A week in the Life John Stanford: Ex-General who wants to remain a living legend legend on two fronts

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The Independent Online
UNTIL A few months ago, John Stanford followed the sort of schedule where he didn't walk into meetings, he ran. And, given the chance, he would shake a few hands or pick up spare strands of litter on his way. As superintendent of Seattle's state school system, he exuded boundless energy and never let people forget he was a man with a mission.

"I'll fight for your kids until hell freezes over. Then I'll fight on the ice," was a line he came out with shortly after arriving in Seattle three years ago. He has proved as good as his word: energising teachers, encouraging parents to read to their children for half an hour each day, and abolishing a bussing system that tended to segregate non-white children.

The gentle north-western city may initially have had misgivings about a retired general coming to shore up its faltering inner-city school system, but it soon set them aside as Mr Stanford, an expert in army logistics, showed himself to be something special. As a military man he commanded immediate respect, and as a poor black kid made good he communicated hope to even the most disadvantaged schoolchildren in his district.

Then, earlier this year, the bombshell struck. Mr Stanford discovered he had leukemia and underwent wave after wave of withering chemotherapy treatment. The prognosis was not good to begin with, and it has steadily got worse. But that has not stopped him working. On the contrary, it has turned him into a hero, admired not only for his role as an inspirational educator but also as a brave soldier tussling with his own creeping mortality.

"I'm still going to fight. I intend to get well. I intend to get back. I intend to keep fighting and I have a team of doctors fighting on my side," he said after learning he would have to return to hospital.

"There's so much that I want to do and I've got to do and push to get done so that we're not just a run-of-the-mill school district doing what everyone else is doing. I am not letting cancer control my life."

Mr Stanford can now enjoy nothing so simple as a routine week. When he is in hospital, then all he can do is endure the gruelling schedule of chemo and transplants of blood and bone marrow tissue.

During periods of remission, he leads a strange double life - on the one hand recuperating at home, and on the other throwing himself as actively as possible into his job.

For the opening of the school year at the beginning of September, Mr Stanford's office had planned a telephone link-up from his hospital bed to a special rally outside. Instead, he mustered the energy to walk out on to a balcony and address the crowd himself.

He did not talk about himself, but about Seattle's schools. "This rally is not about having 25 per cent of the parents on board, concerned with the children. This rally is about having 100 per cent of the parents on board," he said.

His illness, acute myelogenous leukemia, was diagnosed in late March and he underwent chemotherapy in April and June. This summer he opted for a stem-cell transplant to replenish his bone marrow - "the mother of all chemos", as Mr Stanford later put it.

A few days ago, his doctors ordered him back to hospital for more chemotherapy - this time just to slow the progress of the disease - combined with an experimental transfusion of lymphocytes donated by his sister.

Mr Stanford's reaction to this latest setback has been to send an e- mail message to all the schools in his district urging them to keep up the good work. "We do not need to take our schools on a roller-coaster ride with this kind of news," he wrote, "and I ask that you keep your focus where it has always been: on academic achievement for all children."

With an attitude like that, little wonder if Seattle awaits the next medical bulletin with an anxious mixture of hope and dread.

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