Head Start architect Jule Sugarman dies at 83

By Dennis Hevesi

New York Times News Service

Published: Saturday, Nov. 6 2010 9:23 p.m. MDT

Jule Sugarman, a primary architect of Head Start, the federal support program for millions of poor preschoolers, died Tuesday at his home in Seattle. He was 83.

The cause was cancer, his wife, Candace Sullivan, said.

Sugarman, who also ran the program for most of its first five years, was executive secretary of the 13-member commission that planned Head Start in 1964 after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his War on Poverty. Five-year-olds "are inheritors of poverty's curse and not its creators," the president said when he introduced Head Start.

"Unless we act," he added, "these children will pass it on to the next generation like a family birthmark."

In the planning phase, consultants suggested a small demonstration project. But Sargent Shriver, director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, argued for a full-scale effort. "We want to write Head Start across this land so that no Congress or president will ever destroy it," Shriver said.

As a result, after only seven months of planning, more than half a million children were enrolled in an eight-week summer program budgeted at $96.4 million. In August 1965, Johnson announced that it would become a full-year program.

"Jule Sugarman was absolutely central in mounting the program and was an administrative genius," said Edward Zigler, a Yale psychology professor who was on the planning committee and succeeded Sugarman as Head Start director in 1970. "The rest of us were scholars and experts on children; his bureaucratic brilliance is what the rest of us did not have."

The original director, Julius Richmond, became ill during the first year, and Sugarman took charge. With a small staff and thousands of grant applications coming in, Zigler said, "we were supposed to enroll 250,000 kids that first summer, and instead we put in 560,000."

Under Sugarman, enrollment climbed to 733,000 in 1966 and for the next three years settled at slightly below 700,000.

"It's the execution that counts, and the execution that makes it enduring," Yasmina Vinci, executive director of the National Head Start Association, a nonprofit organization that supports the program, said Friday. "The proof that Jule did a great job is the fact that it has lasted for 45 years and 27 million children and families have had their lives transformed."

With a budget of $8 billion, the program now serves more than 900,000 children a year.

Born in Cincinnati on Sept. 23, 1927, Jule M. Sugarman was the only child of Melville Sugarman, a jeweler, and the former Rachel Meyer, a nursery school teacher. He spent two years at Western Reserve University in Cleveland and another two years as an Army supply sergeant in Japan after World War II, and then finished college at American University in 1950 with a degree in public administration.

Sugarman began his federal service in 1951 as a budget examiner for the Civil Service Commission. Over the next 15 years, he rose through the ranks at the Bureau of the Budget, the Bureau of Prisons and the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs at the State Department.

After leading Head Start, Sugarman became New York City's human resources administrator during the administration of Mayor John V. Lindsay. He later returned to Washington under President Jimmy Carter to serve as vice chairman of the Civil Service Commission and deputy director of the Office of Personnel Management.

Sugarman's first wife, Sheila Shanley Sugarman, died in 1983; their son Christopher died in 2002. Besides Sullivan, whom he married in 1989, he is survived by three children from his first marriage, a daughter, Maryanne Costa, and two sons, Jason and James; and eight grandchildren.

A lifelong question for him, Sugarman told The New York Post in 1979, "is, Do we make any difference to people? Do more children learn things? Do more families stay together? Do more older people lead happier lives? Are more children taken off the streets and sent into productive employment?"

His wife said, "He sure tried, never gave up."

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