Leo T. McCarthy set out to get young people invested in (ethical) public service. We revisit the late politician’s University of San Francisco namesake to find his dream still alive.
By Allison Landa
As the 43rd lieutenant governor of California from 1983 to 1995, Leo T. McCarthy spent his work days in Sacramento. When evening came, however, he took the long drive back to his family in San Francisco.
“He was committed to public service but always balanced that with devotion to his wife Jackie and their four children,” says David Donahue, director of the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good at the University of San Francisco.
McCarthy’s legacy around the halls of USF is that of a man with integrity, honesty, fairness and commitment to working across political aisles.
“What he wanted in politics was—and he was educated by the Jesuits—is that you have to give back, you make someone else’s life better,” recalls Jackie McCarthy, who was married to Leo for 52 years until his death in 2007. “He didn’t care who got credit for the legislation. He just wanted to get it done. You didn’t have all this jealousy and nonsense — you’re there to do the public’s good.”
In 2002, that legacy was hailed by the founding of the institution that bears McCarthy’s name, which celebrates its 15-year anniversary this year. McCarthy, who grew up in San Francisco and attended St. Ignatius College Preparatory, went on to receive a history degree from USF.
“There’s so much enthusiasm,” Jackie says. “The center has gone way beyond what I had anticipated. We have all these young people—there’s no way in the world they could have known who Leo was, but they knew about him, learned about him, and are so enthusiastic to do something positive.”
From the very beginning, the goal was to launch USF’s new service-learning requirement allowing undergraduate students to connect classroom knowledge with community experience. Today, Donahue says, USF remains one of just a handful of universities that maintain such a requirement—one designed to ground academic learning in the hands-on requirements of real-world needs.
“The mission of the McCarthy Center is to fashion a more humane and just world by educating leaders committed to lives of ethical public service,” he emphasizes. “We do this by implementing academically rigorous programs, cultivating authentic community partnerships and creating transformational experiences.”
While the overarching calling has remained consistent, the way those goals are executed continues to evolve with the times.
Recent examples of service learning at USF include:
Dr. John Stover’s Research Methods class in the Critical Diversity Studies Program, which worked with Glide Foundation’s Center for Social Justice to analyze the efficacy of the church’s dining-hall services;
Assistant Professor Courtney Masterson’s Management and Organizational Dynamics course in the School of Management, which worked with the Mission Economic Development Agency to provide support for the group’s free tax preparation program;
The Environmental Studies Department’s Community Garden Outreach course, which worked with congregants of the Western Addition’s New Liberation Church to design and cultivate a space not only to grow produce, but to educate neighborhood youth.
“The McCarthy Center is still committed to providing high-quality service learning and works to develop the capacity of faculty and our community partners to be co-instructors and to ensure that community needs are truly met,” Donahue says. “We also develop student leaders through our Advocates for Community Engagement program to serve as liaisons among USF faculty, students and community partners to support meaningful, high-quality service learning.”
However, the center and its mission are not without its challenges. The cost of such an education presents one obstacle—reversed in part by donors such as Craigslist founder Craig Newmark as well as others who have supported USF student scholarships. In return, the community receives student service ranging from direct work contributions at shelters, schools and clinics to research for nonprofit organizations and government agencies.
Among Donahue’s biggest hurdles is pushing back against the idea that a college degree is merely about money.
“Certainly college prepares people for careers, but higher education in this country also has a long tradition of preparing people for engagement in their communities as well as at the state and national level,” he says. “Fortunately, the history of civic engagement at USF and the support of leadership for a vision of education serving others and preparing for a life of civic and political commitments helps counter this more limited view of higher education.”
Donahue’s use of the word limited, he explains, means that higher education extends further than the simple—though important—idea of entering a lucrative profession.
“Given the expense of higher education, the need to graduate and find gainful employment is real,” Donahue notes. “Higher education has also served the purpose, though, of finding meaning and civic purpose. Those ends tend to be less [emphasized] today.”