If you spend a lot of years as a reporter, you get to know a lot of people, none of them well. It's all about popping in and out of lives quickly when something makes them newsworthy. Maybe later you wish you knew more. I had that regret this morning when I read of the death of Willie Mae Kirk, 92, of Austin, who died Saturday in hospice care after a major stroke suffered during a heart operation.
In Dallas if people know Mrs. Kirk it's as the mother of Ron Kirk, mayor of Dallas from 1995 to 2001 and a member of the Obama cabinet until last January when he stepped down as U.S. Trade Representative. I bet at least some of the people familiar with Mrs. Kirk in Austin, where she is better known by her nickname, Ankie, may not even realize Ron Kirk is her son.
I went to Austin and interviewed her for D Magazine when Kirk first surfaced as a serious candidate for mayor in 1995. She's a legend in Austin, where she was a tough, effective, community organizer and longtime public school teacher. Austin recently named a library after her, an irony which may have been lost on people who didn't know her early history. One of her biggest victories was a campaign to stop the city from shutting down its only public branch library serving black neighborhoods.
My memory is that she cut her political teeth on even rougher fare, forcing some jerk cowboy who owned a roller rink to stop barring black kids at the door. She was not afraid of controversy, but, more impressive to me as a Yankee carpetbagger, she was not afraid of jerk cowboys.
None of that is why I wish I had known more about her. This will sound weird. You may not remember -- you may not have been born yet -- but during Kirk's later years as mayor I was here at The Dallas Observer already as a consistent critic of Mayor Kirk (surprise, surprise, eh?). It doesn't seem worth going back over now. Our differences had to do with public infrastructure projects, which to most people probably sounds like two truck mechanics arguing about supercritical fuel injection.
But I thought maybe we had this in common. Both of us had liberal activist parents. But I'm not sure the liberalism applied to either one of us. Let me explain.
In 1995 when I asked Mrs. Kirk a couple questions about her kid growing up, she began to prowl the house plucking notebooks and school papers out of shoeboxes and niches, producing a carefully preserved archive of the early life of Ronald Kirk. Her favorite piece of memorabilia, I thought, was a set of little notepads her son had kept for himself when he was in elementary school, each with a long to-do list for some school party or event for which he had been appointed the teacher's special assistant. These were lists of things he had persuaded his classmates to do or to bring -- ask mother for cupcakes, get napkins, cups for Kool-Aid -- in order to make it happen.
Mrs. Kirk smiled broadly as she showed me that the same name appeared on the list over and over again -- the one kid Ronald Kirk stuck with almost every other task. In big block letters written with fading pencil lead was the name, RONALD KIRK.
"He took it all on himself," she said.
Yeah. That's great. But, uh ... that's not liberal. Liberal is supposed to be it-takes-a-village, not it-takes-RONALD-KIRK. I have a little personal history here, myself.
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My parents were big Roosevelt liberals. In fact they were community organizers in St. Louis when they were first married, before kids. Once we came along, they were still liberal about everything ... except us. Especially my mother. If we came home and said we had been treated unfairly, she would say, "Yup. That's how it goes. The thing you need to do is wise up."
Wise up? I never heard her say the poverty-stricken people of Appalachia needed to wise up. How come we had to wise up? Why didn't we get any community organizing empathy points? Somewhere along the line I decided that liberalism ends at home.
I did not know Mrs. Kirk. It's presumptuous of me to speculate about her beyond that one small window. But through that window I thought I saw a smart, tough woman with a religious and political commitment to her community. I'm sure she was wonderful mother. I'm equally certain she was not the easiest mother in the world to have.
When she read off those little lists of party chores her son had arranged for his teachers, I wondered if maybe the only thing that could have made her smile even more would have been a list where the only name assigned each and every task was Ronald Kirk. Which would have been great, unless you were Ronald Kirk.