Ask Franco Harris why he is getting behind the Pittsburgh Promise, the college scholarship program that could help more than 1,000 city high school graduates this spring, and he goes back more than 40 years.
Mr. Harris was a New Jersey teenager then, the third of nine children, and college wasn't something any of them talked or dreamed about. Then, boom, one day the family got word that Mario, two years older than Franco, had been awarded a football scholarship to Glassboro State College.
"It made me think, wow, you do well in sports and you can go to college," Mr. Harris said. "Then you can dream about a future.''
He didn't have to say what came next. That's Pittsburgh lore. He played football for Penn State and then the Steelers, making the most famous catch in football history in 1972, playing in four Super Bowl championships and having himself a Hall of Fame career.
From there, he became a successful businessman. We were sitting in a conference room in the McCandless office of his company, Super Bakery, which has been selling what may seem an oxymoron: the nutritional doughnut. Enriched with minerals, vitamins and protein, it seeks nothing less than to go where no doughnut has gone before.
When I suggested that changing the image and direction of the shrinking city schools would be embarking on a similar challenge, Mr. Harris ran with the idea of fighting ingrained, negative images.
"We always have to fight the perception of the word 'doughnut.' And we try to communicate that doughnuts can change. We have made a better doughnut. People still hear the word 'doughnut.'"
He believes they'll think differently about it if, say, they start seeing doughnuts made from whole grains.
"We're going to champion the doughnut. There can be a different doughnut. There can be a change in the doughnut.''
If comparing schools to doughnuts is a strained analogy, blame me, not Mr. Harris, because I brought it up. If you prefer, you can just say the man who made the Immaculate Reception is up for this challenge because he knows a game changer when he sees one. He was not seeking any additional work, but he accepted the chairmanship when elected unanimously at the first meeting of the Promise board last week.
In this, its first spring, the Promise figures that anywhere from 1,000 to 1,200 of the 1,900 graduates of the city's high schools and charter schools are eligible for scholarships. (The maximum grant this year is $5,000, and it's scheduled to rise to $10,000 per year in 2012.)
Eligible students must have resided in the school district, maintained a 2.0 grade point average and been enrolled in city schools since at least the ninth grade. Almost 1,000 applications already have been received from students hoping to attend one of scores of Pennsylvania colleges or trade schools on the Promise list.
When the possibility of a college education becomes real, Mr. Harris knows "you feel you can plan for the future. But it all comes down to achieving.
"If you know where you want to go, that will help you get there.''
The Promise is far from a lock. UPMC has donated $10 million to kick-start the program and has pledged another $90 million as a challenge grant. It could donate up to $10 million a year over the next nine years, a dollar for every $1.50 contributed by others. The goal for the Promise endowment is $250 million.
Some are already openly rooting for this, the most hopeful bet on the city in generations, to fail. Cynicism is always ready to go into battle against even mild optimism in Pittsburgh, and it's hard for some to get their head around the idea that city schools might again be great.
As a parent with two daughters in a city elementary school, I know some schools already are pretty great, but not enough are. I share Mr. Harris' desire to set high goals early, to raise expectations by outlining achievable standards.
"When does it hit you that you say, 'Everything I do, I want to do it well,'" he asks. "To instill that type of feeling and attitude -- at what stage does it kick in?"
That scholarship for Mario changed everything in the Harris family. It raised every child's expectations. Mr. Harris' sister Marisa took out loans to go to the University of Pennsylvania and Duquesne Law School.
The cost of a college education has gone through the roof in the years since, but perhaps 1,000 city families will get a little help this year. Making a strong education the Pittsburgh expectation will take longer, but the Promise chairman knows something about long runs.
Brian O'Neill can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1947.