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A Tribute to My Family of Public Administrators

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Benjamin H. Deitchman
May 12, 2015

As scholars and practitioners of public administration, we are fortunate to be part of a field with an abundance of role models. While we cannot fault the media for covering cases of waste, fraud, corruption and abuse in an effort to hold officials and bureaucrats accountable, most of our colleagues and leaders in public service are admirably serving the people and the world on a daily basis.

I have been fortunate to have a variety of inspiring teachers, mentors and advisers throughout my career. I also did not need to look beyond my family to see great people working in the public interest.

May Deitchman PATIMES Photo

Both of my grandfathers served in the military during World War II. My paternal grandfather, Samuel Deitchman, went on to serve the public in civilian life through a long career with the post office. In his 13 years at government-owned Amtrak my father, Roy Deitchman, led the implementation of model sustainability policies in the passenger rail industry.  My mother’s cousin, Donald Spero, also has served in senior public administrative positions in the transportation sector. His aunt and my great aunt, Ellen Roman, worked in the Connecticut State Assembly. In fact, my visit with her to the Connecticut State Capitol during my elementary school years still looms large in my memory as I continue to research and analyze state level governance.

No figure casts a greater shadow in my family’s participation in the activity and dialogue about the public service than my great-grandfather, Dr. Sterling D. Spero. Dr. Spero died Jan. 2, 1976, before I was born. He was a Professor Emeritus of Public Administration at New York University, having assumed the role of acting dean in 1959 and 1960. Although his doctorate was in economics, his passion was for the interdisciplinary issues of public administration.

It was almost 75 years ago that he presented at the third annual American Society for Public Administration conference in 1941 on one of his key areas of analysis: collective bargaining in the public service. Also on his panel at that conference (which, incidentally, was held just weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor) was Gordon R. Clapp, who would eventually hold the title of Chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority.  Family vacations for the Spero family of that generation included road trips to Tennessee to see the progress on the Depression era public works projects.

Dr. Spero’s most famous book, coauthored with Abraham L. Harris, was The Black Worker: The Negro and the Labor Movement. Published in 1931, they describe their book as, “an effort to set forth descriptively and analytically the results of a study of the American labor movement in one of its most important aspects, namely, the relation of the dominant section of the working class to the segregated, circumscribed and restricted Negro [sic] minority.” Although our nation has made progress on equality since the 1930s, some of the themes in the book are, regrettably, still relevant today.

In his July 18, 1973, op-ed for The New York Times, Dr. Spero provided additional discussion with contemporary insight and analogues. In response to President Richard Nixon’s impound of Congressional appropriated funds, which led to legislation that barred that practice, Dr. Spero warned of executive overreach. Like many of today’s pundits and politicians, he wrote of the importance of legislative power and boldly asserted that presidents should participate in a “question time” like a prime minister.

Although executive impoundments are consigned to history, questions of presidential authority remain at the center of public discourse. Dr. Spero’s ideas of presidential accountability before Congress remains important matters of contemporary constitutional debate.

Dr. Spero left behind a strong legacy of scholarship, service and teaching. The Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service at New York University continues to award the Sterling D. Spero Prize for exceptional written work in recognition of Dr. Spero’s prosaic dissemination of his research. It is a legacy I seek to honor as I pursue my career in a field that he helped to develop.

Promoting social justice, rights for minority communities and the values embedded in the Constitution are critical components of the public service of public administrators. Our private lives, however, also matter. In addition to serving the sometimes nebulous “public,” we serve our community, our colleagues, our friends and perhaps more importantly, our families. Beyond his career, Dr. Spero’s legacy is also his three children, nine grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. I am sure he would be proud of our family gatherings and even our annual March Madness virtual bracket competition. I am honored to have his academic regalia in my office and to carry on his legacy as a scholar and a Spero.

Author: Dr. Benjamin H. Deitchman is visiting assistant professor of public policy in the Saunders College of Business at the Rochester Institute of Technology. You can email him at [email protected] and/or follow him on Twitter: @BHDRIT.

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