By Bob Gabordi
Tallahassee Democrat Executive Editor


Steve Uhlfelder could’ve just picked up his piece of glass Monday night and gone back to his seat, his neat black tux no worse for the wear.

But that’s just it. He couldn’t. Not really. Even I know that and I know him only well enough to have had a few conversations, exchange a few e-mails and have lunch once.

With everyone all dressed so nicely and the University Center Club looking so smart, Uhlfelder just had to go there. You know: There.

For Uhlfelder, winner of this year’s Budd Bell Award at the Kids Incorporated annual Night of Champions, going There meant making the rest of us squirm. The sudden discomfort came in spite of the fine meal and lovely table decorations.

All of a sudden, we were all There.

Uhlfelder has a long record of working on behalf of children, which is why he won the Budd Bell Award, named for a remarkable woman I served with briefly on the Kids Incorporated board. She is perhaps the most significant advocate for children in our state's history.

Uhlfelder has been a tutor for decades. He helped make mentoring children in classrooms a priority in Florida. He is a Democrat who supported Republican Jeb Bush. They shared a bond as advocates for mentoring in the schools. He helped create, and then head, the Governor’s Mentoring Initiative.

Bush once said of Uhlfelder in the St. Petersburg Times: “Steve is a good friend. He has been an awesome leader of our successful mentoring initiative. We share a passion for making sure all children are given an opportunity to learn.”

His passion and his hard work notwithstanding, Uhlfelder sees things headed in the wrong direction for children in our state, and his frustration at that just spilled out from the stage of the UCC ballroom.

“Unfortunately in our society, some kids are starting the 100-yard dash 50 yards behind, and part of that is they don't have the early childhood education," he told a Tallahassee Democrat reporter.

But that’s not even half of it. Tragically, way too many of our kids never get a chance to get in the race at all. He shakes visibly with anger when discussing infant-mortality rates in Leon County and, perhaps even more tragic, the seeming indifference to that by those with the power to make a difference.

From the stage on this well-mannered occasion, he cited recent stories in the Democrat that showed black infant-mortality rates at 15 deaths per 1,000 infants last year, higher than many developing nations. The rate among white babies is 4 per 1,000.

Both numbers are headed in the wrong direction, but the rate among black babies is higher than in Moldova, Bosnia, Russia and Saudi Arabia, for starters.

These are children who die at birth or within their first year of life. Not 50 yards behind. They never get the chance to start. Uhlfelder wanted to make sure everyone there for his big night knew it.

I squirmed as he made me realize that however much I'm doing now on behalf of children, it's not enough. Not nearly enough.

But he didn’t stop there. He attacked the achievement gap between white and black kids in our schools, differences in graduation rates and a school-zoning system that makes our schools as segregated now as ever.

“I don’t have a magic wand to make things different,” he told me after coming off the stage, still frustrated and still angry.

On that point, he might be wrong. An old journalism axiom is that it is our job to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Sooner or later – and the sooner the better – maybe enough people will get uncomfortable with what he’s saying and demand leadership and change, people with the means and influence to share their power and voice with the voiceless.

It might not be magic, but it’s the best wand for change that I know of.