As the Mayor of Houston, Texas, Bill White marshaled the resources and goodwill of his city to provide refuge and essential services to hundreds of thousands of people who fled the Gulf Coast after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. White led a community-wide effort that included diverting convention and event business to open the region's convention center and public facilities to tens of thousands of evacuees. When the federal emergency response faltered in the days and weeks following the crisis, White mobilized more than 100,000 Houstonians in the public, private, business and faith-based communities to help evacuees rebuild their lives with independence and dignity. Houston offered innovative programs to provide more than 100,000 evacuees with long-term housing, job placement services and public education. White, a former businessman and attorney who served as U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy from 1993-1995, risked substantial public criticism to meet the challenges of a sudden, massive influx of evacuees and the subsequent large, permanent increase in Houston's population. White was honored with the 2007 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in recognition of his political courage in leading a compassionate and effective government response to the disaster.
Houston Mayor and Louisiana School Superintendent
Receive Profile in Courage Award
For Heroic Response to Hurricane Katrina
Boston MA, May 21, 2007 – Mayor Bill White of Houston, Texas, and Doris Voitier, Superintendent of Schools for St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, were presented the prestigious John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award today by Caroline Kennedy and Senator Edward M. Kennedy in recognition of their courageous and decisive leadership in addressing the human misery and ruin caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Mayor White, who offered refuge in Houston to displaced residents of Louisiana and Mississippi, and School Superintendent Voitier, who overcame federal bureaucracy to rebuild and reopen the public schools despite the complete destruction of the parish, were recognized at a ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum for having exemplified the best in political leadership to meet the needs of communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
Past recipients of the award include President Gerald Ford, U.S. Representative John Murtha, former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora, Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko, U.S. Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, and former Governors Roy Barnes (GA) and David Beasley (SC). For more information about the Profile in Courage Award and past recipients, visit www.jfklibrary.org.
“Mayor Bill White and Doris Voitier demonstrated tremendous courage and leadership in the face of extraordinary odds and they serve as an inspiration to us all,” said Caroline Kennedy, President of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. “Mayor White’s quick actions in welcoming thousands of families displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita most certainly helped to save lives. Despite insurmountable odds, Doris Voitier rebuilt the schools of St. Bernard Parish, making sure the children of her community had a place to learn and grow when they returned home. They are both true profiles in courage.”
“Mayor Bill White and Superintendent Doris Voitier are extraordinary examples of courage and leadership,” said Senator Kennedy. “In the midst of the immense devastation and despair brought on by Hurricane Katrina, they rose to the challenge. They’re true profiles in courage, and I know that President Kennedy would be proud of them today.”
The John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award is presented annually to public servants who have made courageous decisions of conscience without regard for the personal or professional consequences. The award is named for President Kennedy’s 1957 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, which recounts the stories of eight U.S. senators who risked their careers, incurring the wrath of constituents or powerful interest groups, by taking principled stands for unpopular positions. This year marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize. The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation created the Profile in Courage Award™ in 1989 to honor President Kennedy’s commitment and contribution to public service. It is presented in May in celebration of President Kennedy’s May 29th birthday. The Profile in Courage Award is represented by a sterling-silver lantern symbolizing a beacon of hope. The lantern was designed by Edwin Schlossberg and crafted by Tiffany & Co.
As the Mayor of Houston, Texas, Bill White marshaled the resources and goodwill of his city to provide refuge and essential services to hundreds of thousands of people who fled the Gulf Coast after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. White led a community-wide effort that included diverting convention and event business to open the region's convention center and public facilities to tens of thousands of evacuees. When the federal emergency response faltered in the days and weeks following the crisis, White mobilized more than 100,000 Houstonians in the public, private, business and faith-based communities to help evacuees rebuild their lives with independence and dignity. Houston offered innovative programs to provide more than 100,000 evacuees with long-term housing, job placement services and public education. White, a former businessman and attorney who served as U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy from 1993-1995, risked substantial public criticism to meet the challenges of a sudden, massive influx of evacuees and the subsequent large, permanent increase in Houston's population. White is being recognized for his political courage in leading a compassionate and effective government response to the disaster.
Beginning her career as a math teacher, Doris Voitier had served in the St. Bernard Parish public school system for more than 30 years when she was appointed Superintendent in August, 2004. One year later, when every building in St. Bernard Parish was damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, Voitier worked boldly and tirelessly, without help from the state or federal government, to reopen school doors to any student who might return home. With one borrowed computer, no working phones, and no emergency grant money, Voitier took out loans to hire disaster clean-up teams, secure portable classrooms, and rent trailers to house a skeletal teaching staff that agreed to work for reduced pay. Just weeks after the storm, Voitier reopened the first school to some 300 returning students, out of more than 8,000 who had been enrolled in parish schools before the disaster. By August 2007, just two years after the community succumbed to 15 feet of water, St. Bernard Parish will have reopened five school buildings to serve nearly 4,000 returning students. Voitier is being honored for her courageous fight to rebuild the St. Bernard Parish schools in the face of pervasive devastation and bureaucratic indifference.
