The Legacy of Eleanor Josaitis

Aug 10, 2011

By now, everybody knows that Eleanor Josaitis lost her battle with cancer yesterday, and that she, with the late Father Bill Cunningham, was one of the founders of Focus Hope.

Focus Hope is that rarest of social welfare organizations; one  praised by liberals and conservatives alike. It started out as a private food distribution program in the aftermath of the horrendous Detroit riot of nineteen-sixty-seven. They still provide food to tens of thousands. But that’s not primarily what they are about.  Focus Hope takes the poor and uneducated, the unskilled and under skilled, and does its best to give them what they need to support themselves.

They trained hundreds of machinists, and when demand for machinists started to slip, they diversified. These days, their biggest program by far is Focus Hope’s Information Technologies Center, which is on their forty-acre campus of beautifully restored industrial buildings in Northwest Detroit.

Focus Hope has saved thousands of people and given them the ability to lead productive and meaningful lives. Hopefully, the men and women who run it will go on helping many more.

But for me, that wasn’t the most remarkable thing about Eleanor Josaitis. It was that she voluntarily stepped outside of her comfort zone, went where everybody said she had no business going, and in the process made an enormous difference.

The key moment in her life, she told me, came when she was watching the movie Judgment at Nuremberg on TV on a March day in nineteen sixty-five. The film was interrupted by a bulletin showing police attacking defenseless black demonstrators in Alabama.

Suddenly she asked herself, how was this different from what went on in Nazi Germany? Eleanor was 33 years old, had five kids and only a high school education. She lived in an all-white blue-collar suburb where attitudes towards blacks were generally not enlightened.

But she felt, if not me, who? And if not now, when? She and her husband moved their whole family to Detroit. She had a kindred spirit -- a young, charismatic priest named Father William Cunningham. After the riot devastated Detroit, Josaitis and Cunningham founded something they first called “Summer Hope,“ to try to prevent a second riot. Out of that, Focus Hope grew.

Cunningham was the public face of Focus Hope. Josaitis, behind the scenes, made the trains run on time. Then, fourteen years ago, Cunningham died of cancer, and she had to wear both hats.

She did so, superbly well. She told me she lost any feelings of educational inferiority after she got her fourth honorary PhD.

When Focus Hope was hit by a tornado, she rebuilt. When the economy changed, they started training more software engineers and fewer machinists.  Presidents and executives from this and other countries came to see how they did it.

When times were tough, she went to where the money was. As Edsel Ford said, “You didn’t say no to Eleanor.”

Whether or not she has a gravestone, Focus Hope is her real monument. But whether or not it has touched your life, I think it is important to remember that a woman with five kids, no training and a resolve of steel managed to change the world for the better.

What she would have added was that you can do it too.