Adapted from remarks given by Executive Vice President Jessie Ryan at Gary Hart’s Celebration of Life, May 7th, 2022 at Kennedy High School
When I learned that my dear friend and mentor, Gary Hart, had requested I deliver remarks at his Celebration of Life, I was incredibly honored and then terrified because how does anyone adequately capture the essence of a giant like Gary Hart? In the past, when faced with such a challenge, I would inevitably consult with Gary who would ask some probing questions, meticulously comb through my drafts (writing many thoughtful notes in the margins). He would remind me that time was a commodity and to use it wisely, question my word choices, and caution me against exaggeration, “Jessie, please avoid excessive language.”
Those of you who have benefited from Gary’s exacting edits know what I am talking about and – though difficult – I will do my best to channel his feedback.
A teacher by trade, including in the halls of John F. Kennedy High School, Gary’s thoughtful reflections always made things better. Though quite different, we were kindred spirits. We bonded over a belief in the transformative power of education and the importance of courageous, ethical leadership.
Growing-up poor and unnetworked in Sacramento, in my late twenties Gary graciously took me under his wing, opened doors, and imparted lesson after critical lesson. He taught me that:
1) Nothing worth doing was without opposition.
2) That the surest way to lose was to lose focus.
3) That I should not compromise my character or principles in the pursuit of politics.
And so much more…
I did not know it at the time, but he was preparing me to lead. Frankly, he was also ruining my standards for all politicians because between Gary’s golden example and a friendship he helped facilitate with then Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, my bar became impossibly high (I mean superhuman really).
Over the years I watched Gary devote the same energy and generosity with his time to countless other young people. He could command a room of high school students at the Capitol artfully, asking them thought provoking questions and sparking their interests. He would guest lecture and teach in low-income schools often convincing those in his network to share their experiences with PACE and CIVITAS students too. As a teacher he was completely in his element; smart, sincere, and enthusiastic which his students would come to respect and respond to.
Gary encouraged them to dream of systems change and become civically engaged. He was an equity champion and feminist ally before his time and together we would devise ways to help students find and harness their power and passions.
One such project brought Gary to the heart of Oak Park in Sacramento where for a semester Gary taught continuation school students– in our historically Black neighborhood — how to become philanthropists. At first, I think many of the students did not know what to make of the 6-foot 4-inch, older white man but over the course of several months they learned to use their lived experiences to assess community needs, solicit donations and then determine funding priorities. As the students made gifts totaling $10,000 to nonprofits they believed would support Oak Park residents, they said they felt important. They learned that they could take action to change the conditions for themselves and others.
Gary was always looking to inspire, motivate and support students to be part of societal change.
He was also a firm believer that low-income students deserved access to history, music, and arts just like their more resourced peers. He proudly joined students for a screening of Hamilton in San Francisco. He took students to watch the Opera in Sacramento, and when he saw a documentary about the remarkable life of Latina Rock Star Linda Ronstadt (who he had met and admired), he secured the rights to the film and screened it for free with Sac City students and families across the district as part of Women’s History Month (sitting in the audience unassumingly).
There were many ways a man of Gary’s import could choose to spend his precious time but this former State Senator chose to pour into young people and without fanfare or headlines. This was simply what he loved to do.
I will never forget calling Gary after a recent hospitalization, expecting he would need some cheering up. I was wrong. It turns out he was delighted to find out that one of his former students was his nurse, recognized him right away, devotedly attended to him, and shared how much Senator Hart the teacher had meant to her as a struggling teen. But of course, after a lifetime of teaching this happened frequently to Gary. He attracted good people because he was among the very best of men.
When I asked Gary, towards the end of his life, about his proudest accomplishment, achievement, legacy he choked up a little sharing that it was his intelligent daughters (Elissa, Laura, and Katherine), his extraordinary wife (Cary), his staff that said, “they never had to be ashamed of Gary Hart”, his deep friendships (an impressive collection, many in this room today), and the students he taught to reach for the best versions of themselves.
My friend and mentor, the man who became the closest thing to a father I have ever known, also taught me a final profound life lesson.
He taught me that our legacy is not so much about WHAT we achieve, it is about WHO we choose to love and invest our time in as well as the people who choose to do the same for us.
It has been said your legacy should be measured by how many hearts you have touched and the generations you have prepared for the work ahead. Gary Hart’s legacy is a great one indeed and what a blessing this wickedly smart, incredibly compassionate, lifelong educator is to each of us fortunate enough to call him our father, husband, teacher, mentor, and friend.
Remembering Gary Hart
Gary celebrating our 10th Anniversary with us in Sacramento
Gary, former Senate Pro Tem Leader and current Mayor of Sacramento, Darrell Steinberg, and Jessie at our 10th Anniversary event