In selecting a recipient, the Profile in Courage Award Committee considers public servants who have demonstrated the kind of political courage described by John F. Kennedy in Profiles in Courage. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Kennedy wrote:
In whatever arena of life one may meet the challenge of courage, whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he follows his conscience – the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow men – each man must decide for himself the course he will follow. The stories of past courage can define that ingredient – they can teach, they can offer hope, they can provide inspiration. But they cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul.
Bill White and Doris Voitier were chosen as the recipients of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation’s prestigious award for political courage by a distinguished bipartisan committee of national, political, and community leaders. Al Hunt, Washington Executive Editor of Bloomberg News, chairs the 13-member Profile in Courage Award Committee. Committee members are Michael Beschloss, author and presidential historian; David Burke, former president of CBS News; U.S. Senator Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi); Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund; Antonia Hernandez, president and chief executive officer of the California Community Foundation; Elaine Jones, former director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund; Caroline Kennedy, president of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation; U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts); Paul G. Kirk, Jr., chairman of the board of directors of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation; John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University; U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine); and Patricia M. Wald, former judge of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. John Shattuck, chief executive officer of the Kennedy Library Foundation, staffs the Committee. Mr. Shattuck is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State and a former U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic.
Past recipients of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award are former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora; U.S. Representative John Murtha; Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko; United States Army Sergeant Joseph Darby; Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin; former Texas Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff; Afghan physician and human rights activist Dr. Sima Samar; former North Carolina State Representative Cindy Watson; former Oklahoma State Senator Paul Muegge; former Georgia Governor Roy Barnes; former South Carolina Governor David Beasley; former Georgia State Representative Dan Ponder, Jr.; United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan; former Palos Heights, Illinois, Mayor Dean Koldenhoven; former U.S. President Gerald Ford; former California State Senator Hilda Solis; U.S. Senator John McCain of Arizona; U.S. Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin; Garfield County, Montana Attorney Nickolas Murnion; Circuit Court Judge of Montgomery County, Alabama Charles Price; former Calhoun County, Georgia School Superintendent Corkin Cherubini; former U.S. Congressman Michael Synar of Oklahoma; U.S. Congressman Henry Gonzalez of Texas; former New Jersey Governor James Florio; former Connecticut Governor Lowell Weicker, Jr.; former U.S. Congressman Charles Weltner of Georgia; and former U.S. Congressman Carl Elliott, Sr. of Alabama.
Special Profile in Courage Awards have been presented to the Irish Peacemakers, eight political leaders of Northern Ireland and the American chairman of the peace talks, in recognition of the extraordinary political courage they demonstrated in negotiating the historic Good Friday Peace Agreement and America’s public servants who demonstrated extraordinary courage and heroism in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. A Profile in Courage Award for Lifetime Achievement has also been presented to U.S. Congressman John Lewis of Georgia.
The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is a presidential library administered by the National Archives and Records Administration and supported, in part, by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, a non-profit organization. The Kennedy Presidential Library and the Kennedy Library Foundation seek to promote, through educational and community programs, a greater appreciation and understanding of American politics, history, and culture, the process of governing and the importance of public service. For more information about the Profile in Courage Award and the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, visit www.jfklibrary.org.
I accept this award as representative of hundreds of thousands of Houstonians who helped a quarter of a million Americans. Thank you for honoring them.
Sometimes we identify political courage with unpopular advocacy. By honoring our actions during Katrina, you celebrate a different kind of courage, the courage to undertake and complete a daunting task with compassion, competence and endurance.
Our nation was formed on the two revolutionary ideals of equal rights and government as an effective servant, not master, of the people. The generation of President Kennedy and Dr. King helped finish the long first phase of this revolution by transforming the dream of equal rights into law. They passed the torch to our generation to show that we can produce in government a humble and effective servant for all Americans.
So many times our citizens have asked themselves the simple question posed by President Kennedy's brother, who spoke of dreaming things that never were and saying, why not? Why not?
Americans ask why not graduate more than 60% of our students from high school when Singapore can graduate all; why not undertake more preventive health care; why not cut expensive oil imports with autos and buildings designed to use less. And Americans asked why we couldn't act faster in evacuating tens of thousands stranded on rooftops and bridges for days in New Orleans. Why not?
Politicians often reply that we just need more political will, usually defined as voting for them. But by now we know that legislation alone does not ensure that no child is left behind or FEMA will respond. Effective public service requires that we both enlist and empower the best executive talent in our nation, people who know how to get things done.
In Houston we put over 150,000 Americans on the road to self-sufficiency, with apartments, not trailers, schools, job training, and jobs. We used basic management principles, those typically used in business by those more concerned with results than rhetoric. We clearly defined each task, assigned the best person and organization to lead specialized teams, measured results, held people accountable, and changed tactics and responsibilities to improve performance daily. We threw away bureaucratic operating procedures and organizational charts.
