03 July 2007

Why We Love Seb

Mayor Sebastian "Seb" Giuliano is one of those rare breeds of people that make politics a joy. Oh, yes, he can drive you crazy sometimes, but I never found someone easier to work with. The people of Middletown in 2006 thought so, too. During that campaign, Seb would always rope off the time to mentor a young boy. He never made a big deal about it with us nor wanted the publicity. In today's Hartford Courant, the real side of Seb Giuliano is on display for the entire state of Connecticut to see.

Enjoy and see why Middletown and Connecticut are lucky to have him.

An Appointment The Mayor Never Misses
Middletown's Top Official Mentors Student

By DANIELA ALTIMARI

Courant Staff Writer

July 3, 2007

Lunchtime at Macdonough Elementary School in Middletown: Most of the fourth grade is parked in the cafeteria, but a 10-year-old in a crimson hoodie is headed in the opposite direction. There's a buoyancy to his step, even though he's carrying his lunch on a flimsy plastic foam tray.

He slips into a chair in an airless room near the main office, where brightly colored student artwork provides a cheery counterpoint to the charts documenting the school's poor performance on statewide standardized tests.

And he waits.

A few minutes later, a man in a well-tailored dark suit walks in. He is Sebastian Giuliano, the mayor of the city, and he has come to see Anthony Bartucca, the boy he is mentoring, just as he has every Friday morning throughout the school year.

Their weekly visits have a comforting rhythm. First, there is lunch to dispense with (only for Anthony; the mayor doesn't eat). Then, out comes the chess board. Later, there'll be a quick game of basketball in the gym, perhaps, or a few minutes up in the computer lab. Playing in the background, like a radio stuck on an all-sports station, is constant chatter about last week's ball game.

Here's what won't occur between the two of them: Heart-to-hearts about the pressures of being a kid in today's world. Long, gushy talks punctuated by hugs. Tough-love lectures about the dangers of drugs, or alcohol, or the importance of staying in school.

In fact, almost none of the standard stuff of a mentoring relationship has taken root in this room. No big brother-style pep talks, no father-son-style bonding.

That's OK, though. If 90 percent of life is just showing up, maybe 100 percent of being a mentor is. At least that's the philosophy guiding the mayor. "Sometimes, all a kid wants is to know that some adult is interested enough in him or her to spend a lousy hour of their week with them."

His own days are shaped by the pressures, demands and rewards of running a city of 47,000. But he never misses a Friday with Anthony.

It began nearly two years ago with a question. "How would you feel if Anthony had the mayor as his mentor?" Macdonough's principal asked Shannon Bartucca.

Shannon liked the idea of her son having one more caring man in his life. Relatives, friends, neighbors - "my son has a network that would knock your socks off," she says. Anthony lives with her and his 5-year-old sister in a duplex on the hard edge of the city's North End; she figures he can use all the male role models he can get.

But the mayor? Wasn't he too important to skip out of city hall for an hour every Friday to hang out with a 10-year-old?

Shannon was a little intimidated by the idea. "This is a person of power," she says. She met him once at opening day ceremonies for Anthony's youth football league. "It was hard for me to hold a conversation."

Unlike other politicians, though, the mayor doesn't have a different persona for each of his constituencies. He's the same straighten-up-and-fly-right kind of guy, unpretentious and approachable, whether he's talking to Anthony or important people downtown.

Anyway, Anthony, a tight coil of energy wrapped in sweats and a sports shirt, is the kind of kid who can hold his own with anyone. His brown hair is cut short and his eyes have a slightly feline cast, giving him a mischievous air.

A cunning boy who loves playing with Webkinz and is obsessed with all things military, he's not above pulling a trick or two. Like the time a few years back when he forged his mom's signature on his report card.

He doesn't do that anymore. "Having the mayor as his mentor has been good for him," Shannon says.

Anthony knows that his big, cool buddy gives him cachet with his classmates. He gets to choose one friend to join him for lunch each Friday, and it's an honor he doles out carefully. The mayor is the closest approximation of a celebrity most of these kids have ever met.


"Does he ride in a limo?" asks 9-year-old Elijah Elbert, this week's special friend, as they wait for the mayor to arrive one morning.

"No," responds Anthony, `'he rides in his own car. Remember I showed it to you?"

A few minutes later that car, an unglamorous city-issued sedan with 1 MN for a license plate, rolls up to Macdonough.

The mayor walks into the room, pulls the chess board off the shelf and begins setting up. He taught Anthony how to play last year, and ever since it's become part of their routine.

"He knows how to move the pieces and that's the first hurdle," the mayor says. "His teacher tells me he's pretty good at math."

One thing he doesn't do is let Anthony win. "I don't throw games," the mayor says. "I'll play and I'll beat him. He actually beat me once."

The mayor first heard the pitch for mentors at a chamber of commerce meeting about two years ago. These kids need friendship, Hal Kaplan, the retired teacher who runs the mentoring program, told the assembled business people and community pillars. "Not tutoring, not social work, just plain old friendship."

Mayors are busy. They have developers to meet, budgets to oversee. But this mayor figured, "I can do it." He has a deep sense of public service, born, perhaps, from his strong religious faith. He raised his own three kids. And he grew up in this city: He and his buddies once ran on the same streets that Anthony and his crew do now.

Of course, that was a different era and this was a different city. The North End was mostly Italian; these days, the names on the lockers at Macdonough tell a different story. There wasn't a buzzer at the school's front door; visitors could just walk right in.

And no one needed mentors back then - there were always meddling adults around to get in your business. They watched you when you streamed out of school at noon, on your way home or to the counter at Misenti's drugstore, for lunch.

The mayor, who is 54 and has thick waves of salt-and-pepper hair, attended St. Sebastian's school, not Macdonough. "The nuns forced you to focus," he says. "They managed to get your attention and keep it for an entire day."

After St. Sebastian, he went on to Xavier High School, a stint at West Point, then Boston College and law school at The Catholic University of America.

"If you lose your job as mayor will you go back to being a lawyer?" Anthony asks one day last winter.

"That's really up to the voters," the mayor responds. "But you never stop being a lawyer."

Anthony looks relieved. It's Mentor Appreciation Day, which sounds like something dreamed up by the greeting card companies, but the boy takes it seriously and he has brought the mayor a gift. "Lawyers Never Lose Their Appeal," reads the mug he hands the mayor.

Several months later, in the waning days of June, the mayor returns the favor. He hands Anthony a surprise gift to mark the end of the school year: a picture book on space exploration.

It is their last meeting and Anthony has a surprise of his own: He is moving to Farmington over the summer.

What will he miss the most about Middletown?

"Seeing the mayor."

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