Frank Brogan has some ear for opportunity. When it knocks, he knows just when to open the door and let it in. Trust me. He's got a knack for it.
Brogan was always going places. It's just that when he was younger and climbed the career ladder in an eye-blink, we all sneered and said, ain'the the ambitious one. Now he quits the vaunted Florida chancellor's job, and I'm hearing it called a cagey, cushy move to double-dip in two states.
Yet, I can think of few public-trough feeders who accomplished as much on every rung of the ladder, or who the state of Florida will miss more than it will Frank Brogan. This man is the real deal.
I was there in the background in 1978, on his first day of teaching at Port Salerno Elementary, the school our two youngest children attended at the time. Frank Brogan, 25, stuck out like a cravat on a rack full of clip-ons. He was immaculate and tanned, he had a big, bright smile for everybody, and -- never mind that he was the new face on the faculty -- he somehow found a way to resolve everybody's problem in the corridor that morning. He was a tower.
Sure enough, it took him just a single decade to ascend from that little neighborhood school to elected schools superintendent. All thanks to his old friend opportunity. It kept knocking, Brogan kept answering. Along the way his feats in the various schools he served were legend -- from talking a middle school student into handing over his loaded gun, to working with his wife Mary, an educator herself, on organizing charity events for the children of Martin County's hidden poor. By anybody's standards, Frank Brogan was a rising star in the Martin County of the 1980s.
Nevertheless, to my eternal embarrassment ... during the 1988 campaign for superintendent of schools, The Stuart News, Brogan's local paper -- where I had just been promoted to managing editor -- didn't endorse him. We went for Lloyd Brumfield, the safe, older guy with superintendent experience in Dade County. Our editorial board, as I recall, distrusted Brogan's youthful enthusiasm -- not the first or last time we made a clunker of a call, but we regretted it almost immediately after the election. Brogan had an impressive gift for bringing people together within the school system, even the ones who didn't like each other very much.
He was all about education reform even back then. He streamlined the school system for efficiency and cost-effectiveness, saved millions spent on administrative expenses. He gained national accreditation for the system, implemented all kinds of new programs, upgraded student achievement, cut dropouts and lowered class size.
He never held the editorial board rejection against the newspaper. That isn't his style. He might have laughed at us, in fact, he probably did. But I've never known him to carry a grudge. He has no petty streak that I know of. He moves on, deals with important things, thinks on a larger scale than most men.
Brogan has the survival instincts of a cat. He knows who butters his bread. Loyalty may be common in state government, but it doesn't often come with his kind of creativity and energy. It's all a knack, a subconscious one I'm sure -- same one that helps him hear the knock on the door or know when it's time to look around the next corner. He could live with his bags packed and nobody would notice. And the reason they wouldn't notice is because he never stops getting good things done.
When Brogan was running for commissioner of education, he was opposing incumbent Democrat Doug Jamerson, whom Lawton Chiles had appointed to replace Betty Castor (Castor had left to become a university president). That made the Martin County Republican the early underdog. But by election time, Florida newspapers had largely embraced him. The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, for example, gushed: "One of the best candidates running for any office Sept. 8 is Frank T. Brogan. Republicans should rush to choose him as their party's nominee for commissioner of education. Brogan has all the right stuff."
And he did. As education commissioner hereduced Department of Education bureaucracy, supported local control of schools, worked to reward teachers based on performance, improved school safety, fostered student individual responsibility and produced a plan to offer parents all kinds of educational choices. Those are only the things I remember.
No wonder he and Gov. Jeb Bush, focused as they were on education, made such a good team when Bush chose him in 1998 as his lieutenant governor. Bush's legacy as an American education reformer might not be as assured today if Brogan hadn't been there to share and implement his ideas. The only time I saw Brogan distracted as Bush's No. 2 was at the death of his wife Mary, who succumbed to breast cancer. "She was my childhood sweetheart," he told me after the funeral, "the love of my life. We planned out everything together."
In 2003, as the Bush-Brogan team was re-elected to a second term, Brogan answered the knock at his alma mater, Florida Atlantic.Just before he left office in 2002, though, he fell in love and married law student Courtney Strickland; she was 26, he 49. Both events -- the job change and the marriage -- were enough to quiet the buzz that Brogan would run for governor in 2006. "Sorry to disappoint you," he said with his customary smile and a wink. "I know you liked that rumor."
In Boca Raton, university folks still mourn Brogan's departure. Brogan, FAU's president from 2003-2009, bolstered academic standards and helped raise $120 million in private and matching funds for his school. Heunderstood the importance of the university's athletic programs to inspire alumni, to raise money for generations to come. He was a big supporter of FAU's new on-campus stadium. In fact, he was its chief conceptual architect -- not just the stadium, but the university's Innovation Village.
What brought an increase in students and prestige at the school was probably exactly what alum John Harrow (Class of 2000) told me: "Brogan's blend of political savvy, brains, awesome public speaking skills, the way he could schmooze the wealthy and powerful and still keep professors on his side while dealing with tough economic times ... and don't forget he kept FAU moving forward by creating partnerships with research institutions."
Brogan's life in education was so much about making a difference. I wasn't surprised when he answered the knock to become chancellor of the Florida University System in 2009. No point in enumerating his accomplishmentshere. The PennsylvaniaSystem of Higher Education's board of governorschose him to be its university system chancellor largely because heimproved relations with the state Legislature, helping to restore $300 million in previous funding cuts and to receive $400 million in new operating and capital funds.
They like that he knows how to deal with a governor who has his own ideas about higher education. The governor of Pennsylvania does, too.
As for Brogan only pursuing the double-dip ... I don't think so. His five-year contract as chancellor ends next year anyway. Brogan said right out that the job winding down is part of the reason he was looking for a new job. After 35 years of working in education and state government, he said, he was due to leave as part of an early retirement incentive with Florida's public pension system.
I'm glad to see the tributes pouring out for Brogan already. I particularly like what University of North Florida President John Delaney said. He praised Brogan for ending years of acrimony between the Legislature and university system Board of Governors.
"Pennsylvania is getting a good person, a great chancellor and a remarkable leader," Delaney said in a statement. "He knows the realities of daily life on campus and can translate that knowledge into good public policy."
So, don't tell me how much he was paid, or how much pension he'll draw. In 35 years he gave Florida a whole lot more than he got back. Sure, we can find another university chancellor, but we will never replace Frank Brogan.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423.