We Weren’t Born to Follow

Trish Fontana Headshot

Trish Fontana was a former staffer for Leo T. McCarthy.  She has also worked for two California Lt. Governors, two Governors, two First Ladies and two State Senators. She continues to work in the State Capitol, currently for Senator Richard D. Roth, a retired Major Air Force General who represents Riverside.

This past weekend, I did what I do every Saturday morning.  I strapped on my running shoes, put on my favorite cap and plugged into my Apple Shuffle.  But this particular morning, I just couldn’t shake off the horrible news of the week.  The shootings, natural disasters, flu deaths and daily barrage of sexual harassment stories weighed heavily on my heart.

 And then Jon Bon Jovi’s powerful words penetrated my mind:

 “We weren’t born to follow
Come on and get up off your knees
When life is a bitter pill to swallow
You gotta hold on to what you believe.”

I started thinking about how do we hold onto what we believe in the face of so much sadness.  Sometimes there are just no answers.

I am proud to say that I am a public servant who works in the State Capitol.  Yes, that same Capitol building which has been overshadowed by the dark clouds of sexual harassment cases, corruption, and bribery.  But against all of that, I am still a big believer in the honor of public service.

It was over 30 years ago that I was a wide-eyed 19 year who at the age of 4 couldn’t speak a word of English when she started school.  I was fortunate to walk into the Office of Lt. Governor Leo T. McCarthy to begin an internship that would change my life forever.

Leo T. McCarthy, the T. stands for Tarcissus, a third-century Roman saint who worked on behalf of imprisoned Christians.  “Tarcissus got stoned to death for his efforts, McCarthy would say, and it reminded me of my days as Speaker.”

Now working in the Capitol can be extremely challenging but it can also be very rewarding. Leo McCarthy was a compassionate public servant who led by example that we should treat everyone with dignity and respect.

 He was passionate about advocating for seniors, the mentally ill and the poor but always with compassion, kindness, and ethics.  Sometimes his meetings could get highly charged and contentious but Leo McCarthy always tried to steer toward the road of higher reason.

I learned a phrase that has become my own personal mantra which is that “you should never mistake kindness for weakness.”

After retirement, he established the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good, which is dedicated to inspiring and preparing students at the University of San Francisco to pursue lives and careers of ethical public service.

During my Capitol career, I have worked with many interns and Fellows who have gone on to pursue careers in public service.  One intern stands out and I will never forget him.

I met Joseph Schultz in 1997 when I was the intern coordinator for Lt. Governor Gray Davis.  Joseph was self-confident and had a strong commitment to public service for which he would later work in the Washington DC Governor’s Office.

We lost contact but one day I was standing on the first floor of the State Capitol when the elevator doors opened.  Out walked Joseph in his full Green Beret Captain uniform. I had no idea that he had enlisted and he just yelled my name and gave me the biggest hug.

I learned later that Joseph was killed in Afghanistan while serving his country during Operation Enduring Freedom where he was known for his leadership ability and steadfast friendship.  He made the ultimate sacrifice for his country, the ultimate example of public service.

 Public service is the opportunity to make a difference.  It is putting the “we before me” in our daily lives.  Many interns have gone on to work with foster children, become teachers, coaches, attorneys, public officials, worked in public health and on environmental issues or joined the Peace Corps.

They are shining examples of what Leo McCarthy envisioned – people helping others for the common good.

And on that Saturday morning, Jon Bon Jovi continued singing and I followed right along:

“This road was paved by the hopeless and the hungry,
This road was paved by the winds of change
Walking beside the guilty and the innocent
How will you raise your hand when they call your name?”

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Former staffers of Leo T. McCarthy from left to right: Ed Manning, Trish Fontana (author), Betsy Butler and Ted Toppin

Who’s Leo?

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There’s a name that graces our door and the suite of offices located in Masonic #103 and we mention this name dozens of times a day – it’s listed on every brochure, rack card and report that cross our desks. Many of our students never had the chance to meet Leo Tarsicius McCarthy and even now rarely find faculty and staff that knew and worked with the Center’s namesake.

Who was Leo T. McCarthy?

Leo T. McCarthy is well known for being the longest serving Lieutenant Governor of California where he served for three consecutive terms – twelve years. However, Leo McCarthy began serving the public long before holding statewide office – he was passionate about public service, which he turned into a career spanning more than 30 years.

After moving to San Francisco in 1933 at the age of four from Auckland, New Zealand, Leo McCarthy went on to become a student of San Francisco’s educational institutions including Mission Dolores Elementary School, St. Ignatius College Preparatory and earned his Bachelor’s from the University of San Francisco. Afterward he went on to serve his country during the Korean War in the United States Air Force. Upon returning from active duty, McCarthy went back to continue his education and earned his J.D. in 1961.

In 1958, McCarthy transitioned into politics by managing Senator John McAteer’s successful campaign for the California State Senate. Leo McCarthy himself made the decision to run for office in 1963 and was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. After five years serving as a Supervisor, he was elected to the State Assembly where he served as Speaker of the Assembly for six years.

In the early 1980s, McCarthy ran a successful campaign and moved on to become a statewide elected official. As California’s longest serving Lieutenant Governor, McCarthy’s political work revolved around economic development, international trade, education, health and the environment. He firmly believed in social justice and equal opportunities for everyone – foundations that shape our core values here at the Leo T. McCarthy Center.

In 2001, the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good was established on the campus of the University of San Francisco and our doors opened in 2002. McCarthy was inspired in part from believing strongly in the importance of education and by Father Steven Privett, who at his inaugural speech spoke of “educating for a just society”. The mission and core values of the Center echoes McCarthy’s professional ethics where his colleagues often spoke of McCarthy as hardworking, honest, and a champion for justice. 

As a public official, family man and mentor, Leo’s life is an ideal to be emulated, said Art Agnos who served as Speaker Leo T. McCarthy’s Legislative Assistant before eventually becoming Mayor of San Francisco.

Former McCarthy Fellow in Sacramento student and current Board member, Casey Farmer recalls…

I met Lt. Governor Leo McCarthy as a junior during my Honors Public Service Thesis Course in the McCarthy Center, he was our first guest speaker of the semester. I distinctly remember his genuine and kind spirit, his bright mind and fascinating stories, and his passionate dedication to improving the lives of Californians.

While he passed away in 2007, his legacy lives on through the students who come through the Leo T. McCarthy Center with intentions of pursuing professional careers in civic engagement, political activism and public service – qualities which he cherished and modeled for generations to come.

The McCarthy Center will urge students who pass our way to embrace passionately some mission in public service.
—Leo T. McCarthy, Founder

NOTE: A generous year-end gift helps fund Leo T. McCarthy Center graduate students: $500 covers the cost of books and materials for a  student in our Master of Public Affairs or Master of Arts in Urban Affairs programs.