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Remembering Dick Kuhn

As we were about to leave for Antigua earlier this month, word came: Dick Kuhn had died.

Dick was an early mentor. I met him in the very earliest days of our work building The Verrazano Foundation. Morri was in preschool at Children’s Harbor, and I talked to the other parents while we were waiting for dismissal or at birthday parties about what we were trying to do, level the playing field for people living with mental illnesses. I was happily surprised to find people interested. One of the other dads, Dan Kuhn, told me, “You should talk to my father.” That’s how I got to meet Dick Kuhn. After that Dick and I had lunch together a couple of times a year. He helped with advice, and he helped raise money.

Raising money was always a challenge. When we learned that there might be money for a planning grant to start a charter school on Staten Island which could provide a pathway to college for kids with serious emotional challenges, we were interested. But was this an idea which the Staten Island community would welcome?

I turned to Dick, and he agreed to convene a meeting with other local leaders in both mental health and education to test the waters. We met in the conference room at Dick’s law office. There were maybe 15 people in attendance, some of whom I’d never met. They came because Dick asked them to come. As we went around the table introducing ourselves, I was impressed. This was a group worth listening to. I was prepared to be told that our proposal was unnecessary or somehow wrong for the Island. I’d had other ideas — for a half-way house for perpetrators of domestic violence and for a hospice for people living with severe mental illnesses and terminal medical conditions — which had not gone far as much as I loved them. Surprisingly, though, the group was enthusiastic about the charter school idea. That was the beginning of what would become our network of schools.

My experience with lawyers was pretty limited, so when a Verrazano Foundation board member suggested that we get pro bono legal representation, I was totally a fish out of water. Fortunately, although based in Chicago, this board member knew the route we needed to take: the Pro Bono Clearinghouse sponsored by New York Lawyers in the Public Interest.

Not something I was comfortable doing, but I made the call to the Clearinghouse and went through a kind of intake process over the phone. They wanted to know a little bit about me and about the legal work we might need. I told them about the charter school we were proposing to open. In a couple of days, I got a call back. The Clearinghouse had arranged a meeting for me with one of the partners at Hughes Hubbard, a big, Wall Street corporate law firm. A member of the clearinghouse staff would be at the meeting.

I felt way over my head. I called Dick, told him about the meeting, and asked him if he would come with me. When he agreed, I felt reassured. Anxious but reassured.

In a couple of hours, Dick called back. “I have a better idea. Perla can go to the meeting instead of me.” Perla, Dick’s wife, was also a lawyer. I’d met her a couple of times. “She’ll be even better than me.”

I’m thinking, “I guess so, whatever you think.” But I knew Dick better, so I was more comfortable with him.

Dick explained. “Perla is a partner at Hughes Hubbard.” I hadn’t known that. Now I was feeling much better. I hadn’t expected the Clearinghouse to really find us a pro bono lawyer, but we kept finding evidence that the Universe was committed to this charter school project. That the Clearinghouse should pick the big firm where Perla was a partner, that had to be the Universe at work.

Perla helped make the meeting easy. Hughes Hubbard took us on. It turned out to be an amazing relationship. I kept expecting though that we would be getting “second class” service. Hughes Hubbard had big corporate customers, customers who paid the rent on their multi-floor offices a block and a half from the ferry. Hughes Hubbard had their own dedicated bank of elevators. Much to my surprise, we got top-tier service.

Our first school, Lavelle Prep, opened in 2009. Dick’s support help to make that possible. When that Spring, we held our first Gala, Dick was the obvious first choice to be honored.

Dick was always ready to help. And he always had good advice. He was a couple of years older than me, inching toward retirement while I, in the whirl of building our charter school network, was still saying that retirement was “five to ten years in the future.” In our last couple of lunches, Dick was cautioning me to begin to slow down.

“We’re not as young as we used to be.”

At first, I didn’t want listen, but skilled lawyer that he was, Dick could make a convincing argument. He eventually got me to listen. I managed to restructure my vacation time so that I had Fridays off. Dick was right. Working a little less, my energy was better, and I was accomplishing more.

Dick retired a few years ago, and I’ve retired now too. Perhaps I don’t need counsel as much as I once did. It was a comfort to know that Dick was always there. His passing has left a void.

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