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