Archive, Editorial

In Memory of Ira Leighton


At times we look back on our lives to identify those people
who have been meaningful to us.  Joining
in both the mourning over the untimely death of Ira Leighton, and the
celebration of his life, is such a time.
For me, Ira Leighton is one of the most important persons in my life.
I had a sense of this distinction during our first
meeting.  To understand its importance, a
word of background is needed.  I had been
a private sector lawyer at Ropes & Gray for nearly five years when I finally achieved my goal of becoming a lawyer for the US Environmental
Protection Agency in Boston.  This was
1992, and USEPA was in a hiring freeze (sound familiar?).  I was hired by Bill Walsh-Rogalski (another great
USEPA public servant) under an exception to allow the Agency to hire folks who
could help streamline government processes.
Given my five years of experience interacting with USEPA from the
private sector, Bill thought I might bring a helpful perspective to the
regional office in Boston.
While everyone was always very friendly to me, my first
months in the job were a challenge.  I
felt that I was viewed with suspicion due to the years I had spent on the
private side, often contesting Agency actions.  I was humored by receiving the worst cube in
the Agency (most of us, even lawyers, were in cubicles in the massive rabbit-warren
of an office we had on the top of a huge parking garage on Congress Street),
which opened up to the hall next to the bathrooms.  Ironically, I learned much of what was going
on in the place – because everyone seemed to stop by the bathrooms, water
fountains and elevators to talk.  And starting
on the same day, I met a great life-long friend, Anne Leiby, another deeply
committed public servant.
I was happy though – finally taking the lead on cases that
is nearly impossible to do as a young lawyer on the private side.  And, true to my charge at hiring, I started
suggesting ways the Agency could be more efficient.  I was mainly doing Superfund work, an area
notoriously beset by high administrative costs in comparison to the funds devoted
to cleanups.  Perhaps not surprisingly, I
found my ideas were viewed with some curiosity, but I made little progress
driving change.  Bottoms-up change is
very hard by itself, particularly when I had started at the bottom of the
barrel.
I did get one key recommendation from the onset.  If I had a good idea, I should seek a meeting
with one of the waste division’s branch chiefs – Ira Leighton.  It was clear in the Counsel’s office that Ira
was held in the highest regard.  Ira was
a hard man to meet at first, simply because everyone wanted an audience with
him.  Finally, after many tries, I got
mine.  I had not met him before and was
nervous.
By the way, I sought the meeting because I had an idea to
speed the negotiation of Superfund cleanups.
Consent Decree negotiations on the design and construction of a remedy
took so long because private parties did not want to sign-up when there was net
yet a design and associated cost estimate.
My idea was to negotiate a simple and speedy Administrative Order to only
cover the design before entering into negotiations of a CD for the remedy.  I called my idea DART: Design Accelerated
Remedial Target.
My memory of the first meeting is a touch-point in my life.  First, from the moment I walked into his
office, Ira was friendly and kind.  He
put me instantly at ease and my nervousness vanished.  He had an easy laugh, and was interested in
me as a person – a still relatively new employee.  This sense of personal warmth was absolutely
genuine and also very effective.  I
learned from Ira that likability makes every conversation easier, particularly
those where there may be different points of view – because a good relationship
helps keep the conversation itself from getting personal and negative.
Second, Ira took copious notes – written in long-hand on
yellow tablets of paper.  I remember
feeling honored that someone more experienced and more powerful in the
organization was interested enough in my ideas to take the time to write out an
outline of my views as we talked, even before he really knew what I was going
to say.  The writing, interspersed with
questions and comments, meant he was listening and hearing.  Again, Ira’s curiosity about my ideas was
genuine and very effective.  Everyone who
spoke with Ira felt they had been heard and their ideas seriously
considered.  As a result, no matter what
happened, we felt treated fairly and thoughtfully by him.
Third, and this happened over several meetings, Ira was
convinced by the merits of my idea and agreed to use his organizational
influence to enable me to try it out on my case.  And in this step, I was perhaps most
impressed.  Based on a personal interest
in me as a person, building on good listening and understanding of what he was
hearing – Ira was willing to adopt what he thought were good ideas on the
merits of the case.  His reference point
was not organizational structure or practice, but what would serve the public
and the purpose of the program the best.
I could recount how this first interaction was duplicated so
many times over in the years that followed.
I heard frequently how the characteristics that were evident to me in
1992 continued forward and even expanded in all the years since.  And remarkably, he was always interested in
ideas from the front lines, and focused on any of the new issues of the
day.  Ira Leighton honored and respected
the past, but is one of the rare public servants who naturally adapted and
adopted for the future.
My first moments with Ira changed my career.  The success I had in piloting DART was one
critical factor that convinced John DeVillars, the new Regional Administrator,
to hire me to manage his bold initiatives for the office.  With John, I learned that change is most
dramatic when top-down and bottoms-up approaches work in tandem.  Change certainly happens much faster when
there is leadership support.
And soon, on the basis of his enormously strong standing in
the enterprise, Ira Leighton came to join the “front office,” quickly jumping
into the Deputy Regional Administrator role.
From this spot, a prime example of superior service in the public sector
being recognized and elevated into prominence, people across the country were
able to experience Ira’s warmth, listening and learning skills, and ultimately,
his leadership to identify and champion better approaches to protect the
environment and the public.  For me, my
interactions early in my career set me in new directions on my path that have
been instrumental every day since.  I am
comforted to know how many others benefited just as deeply.
I understand that one of Ira’s great joys in the most recent
years has been his grandson.  I hope that
as this young man grows to adulthood he understands how remarkable his
grandfather was.  For me, I will always
remember Ira’s smile, his personal interest in me, his curiosity about ideas,
and his unflinching commitment to public service.   Ira is
quite simply one of the most important role models who provides a benchmark for
my life to this day.
Whenever we in public service find a new way to help the
people we serve, I know Ira is smiling.  Whenever
we are open to new ideas and think beyond the boundaries of what we know, Ira
is at our shoulder.  And now that I am
older and often in a place to mentor people myself, I know that whenever I care
for the person I am meeting with first, whenever I listen to a new idea with an
active curiosity, whenever I support a younger employee at an early stage of
their career, whenever I sense we are helping someone in need, I know that Ira
Leighton is in my mind and heart.

 

Godspeed to Ira Leighton.
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