John Engler and me

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column originally ran on Nancy Flanagan’s blog, “Teacher in a Strange Land.” Flanagan, Michigan’s 1993 Teacher of the Year, retired from the Hartland Consolidated Schools District.

Long-time Michiganders, especially those of a certain age, have probably seen the latest news blast about our hefty ex-governor, John Engler. No, not the incident where he, in his role as Interim president of Michigan State University, accused sexual predator Larry Nassar’s victims of “enjoying the spotlight.” And not the story about Engler’s unauthorized offering a quarter of a million dollars to one of those victims, later claiming he was engaging in a “philosophical discussion” about how much money would satisfy them.

The latest on John Engler is his non-appearance at investigative interviews being conducted by Michigan’s Attorney General about the Nassar affair. Engler has been claiming he’s out of town, but then turned up courtside at an MSU basketball game.

The AG, Dana Nessel, sent a letter to the MSU Board President: “We must lead from the top. The reluctance of the former interim president of the University to cooperatively participate in a law enforcement investigation into the largest sexual assault scandal in the history of higher education — yet happily sit court-side to watch the men’s basketball team on multiple occasions — speaks volumes about allegations of a culture of indifference on campus.”

Exactly. But Engler doesn’t see it that way.

Today, his lawyers sent Nessel a letter saying that nope, he’s not coming in for any interviews, unless and until Nessel recuses herself. Because she doesn’t like him. That’s right. Specifically — “You have prejudged Mr. Engler’s veracity and motives without ever talking to him. You have launched unfounded attacks and besmirched Mr. Engler…”

It goes on like this at some length, besmirching Ms. Nessel herself, calling her inexperienced and lacking integrity. Your typical heavyweight bullying and mansplaining.

I’m not worried about Dana Nessel, who seems to be pretty level-headed and courageous. But the re-emergence of John Engler has given me a chance to reminisce about the times I encountered — you might even say helped out and then got dumped on by — John Engler. It’s a long story, but it involves similar outsized bullying and setting up innocent people.

John Engler was governor when I was Michigan Teacher of the Year in 1993. And through a series of very unlikely circumstances, I worked with Engler on a funding initiative, Proposal A, in May of that year. (For veteran Michigan Educators, this was the first Prop A, the one that went down in flames. A second version, the one we’re still living with, passed in 1994.)

It started with a focus group, doing PR work for Republicans. Asked whose voice and opinion they would trust most on education issues, the group identified the Teacher of the Year, as No. 1 on a long list of public officials and civic leaders. And I was Teacher of the Year.

The MEA was partnering with the governor on the ballot initiative, and my union urged me to shoot TV commercials and radio spots supporting the proposal. I thought it was a good policy (it disconnected property tax and school funding), and so I did. I also did a one-day fly-around the entire state in a small four-seater plane, to build local news coverage the day before the vote.

I sat knee-to-knee in the plane with the governor (who shared his tuna fish sandwich with me, as I didn’t pack my own lunch). We were speaking at airports and at schools. My assigned job was just to shake hands with the locals — the Governor was supposed to be the speaker. But at the first place we stopped — a middle school in Saginaw — the gov was flopping, big-time. He kept pausing in his printed remarks for applause, which never came.

I was sitting behind him, on a folding chair, and suddenly he turned to me and motioned me forward, saying “Look, I brought Hillary Clinton with me!” (No. I don’t really resemble the then-First Lady, aside from the fact that we’re both white women, but I suppose that’s enough for John Engler.)

By the time we hit our third school, I was the featured speaker, talking about how great their public school was and why we needed money to keep it that way, and Engler was just shaking hands with the locals. It was painfully obvious how awkward he was with high school and middle school kids. In between schools, in the air, he asked me all kinds of questions about teaching and my students. He was — not to put too fine a point on it — utterly clueless about the strengths of public education. And he used the Hillary Clinton line every place we went.

I got called a half-dozen times that summer to do education events with the governor — Presidential Scholars, Chamber of Commerce receptions, legislative gatherings at the Governor’s Mansion. I had two young children myself at the time, but I always got a babysitter and showed up, in heels and pantyhose. It seemed like I might have some influence over his thinking, just by being present and articulately representing teachers.

But no.

