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An Ex-Foster Child With A Message

An Ex-Foster Child with a Message by George James
Published in The New York Times

Bob Danzig has a long set of bootstraps, and a story to go along with them.

These days, the image Bob Danzig presents as he speaks to beleaguered child welfare workers is that of a confident, personable man who for 20 years was chief executive of the Hearst Newspaper Group.

In his impeccably tailored three-button, black chalk-stripe suit, white-on-white shirt and gold tie that shines like jewelry, he looks every bit the part of a retired executive.

Not so evident is Bobby, the raggedy foster child who was abandoned by his parents at age 2. That began what Mr. Danzig calls a “bleak” journey from foster home to foster home with nothing more than a black plastic garbage bag holding his few pathetic possessions–hope not being one of them.

It was Bobby who motivated Mr. Danzig to speak to social workers with the state Division of Youth and Family Services here one recent day. And it was Bobby in the end who connected with them, especially when he told how a social worker in Albany named Mae Morse saved his life and gave him a future. He was 11 years old and going to his fifth foster home. “I want you always to remember something,” she said to him. “You are worthwhile.”

“Her words became a tattoo on my spirit,” Mr. Danzig told the more than 75 social workers in the low, intense, almost tremulous tone that is a tool of the motivational speaker he has become since retiring from Hearst in 1998.

“Those simple words said to me, ‘I am a person.’ I did not see all my possibilities then, but I finally saw myself as a person.”

Then, speaking to their sense of mission, he added, “You never know when you are going to be an instrument of hope in someone’s life by saying, ‘You are worthwhile.’”

With those words, Mr. Danzig was also telling them that despite the problems that have confronted their agency–they should not forget that they too are worthwhile and ought to be proud of their successes. “You are hope carriers,’’ he said.

Mr. Danzig, who is 71 but looks years younger, has been delivering this message over the last few months to child care workers in district offices around the state, a mission that grew out of a friendship with the state commissioner of human services, James Davy. Mr. Davy, a trusted adviser of Governor McGreevey, was serving as his chief of management and operations when the governor turned to him in January and asked him to overhaul the tattered D.Y.F.S.

In an interview at his spacious Tudor home in South Orange, Mr. Danzig said he and Mr. Davy teamed up after

Mr. Davy read a newspaper article in December 2003 that focused on two of Mr. Danzig’s most recent books: Every Child Deserves A Champion: Including the Child Within You and There Is Only One You: You Are Unique in the Universe, written for foster children.

In the article, Mr. Danzig said the first thing he’d do if he took over the department would be to “separate out the failures of the system from the goodness of the people in the system.”

Mr. Davy, who had not taken office yet, set up a meeting with Mr. Danzig at the Cheesecake Factory in Menlo Park, not far from Mr. Davy’s home, on Super Bowl Sunday. They talked for several hours over turkey club sandwiches.

Mr. Danzig said he told Mr. Davy he saw three “channels” for the Division of Youth and Family Services to follow. The first involved structural changes, including hiring more caseworkers and providing better training. The second was to publicize the good work that is being done and in that way applaud and inspire the people doing it.

And last, dare to be “audacious” with innovative programs, Mr. Danzig suggested, like the creation of a corps of citizens who could be trained to step in to help a child when caseloads went over a certain limit and then stick with that child as a mentor as he or she grows up.

“I would prefer that New Jersey, which has been called the worst child welfare system in America, have the audacity to line itself up to be the incubator for this program, to be a demonstration for the rest of the nation,” he said.

As Mr. Davy would later say, he was impressed with Mr. Danzig’s “affirming style.”

“He was at the Cheesecake Factory talking to people he didn’t even know: the waitress, the three women waiting to be seated,” Mr. Davy said. “He does it in everyday life and does it by coming to events like we’ve had. He’s just a good, decent person lifting the spirits of everybody he comes into contact with.”

Whether it was Mr. Danzig’s suggestion or his own instincts, Mr. Davy has made it a point to visit district offices—there are 32 of them—to meet the state’s child welfare workers, listen to their concerns and suggestions for improving the system, and thank them for their efforts.

Mr. Davy is usually there, too, trading witticisms and offering inspiration. In fact, they have become a kind of traveling medicine show for the spirit: Davy and Danzig. Or maybe Jimmy and Bobby. In introducing him in Hackensack, for instance, Mr. Davy said to much laughter: “He charges $10,000 every time he steps in front of a crowd. I’m happy to say that he’s not charging us $10,000.”

Mr. Danzig explained that he created a charitable foundation, and that all the proceeds from his motivational talks and writings (he has written six inspirational books) go toward the college education of foster children.

Mr. Danzig said, “It’s a way for me to pay back for the goodness of the people who helped me.’’

He likes to tell the story of one such person, Margaret Mahoney, an office manager at the Times Union of Albany. Mr. Danzig was 17 and had been fired from a job in a warehouse when he mistakenly dropped a mattress on the foreman.

At a dance that night, a friend told him of an opening for an office boy at the Times Union but suggested that he wear a hat to look older at the job interview. Mr. Danzig bought a hat especially for the occasion–a pearl gray fedora–and wore it throughout the interview.

He thought for sure he had lost his chance when Ms. Mahoney asked him why he was wearing a hat indoors. When he explained why, and that he was a foster child who had no idea of the rules governing the proper wearing of a hat, Ms. Mahoney, who happened to be a foster parent, hired him, over nine other candidates.

After he had worked at the newspaper for six months, she called him into her office. “I want you to know,” she said. “I feel you are full of promise.”

Looking back on it, Mr. Danzig said, “She gave me permission to aspire.”

And he did.

Despite doing poorly in high school, he was accepted to Sienna College, graduated magna cum laude, worked in various positions at the Times Union and rose to become its publisher before eventually becoming chief executive of the entire Hearst chain of newspapers and a vice president of the Hearst corporation.

At his retirement party, he told the story of his first job interview. And he wore the same pearl gray fedora he had bought so many years ago when he was still Bobby, the foster child.