One morning I asked Rick Noriega, a reserve Colonel days back from Afghanistan, to set up a shelter in our convention center to receive crowded buses with thousands of dehydrated, starving Americans. Visualize what thousands of citizens created, with no assurance of public funding, within 36 hours: 6,000 comfortable places to sleep, a complete hospital and pharmacy with 24-hour staffing, huge laundromats, libraries, banks, computer assistance for finding missing persons, employment agencies, nurseries, and a cafeteria staffed entirely by volunteers trained by churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques.
We lived the values of our faiths and responded to Americans as if they were family.
One day I stopped by an intensive 60-hour class that was part of massive job training efforts we organized for evacuees. A young man raised his hand to speak. "Mayor White," he said, "I lived all my twenty years in New Orleans. I had never thought anyone in government cared. Here people work hard to help me find a job. So something good has come from something bad."
A longtime Houston community leader put it this way: "People said we turned the corner with civil rights laws, but I never thought folks changed on the inside until I witnessed hundreds of Islamic Pakistani Americans working beside hundreds from a conservative Southern Baptist congregation to serve meals to thousands. I just saw Americans helping Americans."
Today so-called leaders encourage Americans to consume beyond their means, by shifting fiscal and environmental costs to the next generation. Those who, instead, respond to President Kennedy's inaugural call for service, can take heart in words of courage from St. Paul: from sacrifice comes endurance, from endurance comes character, from character comes hope, and hope never disappoints us.
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Delivered by Houston Mayor Bill White on receiving the 2007 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, May 21, 2007.
Today we honor two individuals who are impressive examples of courage, grace, and leadership. As we all know, a tragedy of unspeakable scope and impact decimated America’s Gulf Coast region in 2005. Hurricane Katrina was the deadliest storm to ever hit America, claiming over 1800 lives. It was also the costliest. The repairs and rebuilding are estimated to cost over $81 billion and that number will undoubtedly rise.
Those numbers alone are shocking, but they do not begin to reveal the vast devastation that the storm has inflicted on the families of Louisiana and Mississippi. In one cruel day, families were separated, homes were lost, schools and businesses swept away. Countless lives were disrupted, and many more were destroyed forever.
There are far too many examples of the inept and ineffective response by state and federal agencies. But there are other examples too – examples of courage, compassion and generosity that inspire us. The Coast Guard, National Guard, and other response teams rescued countless families. Medical and emergency teams jeopardized their own safety to save people’s lives.
It is in the spirit of these selfless and courageous men and women, that we recognize two public servants who made an extraordinary difference in the lives of so many deserving families during that tragic time.
Doris Voitier has been a compelling presence in her community for over twenty-five years. Her passion is her classroom, and she has worked brilliantly over the years to improve education for the children of St. Bernard Parish. She was Superintendent of Schools when Katrina came ashore.
She rode out the storm in Chalmette High School, having rushed there to save records and equipment as the storm approached. With a small group of staff and twelve hundred others, she waited for four days for the first rescue team to arrive.
She vowed that the children of St. Bernard would have classrooms waiting for them when they returned. Against all odds, with little or no help from officials and few resources, she persisted, and she succeeded.
Two months after the storm, the first school opened to welcome students back to St. Bernard. The healing began, and without the selfless dedication of Doris, it might not have been possible. Others would have found that the challenge was too overwhelming, but Doris knew that the schools were critical for the recovery of the community, and she never gave up. She’s an inspiration to us all.
At the same time, several hundred miles away, refugees from Katrina were arriving in Houston. Exhausted by their travel, they arrived in a strange city, with only no personal belongings except those they were able to carry. The people of Houston opened their city and their hearts to them. Under the leadership of Mayor Bill White, municipal resources were mobilized – cots were set up in the Astrodome. Food, clothing and medical care were provided. It wasn’t home but it was safe.
Mayor White didn’t stop with a warm welcome. He offered a way for families to move on to new lives. The city provided vouchers for housing, job fairs and a chance to start anew. Under his leadership, a coordinated effort began, and church, civic leaders, the regional business community, citizens and volunteers worked together to provide the help they needed.
As the months passed, Mayor White endured sharp attacks for his efforts from the naysayers. But he also earned the praise of countless civic leaders for the bold steps he took in one of the most innovative humanitarian efforts in the nation’s history. He also earned the deep gratitude of tens of thousands of refugees who had new lives and new hope.
The mayor is an excellent example of public service at its best. By his example he has demonstrated what America can be at her best. We are all deeply indebted to him.
I know that President Kennedy would have admired both of our honorees. He believed that public service was an essential part of our national life. As he once said, “Our problems are man-made – therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable – and we believe they can do it again.” Our honorees today affirm his belief in the power of visionary leaders – who are as big as they need to be when destiny calls.
I commend Doris Voitier and Bill White for all they accomplished in such a difficult moment, and when so many others faltered. They have worked miracles already, and I know that they will produce even more in the years ahead. Our nation is a better place because of them.
Delivered by Senator Edward M. Kennedy at the 2007 Profile in Courage Awards, May 21, 2007.