Five years after I was Michigan Teacher of the Year, I got a call from Gov. Engler while I was on vacation at a lakeside cottage in northern Michigan. He needed me to fly to St. Louis and appear on a television program with him, as part of a National Governors Association conference. In three days. It would be a panel discussion around “education.” His assistant would call me with information about flights.

It was all pretty sketchy and involved ending my vacation three days early. Fortunately, his assistant had a bit more information on the topic — National Board Certification — but it seemed odd that there wasn’t more preparation, information about the panel, where to be when, and so on.

I flew to St. Louis, took a very expensive taxi downtown, arrived at the hotel and conference center and nobody seemed to know where I was supposed to be, although they had a name badge and tote bag for me. I had flights in and out on the same day, and the televised panel was supposed to happen in a couple of hours, but nobody on Gov. Engler’s staff could be reached.

Suddenly, across the lobby, I saw a teacher I knew from North Carolina. She rushed over. “Where were you,” she asked. It seemed that there were going to be six governors on the panel, and each had brought a National Board Certified Teacher to St. Louis. All the teachers were all flown in yesterday, had gotten to know each other and were given media coaching and sample answers, as well as a gala dinner with their governors, last night. My name was on the list, but of course, I wasn’t there. Neither was Engler.

My friend gave me that media packet with the sample answers — and I had already thoroughly prepared, back at home, on my own. We were led into the room where the program was going to be televised. It was exciting— President Clinton was there. I saw that I had a chair and a nameplate in the panel setup. But no Engler. Several governors asked me where he was — I had no idea. I sat down and studied the packet. I felt embarrassed.

Eventually the program began. The camera went around to each of the governors, who introduced their teacher partners, but stopped before it got to me. It occurred to me that I had flown to St. Louis to be stood up by my own governor, on TV. I could not imagine what I had done to deserve that.

About 40 minutes into the 90-minute program, Engler strolled in, and sat down. He turned to me and said cheerily, “You made it!” Gov. Jim Hunt (NC), who was moderating the panel, stopped the discussion to announce that Gov. Engler had arrived, and asked him to introduce me. He did, getting my hometown, subject discipline and school district wrong. I noticed he was clutching a handful of handwritten notes.

“Gov. Hunt, now I have some questions,” Engler crowed. Reading directly from the notes, he began to question the value of National Board Certification, using some cheesy, disproven research from a right-wing, anti-union organization. There were a number of questions — of the “Isn’t this just another useless way for teachers to make even more extravagant salaries?” variety. And he was directing the questions at me.

I looked over at Gov. Hunt and he was shaking his head, subtly — no, no, don’t answer.

But I was prepared. I debunked his so-called research findings. I cleared up falsehoods in his questions and statements. I noted that teachers in his and my state paid their own money to be assessed and didn’t receive a salary stipend. I talked about the value of the process to me, in my classroom, as a professional teacher. I threw in bits of the sample answers for good measure and told him where I really lived and worked since he’d gotten that wrong in his introduction. He argued back, from the notes. At one point, I remember saying ‘You’re wrong, governor.’

Then I looked at my watch. I had less than an hour until my flight. The panel hadn’t even ended. I picked up my tote bag (I still have it) and ran out the door, calling for a taxi. A reporter chased me out — “I’m from Education Week! Did you just tell your governor that he was wrong?” I gave her my card, and Bess Armstrong called me the following week, and put the story on the front page.

I never heard from Gov. Engler again. I sent his office my expenses — taxis, parking, mileage to/from the airport — but was never reimbursed. A couple years later, I was rolling a suitcase through Reagan Airport in D.C. and saw him — it’s an unmistakable silhouette. Our paths crossed, on those moving sidewalks. “Hello, governor, “I said. He looked blankly at me. Nothing.

So — good luck, Dana Nessel. I know something about this man’s character. Not that he’s hiding it, these days.

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Nancy Flanagan retired as a music teacher in the Hartland Consolidated Schools District. Named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 1993, she is a National Board Certified Teacher. Flanagan has been blogging for 15 years, including a nine-year stint as "Teacher in a Strange Land" @ Education Week. She splits her time between wondering how things got so messed up, and advocating for America’s best idea: a free, high-quality, fully public education for every child. You can read her blog by clicking here.