AS SURELY as Pooh Bear coveted honey or Eeyore disdained pretty much everything, Mike Ostrowski would make the joke if I wore the tie.
"Hey," he'd say, pointing to the depiction of Tigger leaning happily on the head of Winnie the Pooh, "You've got a little pooh on your tie."
Then he'd slip on that affable grin and glint that avuncular twinkle in his eye. And even if he didn't utter it out loud (which he often did), you could read his mind like a Little Golden Book:
A little Pooh, get it?
It has to rate as one of the most inoffensive scatology jokes in modern English. And throughout my years covering the Luzerne Intermediate Unit during Ostrowski's tenure as executive director, he never once missed a chance to make the joke if I wore the tie. Even after he stepped down in 2009, he would pop up at LIU events, and make the pun if I provided the opportunity. The last time was May 2011 at the LIU's annual "Field Day," an outing for area special education students.
"Field Day" may epitomize Ostrowksi's commitment to special education as much as "a little pooh" exemplified his relentlessly corny humor.
When Ostrowski became substitute executive director in May of 2000 (The LIU Board officially dropped "substitute" a year later), it was the Luzerne County Special Olympics competition. But in 2007 Ostrowski decided the rules of the Special Olympics prevented too many children from participating and really enjoying the event, so he dropped the affiliation and turned it into a celebration for athlete and non-athlete alike.
Mike Ostrowski rose to the top of the LIU amid turmoil – his predecessor mired in allegations of wrongdoing, his appointment questioned repeatedly, and his final run-up to landing the job challenged by the more politically connected Auggie Piazza, later the superintendent at Wyoming Valley West School District.
Around here, politics can permeate school districts the way cigar smoke clings to upholstery: The stench lingers long after the source is removed. The nature of the LIU compounds that problem twelve-fold. The governing board is comprised of representatives from each of the 12 member school districts, so the deal making can be as deep, dark and convoluted as Rome's catacombs.
In unguarded, and usually off-the-record, moments, Ostrowski would say as much to me. "The board would start talking about something," he told me once, "and I'd have to say ‘Guys, you can't do that!'" I urged him, only half-jokingly, to sit down with me after his retirement and tell me the whole story. It would be a best-seller.
That book will never be penned. Mike Ostrowski died Sept. 2 at the age of 61.
He wasn't perfect, he made mistakes, and there can be little doubt he played the game from time to time in order to keep one of the most politically susceptible jobs in Luzerne County for nine years.
But his commitment to students with special needs ultimately trumped everything. At the 2002 Special Olympics, years before it became LIU Field Day, he bubbled youthful bliss and adult pride as student faces beamed from end zone to end zone in Wyoming Valley West Stadium.
"This is really neat," he said. "This is the kind of day that, when you go home, you hug your kids."
That's the Mike Ostrowski I remember every time I knot my tie, look at the discomforted Winnie in a mirror and inevitably think
Hey, I've got a little Pooh on my tie …
Mark Guydish can be reached at 829-7161 or email firstname.lastname@example.org