I sent Patti Radle, San Antonio’s rarest of politicians, a text Sunday afternoon. Did she have any time then or Monday morning to chat? I wanted her insights for this column. She didn’t answer for a few hours, then apologized for not having noticed the text.
“I have surgery in the morning so tomorrow would not be good,” she wrote, “but I am free now if you want to talk.”
I was alarmed. Most elective surgeries have been canceled so that hospital capacity can be reserved for coronavirus patients. Why was Radle undergoing the knife? What was the emergency?
It turned out she suffers from a condition I share. The medical term for it is “being Irish in South Texas.” We are not genetically equipped for this level of sunshine. Most skin cancers, melanoma excluded, are not life-threatening. They tend to be slow-growing and not to spread. Still, they need to be removed, so as we age we regularly go to our doctors’ offices to get chunks of ourselves taken out.
I was relieved. Most of our elected officials are easily replaceable. Radle is not. She entered politics when she ran for City Council in 2003. Despite being Irish in San Antonio’s most Hispanic council district, she won easily for reasons that will become clear below.
She served her district and the city well, most notably being the lead council member partnering with energy magnate Bill Greehey to found Haven for Hope, now a national model for serving the city’s homeless population.
Later, she would run to represent the West Side on the San Antonio Independent School District board of trustees. I teased her at that time that I always knew she was the sort of ambitious politician who saw City Council as a springboard to higher office.
The fact is that school board member may be the least prestigious of elected offices. It pays nothing and offers much more opportunity to make people mad than happy. Yet since Radle became board president in 2015, she has brought respect to a body that for decades suffered from factionalism and corruption. Simply put, there has never been a hint that she has anything on her agenda but the welfare of SAISD students and their families.
Radle is such a rare politician that I don’t often talk politics with her, though she is as astute as her unbeaten record and her accomplishments suggest. We talked about the impact of the coronavirus shutdown on the work that she and her husband, Rod, have been doing ever since they moved to San Antonio five decades ago, inspired by a Jesuit volunteer ministry. They founded the nonprofit Inner City Development and have been running it ever since. Located in the heart of the West Side, the group marshals contributions and volunteers to serve the emergency food and clothing needs of the poor, to provide recreational and educational services for youth, and to inspire neighbors to help neighbors in need.
“What we’re seeing is there are higher numbers coming by the center,” she said. “It’s not astronomical. We continue to give groceries to families and lunch bags to the homeless.”
But the virus has had an impact.
“What’s happened is it’s harder for our pantry to get food from the [San Antonio] Food Bank,” she said. “We had a note from them that they had 2,000 cans of tuna. But when we went to get it it was gone.”
They also found that they couldn’t place bulk orders with H-E-B.
“They told us we needed to get permission from central office,” she said. “Julie in central office said they’re having such a hard time stocking their shelves that they can’t sell as much to nonprofits. H-E-B said, ‘We can’t do the bulk thing, but can we help you financially?’ Money’s always nice to get, but where are we going to spend it?”
Radle said her nonprofit has an abundance of most food, but shortages of some important items.
“H-E-B has a [purchase] limit of four loaves of bread,” she said. “That doesn’t do it. So we’re asking friends to buy four loaves and sanitize them and bring them to the center.”
Just another case of multiplying the loaves.
But Radle expressed concern about putting the center’s volunteers in danger.
“They’re young and eager. We need to protect them,” she said.
The concern affects the organization in other ways. For example, volunteers usually invite homeless people in to chat while they enjoy their sack lunch.
“We talk about the Spurs or something, not the problems of their life,” Radle said. “We want to build a relationship. Now we tell them to come to the gate. A volunteer puts the sack on a high stool and asks them to reach over the gate. It feels like a half-baked ministry.”
Inner City Development also had to close its clothes room. And Radle doesn’t know what will happen with the organization’s spring after-school basketball program, the summer recreation program for children 12 and under and job training program for those 13 to 17, or the Saturday arts program.
Not least important, it can’t plan its usual array of fundraisers, including my favorite, an annual dance at the Quihi Gun Club outside Castroville.
Radle’s other job, the school board presidency, has her running board meetings on Zoom and driving around to applaud the staff distributing breakfasts and lunches at the schools and encouraging them to be safe.
She brags on Kenneth Thompson, the district’s technology chief, who had the foresight to place on reserve 30,000 Chromebook laptops for students who need devices for virtual learning, and 10,000 hot spot devices for homes that didn’t have internet access. He was able to obtain the gear quickly when the schools were shuttered.
The families came to their schools to register and pick up the gear, which include chips so the district can trace each device.
Radle also brags on the teachers who are working harder than normal, first to learn the online curricula that have been provided and then to do the difficult task of teaching from their homes, while many of them have their own kids at home.
Some of the teachers, such as those at Ogden Elementary and Bonham Academy, have posted videos offering musical encouragement to homebound students. Students and their families have responded, posting their own videos on the schools’ Facebook pages.
But Radle knows the shutdown will have its costs.
“There will be slippage between virus and the summer vacation,” she said. “Another part is parents needing to help the student actually do the work. Some will be very helpful. Others will be frustrated because they maybe didn’t have the background to help the students. Then there are those whose first language is not English. They aren’t gaining as they do in the classroom.”
She worries, too, about students enrolled in career training. Construction and auto technology are best learned hands-on.
Still, she hopes that there will be gains as well. Some students will come back with a better knowledge of computers, and with computers that they will continue to use in class. And, she says, the broader community is facing the need of dealing with the kinds of crises that are the regular fare in poorer neighborhoods.
“I hear people say they’re so eager to come back to normal,” she said. “I say I hope we get back to better.”