from elementary through internship. A few days later, his daughter, a schoolteacher, told him an amusing story about the boy for whom they had to bring a special desk into class because he was so much older and bigger than his classmates. Years later, Barco said, he heard that the young man did indeed become a doctor.
"When I came along, (parents) were talking about how you had to have more training than they had" to make it in a changing economy and workplace. They emphasized education. Although today's technology demands even more training and education, Barco says fewer parents are pounding that into their children's heads.
He recalls that when his family heard about Florida A&M, his parents piled him and his siblings into their car and headed to Tallahassee. If that was the best chance to further his children's educations, then his father wanted them to check it out. His sister soon was enrolled there. Barco also graduated from that college, and several other schools during his lifetime, including the New York Institute of Photography, a couple of technical schools and even a real estate course.
Two of his children graduated from the University of Florida and another from the University of South Florida. Each was also encouraged to complete training at a technical school to guarantee they would have marketable skills no matter how the economy and work environment might change.
"It comes out of the family," he said of the determination to seek education, a quest he sees too little of in the families he observes today. "When kids come up under parents who mandate certain things -- the children have to go to school, have to do their homework, they have to make good grades -- that's it. The children went. They had no choice. When I look at these young people with their pants below their derriere, I know they can't have respect for themselves. I get out once in a while and see school-age kids on every corner."
Barco sees the lack of educational motivation and self-respect as a lethal combination. "They're going to get something out of life by taking it," he says.
"We need to do an about-face. I think more of us should talk about things we don't talk about anymore. If these parents were to talk to their children and spend some of that money (they spend frivolously) instead on books and their children's educations," then many of the problems created by the undereducated would be eliminated.
"They say we need to cut (the size of) classes. We don't need to cut any damn classes," just more insistence that students do their best with what they have.
Barco's views may seem hard and even outdated to some, and that defines a large part of the problem that has our society wringing its collective hands. As technology brings more of the world's knowledge to us by punching a keyboard, we seem to expect all aspects of our lives to keep pace with modernization.
Unfortunately, some things don't change. Parents still need to lay down the rules to their children and do so by their example. Education is still the surest escape from poverty and a dead-end life. Self-respect is still the first step toward manhood and womanhood.
Barco's life doesn't make headlines. What he does can't compete with imminent wars or even with sketchy characters living their reality in front of TV cameras.
But somewhere there is a doctor who remembers who put him on the right track. There are four children who are glad their father was fanatical about education. There's a block of 22nd Street that has been more presentable for 40 years because Paul Barco lived in it.
He has even influenced the men who hang out in the alley near his house. "Some of those guys back there could be wizards. There are some guys back there who read the paper every day."
Imagine how our cities, our world, would look if there was a Paul Barco in every block.
-- To reach Elijah Gosier, call (727) 893-8650 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.