Eulogy for Eleanor Josaitis

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Eleanor Josaitis and the Focus:HOPE family she and Father Cunningham so nobly led have touched lives in numbers and in ways impossible to measure, including the deep and abiding impact she had on my family.

But it’s impossible to think about Eleanor and her life without thinking first  about her family, which she treasured for the love and support they gave her, love and support that made it possible for her to give so much to the cause to which she devoted her life.

All of us are here to celebrate a heroine’s life.

Some become heroes by winning a big game, or facing an enemy on the battlefield. The foes that Eleanor Josaitis battled were tougher, and as old as humanity: hatred and violence and poverty, doubt and inaction.

Where Eleanor found hatred, she sowed love.

Where there was injury, she brought forgiveness.

Where there was doubt, she brought faith.

And, where there was inaction, Eleanor brought activism. She could put up with many things, but she could not abide being a spectator. From that moment she described many times – the moment that the images on her television screen of violence in Detroit 44 years ago prompted her to ask herself, “What should I do about this?” – Eleanor was in action.

Government agencies convened committees and experts wrote treatises exploring the causes of the unrest. Eleanor and Father Cunningham were not interested in academic studies. They wanted to make things better, now.

They started by collecting food, the beginning of one of the world’s most successful programs to fight hunger. It has, to date, provided nearly half a billion meals to people in need.

They saw that much of the poverty they battled was because so many lacked the skills to lift themselves up. They established education and training programs that have helped tens of thousands establish careers.

They saw that underlying many of the problems that they sought to solve was something fundamental: distrust, discrimination, and hate. And so at the center of all their efforts, they placed a core belief in what they termed “the dignity and the beauty of every person,” and they worked to heal the wounds of racism and division.

These were all practical steps, but they were never easy. Eleanor’s enemies were as old as humanity, and those enemies put up a fight.
Eleanor got hate letters. They just further fueled her resolve. Her offices were firebombed. No cowardly vandal could intimidate her. She said: “You can deck the SOBs, or you can out-class them.” She chose to out-class them, and she outlasted them.

Oh, what Eleanor and Father Cunningham and their Focus:HOPE family were able to do, and oh how they and Focus:HOPE could inspire.

Some of my most vivid memories as a Senator are the times we brought Presidents and Cabinet officers and generals to Focus:HOPE. We told them they were not coming as a favor to anyone but themselves. And sure enough, they left uplifted and humbled, some with tears in their eyes.

One of the many things they saw was how defense dollars we had designated for Focus:HOPE not just produced more durable parts for the military, and how Focus:HOPE designed a mobile parts hospital to reproduce broken parts on far-away fields of battle to help save brave soldiers’ lives and to help them achieve their missions.

They also saw how those dollars that trained machinists and engineers not only strengthened our nation’s defense, but also strengthened our social fabric and our belief in ourselves.

They saw the transforming effects of hope fused with opportunity. And they saw love – often tough love.

Visitors to Focus:HOPE saw what Focus:HOPE did for people. We saw the effect that Focus: HOPE had on visitors and how it transformed them into supporters and advocates for the miracle on Oakman Boulevard. They witnessed lives being changed there at Focus Hope in ways that changed their own lives.

Now Eleanor Josaitis will never again whisper “love ya” in our ears. She will never again take our hands in hers and lead us through her beloved Focus:HOPE, introducing us to her colleagues. She will never again take our hands in hers and lead us down paths paved with dreams of opportunity.

But she will continue to transform lives, because we surely know that to celebrate this heroine’s life, that there is one fitting way to remember Eleanor Josaitis, one way to honor her sweetness and her fire, to honor the love in her heart and the steel in her spine.

 We know that we must constantly ask ourselves the same question she asked herself, four decades ago, in front of that TV screen: “What can I do?” And to answer it, the same way that she answered:  “Recognize the dignity and beauty of every person, and take practical action to overcome racism, poverty and injustice.”

This heroine’s trophy, her statue, her memorial, will be what each one of us does to live and act by Eleanor’s creed.