I am very sad to hear of John D. Wardlaw’s recent passing.
John Wardlaw was a very public person. As the Executive Director of the Hartford Housing Authority for more than a quarter of century, Wardlaw was frequently in the news. He knew and was known by leaders at every level of government. He understood the press and politics. He liked to talk. A lot. His style was challenging, provoking and at times deliberately controversial. He was not easy to work with. And yet, despite the tough, competitive exterior there was a deeply private side to John that very few knew.
Years before Hartford, back in the deep Jim Crow south near Asheville, North Carolina, John was born. He - a twin - was one of 16 children living in a five room house with no electricity or running water. His father was a sharecropper. “I got my first pair of shoes when I was six years old,” said John. “I wore them to school but as soon as I got home I had to take those shoes off. It was a very difficult young life.”
John’s love for sports and golf started young. He went to caddy at a Whites-only local golf course, but the caddymaster sent him home. It was a seven mile walk. On the way home, John remembers, “this guy drives by, rolls down the window, and asks me why I’m crying. I told him the caddymaster said I was too young to caddy. I got in the car, and it turns out this guy owned the golf course! I caddied for this man all through high school. He taught me how to play golf and got me involved in sports.”
Sports and a fierce competitive spirit led John to college and to a time in professional football. When his playing days were over he carried the lessons of sports into his work. “You can be the best if you are willing to invest in being the best,” he said. He studied his opponents - on the field and later in public housing - carefully. He knew their interests, their strengths and their weaknesses. “If the guy on the other side had a headache, I needed to know that.”
The idea to demolish the notorious Charter Oak Terrace public housing project was not new. It had been bubbling for twenty years by the time the right alignment of local, state and Federal stars came along. With the election of Mike Peters as Mayor in 1993, Wardlaw found an ally at a time when most urban Mayors put great distance between themselves and public housing. Peters and Wardlaw developed a warm relationship.
In 1995, an unlikely team of Peters, Wardlaw, area residents, community organizers and key housing authority staffers met in D.C. with the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros. Cisneros was intrigued and impressed by the unique Hartford collaboration and the potential to have a serious impact. A little more than a year later, the first Charter Oak house came down. Wardlaw later described that day - April 22, 1996 - as the highlight of all his years as director. It was a golden time for Wardlaw as the story of Charter Oak became known around the United States.
Several years ago, I found out that an important person in the life of young John Wardlaw had died. It was Weeb Eubank, the coach for the New York Jets who gave Wardlaw his start in professional sports in the early 1960s. I was sitting in Mr. Wardlaw’s office and figured he already had heard the news. But he hadn’t. I was startled at his response, this giant of a man, tough as nails. He started to cry. He wept for a while as I sat quietly and he told me how important Coach Eubanks was in his life. “He gave me a chance”’ he said, trembling in loss and in the thought that he - like all of us - are the sum of those many we meet along our way.
Wardlaw was a turbulent and passionate man. He had many detractors. Yet his influence on Hartford, on me and on many others was profound. I am much the richer for having known John D. Wardlaw.
David Radcliffe got to know John Wardlaw in the 1990s while a community organizer in Charter Oak Terrace. He interviewed Mr. Wardlaw several times in 1997 for the book Charter Oak Terrace: Life, Death and Rebirth of a Low Income Housing Project.