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Remembering Edward Zigler, a true visionary

March 5, 2019
Op-Ed and Letters

This piece orignally appeared in the Hartford Courant.

Dr. Edward Zigler had an aura and mystique about him.

My first impression of him was that he could be out of central casting for an Ian Fleming movie. Then he spoke.

The humility of the man was evident, even though he had served former presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and had conferred with countless governors, including Mario Cuomo and Bill Clinton.

His economy of words and succinct presentation made it abundantly clear that he was an authority on the issue of child care.

Here was the nation’s pre-eminent leader on child development, the father of the Head Start program. My initial impression, that he had the air of a James Bond character, was quickly dispelled by the depth and breadth of his compassion and understanding of what American families need.

He called child care in America a “cosmic crap shoot” and emphasized how that was an abomination in American society. He and his associate, Dr. Matia Finn-Stevenson, crystallized this for me and the staff in the Connecticut State Senate who were working on our family and the workplace agenda in 1987.

Dr. Zigler had written extensively about infant care leave, as it was called in the academic world, and I was privileged to incorporate his thinking into our legislation on family and medical leave.

Dr. Zigler stressed that often birth or adoption of an infant creates a sensitive period in which parents need time to bond with their children and adapt to new emotional needs without risk of losing employment. I knew immediately that I had called the right person, and we began a relationship that lasted over these many years.

Connecticut’s family leave law was the first in the nation, and in 1990 we went on to pass similar legislation to expand it, which included a phased-in total of 16 weeks of unpaid leave for the birth or adoption of a child, or to care for a seriously ill parent, spouse or child.

While Dr. Zigler was working with us, he was also working with U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd on the federal family and medical leave legislation.

However, family and medical leave was just the tip of the iceberg. He convinced me that we had to think more boldly about child care and to institutionalize his concept of “Schools of the 21st Century” here in Connecticut.

Our legislation, called Family Resource Centers, was based on his model for “school-based or school-linked child care and family support services designed to promote the optimal growth and development of children beginning at birth.”

We piloted this program in three Connecticut sites and then expanded it across the state. This work was a collaborative effort with Elliot Ginsberg, then the state Commissioner of Human Resources, Patti Russo, Fredrica Gray from the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, and Cee Cee Woods and Toni Fatone from my staff. We worked to develop these Family Resource Centers in Connecticut, pass the Family and Medical Leave Act, and implement many other initiatives in our family and the workplace agenda, including enhancement of Head Start, immunization programs for kids, subsidies for child care and help for displaced homemakers, to name a few.

We then traveled with Dr. Zigler to Independence, Mo., to spread our message and share Connecticut’s success. Since that time, more than 1,300 schools in more than 20 states have implemented Dr. Zigler’s program.

Working with Dr. Zigler directly and as a fellow at Yale’s Center in Child Development and Social Policy was one of the greatest honors of my life. As Patti Russo said, “He was a joy to work with, and for all his brilliance, a humble person that you just always enjoyed being with.”

His passing is a tremendous loss for our country. He had an enormous impact on millions of families, including so many in our state. He was a true visionary who cared deeply about the impact of poverty on families and never stopped working to better the lives of children nationwide.

John B. Larson represents Connecticut’s first district in the U.S. House of Representatives.