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The Unusual Arc of a Statesman: Four Lessons from the Life of John J. Gilligan

08/27/2013 05:56 pm ET | Updated Oct 27, 2013

Following the death yesterday of former Ohio Governor and Congressman John Gilligan, age 92, leaders including President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner offered their condolences.

The headlines following Gilligan's passing have focused primarily on two facts: that he enacted the first personal and corporate income tax in Ohio; and that he is the father of former Kansas Governor and current Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Gilligan Sebelius.

However, a lesser-known fact speaks to the man that John Gilligan really was. The concluding focus in his impressive career was that starting at age 78 and continuing into his mid-80s, he served two high-impact terms on the low-glamour but critically important Cincinnati Board of Education.

There are four lessons - perhaps especially distinguishing in contrast to today's genre of celebrity-politicians - from the life of this Congressman turned Governor turned School Board Member...

1) Politics As A Calling: Before he ever served in elected office, Gilligan had already made notable contributions to his country. Born in Cincinnati in 1921 and raised during The Depression, he joined the United States Navy after graduating from Notre Dame and served in World War II. For his bravery aboard a destroyer at Okinawa, he was awarded a Silver Star.

Following the War, and after law school at the University of Cincinnati and five years of teaching literature at Cincinnati's Xavier University, Gilligan successfully ran for a seat on Cincinnati's City Council. He served there for 10 years, was elected to Congress in 1964, and, in 1970, won Ohio's governorship.

"He really believed that politics was the noblest profession," Gilligan's son John told reporters following his father's death. "He knew in his heart that people could do more working collectively."

2) Service Ahead Of Ambition: In 1999, a quarter century after the end of his term as governor, Gilligan agreed to become a candidate for the Cincinnati School Board. The school district at the time had hit rock bottom, with enrollment spiraling downward and academic performance at abysmal levels. There was need for leadership - and Gilligan heeded the call.

Try to imagine two or three decades in the future, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie opting to serve on Newark's Board of Education or Texas Governor Rick Perry on Austin's Board of Education! Gilligan's willingness to lend his skills to the specific needs of his local community presents a rare model of humility and commitment.

3) Impact On The Future: The former Governor did not simply serve but, indeed, he provided transformational leadership during his two terms on the School Board. By this time an octogenarian, Gilligan traveled to cities around the country, studying effective models for accelerating academic performance and supporting students and their families.

What he concluded was the importance of focusing on schools as round-the-clock community learning centers. This model, for which Cincinnati has become the national leader, and through which students lives have been changed for more than a decade, is Gilligan's legacy to generations of students who will never know his name.

4) Community Is What Counts: A few years ago, on a February afternoon, I was privileged to sit with the Governor and ask what drove his commitment to social justice and what lessons he would offer to future leaders. By then nearly 90-years-old, he shared reminiscences of the history that he had shaped.

"Learning what it means to live in a community - that's what government is really about, that's what schools are really about," he told me. "My work has always been about taking action to build community."

My own initial term as a Cincinnati City Councilmember began nearly 60 years after the Governor began his service at City Hall. The footprint of John Gilligan's commitment to our community is great - as is the gratitude of those who wish to carry on his work.