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Originally Posted Sunday, April 05, 1998

Friends expect a heroic fight from Stanford
by Jolayne Houtz
Seattle Times staff reporter

The staff at Virginia Mason Medical Center may think they'll be helping John Stanford as he undergoes chemotherapy for leukemia this month.

But people who know him figure it's just as likely Stanford will be helping them.

"He's going to turn the place upside down," predicted Ruth Walsh, who has spent two years studying the Seattle school superintendent and his leadership style for a doctoral dissertation.

By the end of his month's treatment, Walsh said, he'll "have them laughing, he'll have them looking at their jobs and how to do them better, he'll have them looking at their lives and ask how they are affecting others and how the hospital can be more efficient. He'll have them setting goals. . . . It's going to be an interesting month for them."

It is also a month when Stanford, 59, faces perhaps the most difficult personal challenge of his life with the news last week that he has acute myelogenous leukemia and must undergo an aggressive regimen of chemotherapy.

Stanford is resting and spending time this weekend with his wife and two adult sons in their Capitol Hill home before checking in to the hospital tomorrow. Friends said he has been left weak and exhausted by his illness and was unavailable to talk yesterday.

Doctors hope the chemotherapy will drive the cancer into remission, and that Stanford will eventually be among the 20 to 25 percent of patients cured of leukemia, meaning they have no recurrence of the cancer for five years.

Stanford is a glass-half-full kind of man with a determinedly hopeful outlook on life. Longtime friends say they have never seen him feeling down or defeated. He is physically fit, mentally sharp, keenly analytical, supremely self-confident.

Those qualities and his military training will help him in the battle ahead, friends believe. They expect him to win.

"He will give this everything he's got. He doesn't say it like `I hope I can do it.' It's just like it's already done," said Donald Scott, the deputy librarian of Congress who worked in government with Stanford when he was county manager in Fulton County, Ga. He's talked to Stanford in the days since he learned of his illness. "He has a tremendous spirit and resolve to overcome adversity."

While in the military, Scott noted that Stanford chose to go through rigorous training in two special schools to learn survival skills and how to parachute from aircraft. "He's still got that Ranger/Airborne school attitude. He thinks he's going to beat it. If I was a betting man - and I am - I think he will."

Known for calm tenacity

Interviews with more than a dozen friends reveal a man who has faced adversity before and triumphed.

Stanford was born into a poor but close-knit family in Yeadon, Pa., with parents whose education ended in grade school and who worked numerous jobs to keep the family afloat.

Stanford, who is African American, served as class president in his all-white high school.

During his 30-year military career, he served tours of duty as a pilot in Vietnam, where he faced combat and the deaths of friends, and in Korea.

Bob Regus, who was Stanford's deputy when he was county manager in Georgia, remembers him talking about going through war and the difficulty of being in a leader knowing "people you've come to know and love might not come out."

Stanford rose quickly through the ranks after joining the Army. Among other assignments, he served as executive assistant to then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and directed transportation planning during the Persian Gulf War under Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Those who worked with him then recall the calm tenacity with which he confronted political crises and logistical problems.

His friend and former Seattle chief-of-staff, Julius Johnson, said Stanford is one of just 214 African Americans in the history of the U.S. military to reach the service's highest ranks.

"He aspired to and made general," said Johnson, now working in the Washington, D.C., public schools. "He will attack this (illness) with the same tenacity and vigor that he's done everything else in his life." Johnson, like many friends, said news of Stanford's illness shocked him. "It really takes the wind out of you. I saw him two weeks ago. He looked fit and healthy." He said Stanford has been bench-pressing 295 pounds.

High-energy style

Stanford's style is high energy, high profile and constant motion. He flies airplanes and helicopters. He rebuilds Mustangs and works out, though not as often as he did before becoming superintendent. He is writing several books, including one on school leadership due to be published this summer. He rarely takes vacations unless his wife, Pat, insists.

Asked how he is, Stanford often replies: "I'm perfect and improving." Even from his first interview for the superintendent's job in 1995, he wowed the community with his square-shouldered bearing and his self-assurance. He sees leadership as his calling, his special mission. "It is my compulsion to lead," he says. For his staff, the challenge has been simply to keep up with him.

His outlook is highly optimistic, but Stanford is no "mossy-headed idealist," said Harold Cheatham, dean of the College of Health, Education and Human Development at Clemson University in South Carolina.

Stanford balances ebullience with realism, "never underestimating what can be accomplished with a realistic appraisal of the facts and the challenge," said Cheatham, who went to Pennsylvania State University with Stanford.

Cheatham recalls how in two years Stanford helped turn a small, inactive fraternity at Penn State into a strong chapter with one of the top academic records on campus, matter-of-factly assessing what it would take to bring the fraternity back, cajoling and recruiting new members.

Walsh, the researcher from Seattle University who is studying Stanford's leadership, often spends several days a week with him She has interviewed more than 50 of his closest friends and associates, trying to better understand his approach.

Watching Stanford confront this crisis has underscored for Walsh how much Stanford's leadership style is a part of him, not simply a public veneer, she said.

"He is handling it certainly with courage, but also with strategic planning, an analysis of all the data, a consideration of his constituency, a high regard for his family, a full appreciation of getting the best people around him, leaving a strong organization behind him and clearly setting the goals he wants them to achieve," Walsh said.

Billie Reilly has known Stanford 26 years since they were young officers working together in Virginia. He said Stanford will reach out to a dozen or so of his closest friends who have been his sounding board and his advisers over the years and rely on their support and guidance.

Whether the issue is improving schools, planning for war or beating cancer, Stanford's approach is the same: "He sees a problem. He analyzes the problem. He takes action on the problem and gets on with life. He would never dwell on it," Reilly said.

"He will do as well as medical science and his body will allow him to do. And the latter is extraordinarily strong."

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