Uploaded: Friday, May 1, 2009, 9:35 AM
Ray Bacchetti: Remaking democracy, day by day
From police fantasies to Shakespeare, his motto is civic engagement
|Will Palo Alto become bipolar?
Is it time to wash the police cars?
Does the Oregon Shakespeare Festival have the resources it needs?
Such are the kinds of questions dancing around in the head of Ray Bacchetti on any given day.
Retired from paid work after a long career, mostly with Stanford University, Bacchetti packs his time with police-department volunteering, commitments on assorted nonprofit boards and a deep engagement with the Palo Alto community.
Civic participation has been a way of life for Bacchetti ever since he, with his wife Carol, arrived at Stanford for graduate school in 1959 with a $1,050 scholarship, which, astonishingly, covered full tuition at the time.
As an undergraduate at Rutgers University, Bacchetti became fascinated with the educational philosopher John Dewey and questions of American democracy and the common good.
"America is such a diverse nation, and it has a certain cohesion, Bacchetti said. "But you can't take that for granted -- you have to keep creating it. It's more aspirational than it is a fact, so how do you make it and keep remaking it?"
For example, by 2030 half of Palo Alto's population will be 55 or older, according to a recent survey by Avenidas, a local senior-oriented nonprofit organization.
"If the city becomes kind of bipolar, with people in their 20s who are hotshots in high tech or biotech and then the older baby boomers who have lots of money and expect to have what they want, what will happen?
"What will the restaurants be like? What movies will show? How do you make a good city better and stop living on what other generations have done for it?"
Bacchetti said he recently was surprised by a conversation he had with a young woman he met at an out-of-town conference. She and her husband had rented a house in Palo Alto to test out the community and decide whether they want to stay long-term and raise a family.
"She said it was not a very friendly community, hard to get to know people, that nobody pays attention," Bacchetti said.
"The city is becoming more anonymous. You can live here and not know your neighbors -- use it as a bedroom and not become engaged. Relative to the past we have fewer people with school-age children -- still a lot, but less -- and that is sort of a community glue," said Bacchetti, who once served on the Palo Alto Board of Education and the Board of Trustees of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District and currently chairs the Citizens' Oversight Committee for the Palo Alto school district's $378 million facilities bond.
He is also a member of the Palo Alto Human Relations Commission, sits on the board of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and works with Palo Altans for Government Effectiveness (PAGE), which pushed to get "Civic Engagement for the Common Good" listed as one of the City Council's top priorities for this year.
Bacchetti also delights in indulging boyhood fantasies as a volunteer with the Palo Alto Police Department.
At headquarters, his jobs are as diverse as sweeping the garage, writing grant proposals, checking rat traps at the water tower, driving police cruisers to Lozano's for a wash, fetching dog food for the canine unit and helping develop a strategic plan.
He especially enjoys scanning a bulletin board in the department's basement where letters of commendation are posted.
"Somebody's father goes for a walk and gets lost and the police find him without injuring his dignity. They help people find cars they forgot where they parked. Then there are the more difficult things like suicides and trains crashing into cars. There's a lot that goes on in this town."
After working for decades in the upper ranks of Stanford administrators and later as a program officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and a scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Bacchetti's connections in the world of education go nationally and beyond.
"I think Stanford is one of the greatest universities the world has ever known," he said. "I used to joke that Stanford's philosophy, and that of any research university, is 'aimless excellence.' You hire the very best people you can find and they do what they're best at. People get together and serendipity runs rampant."
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