What Should Be Private?

May 12, 2011

Robert Bobb, the tough, controversial Emergency Financial Manager of the Detroit Public Schools, made an astonishing admission yesterday. He has been fighting a deadly form of cancer.

Thirteen months ago, he learned he had Stage Four tongue cancer, which had spread to the lymph nodes in his neck.

His chances of surviving five years were put at less than fifty percent. Hearing such a diagnosis would be enough to emotionally destroy many people. Bobb toughed it out.

He clearly is an intensely private person. In fact, I had never  seen his age in print - he is sixty-six - or knew he was married until yesterday. People knew something was wrong with Bobb; he seemed to have lost weight, and at one point acknowledged he had been ill, but said he was feeling better. In fact, he was involved in an intensive course of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

Bobb would show up at Henry Ford Hospital in the morning, checking in under a fake name, and get half an hour of intense treatment. Then he would go about the battles of the day, and sometimes endure abuse at school board meetings at night.

Remarkably, his secret held, until he decided to reveal it to the Detroit Free Press yesterday, adding, almost as an afterthought, “It was an hell of an ordeal, man.”

Why did he keep his condition from the public? His reasons make sense.

His opponents, who were bitterly opposed to the cuts he was making, would have used his illness to demand his ouster. Others might have felt sorry for him. Either would have been a distraction.

So he went about his high-pressure, stressful, demanding work. Now, his job is almost done. Former General Motors executive Roy Roberts replaces Bobb as emergency financial manager in a few days. People will be debating Bobb’s decisions as financial manager for some time. But - was it right for him not to reveal his cancer?

Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with what he did. That’s because he did tell the person who appointed him, then-Governor Jennifer Granholm, who had the power to remove him. He also told his inner circle at Detroit Public Schools. It’s not clear whether new Governor Rick Snyder knew, though he probably should have. Most importantly, there seems to be no evidence that Bobb failed to do his job. The whole issue of illness and people on the public payroll is a difficult one. Gabrielle Giffords clearly has been unable to fully do her job, for example, though no one would suggest she be forced to resign.

South Carolina voters re-elected Strom Thurmond to the U.S. Senate when he was 94 and showing signs of senility, but that was their choice. Things are a little different with those, like Bobb, who are appointed. There’s also a question about his right to privacy. My feeling is that he met both his personal needs and public  obligations. I don’t know Robert Bobb, but I hope his case turns out like that of my mother-in-law, who had a very similar cancer, and was given less than a year to live. She did indeed die - of a heart attack, twenty years later. Even in the 21st century, you never can tell.