by Russell Harris
If there was any doubt whether Groton’s Steve Kornacki had skyrocketed to the highest peaks of viral Internet fame, you need look no further than the Google search bar and type in the name "Steve." The first predictive Google search suggestion comes up as "Steve Kornacki, American journalist," the second, "Steve Martin, American actor."
Steve has become an Internet obsession for the Hollywood glitterati and media heavy- weights as well as many ordinary MSNBC viewers. He has been praised on Live with Kelly and Ryan and on Real Time with Bill Maher and has appeared on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, among others. He has a trending hash tag on Twitter.
They all heap praise on his mastery of arcane election return data explained with a clear non-partisan perspective, standing before his interactive touch screen. His detailed grasp of state-by-state voting patterns combined with a deep knowledge of American political history gave clarity to the chaotic rush of election return data as they come in. His stamina is legendary. Bill Maher even suggested naming an energy drink for him.
Steve is a modest man. On screen he appears to appreciate the absurdity of being the latest Internet viral sensation. He smiles with an "aw-shucks" demeanor and just lets it wash over him.
But for Groton Herald readers Steve’s story is not just a simple "local man makes good" yarn, nor is it an "up-by-the-bootstraps" story about a man rising to the top of his profession through skill, hard work and good luck.
Rather it is also a story about this town, its cultural and social environment, a story about how this town’s residents, teachers and schools created a social, cultural and educational environment that recognized, nurtured, and set the stage for Steve’s career, a career that has made the world of politics more understandable to many Americans.
We know a lot about our town’s role in Steve’s formation because he told us in a remembrance he wrote for this newspaper a few years ago.
Steve wrote, “Groton promoted a strong sense of community -- and responsibility - that shaped me in important ways.”
He continued, “I can look back warmly on my early years, laughing about youthful adventures with friends and appreciating the teachers and other adults who encouraged a sense of curiosity about the world and excitement about learning. There was no shortage of activities to keep us busy and help discover ourselves, and I threw myself into most of them -- youth groups, school plays, soccer at Cutler Field, baseball at the town park, basketball on the unforgiving concrete floor of what was then called the New Gym, and learning to ski at tiny Blanchard Hill in Dunstable.”
As Groton heads toward a vote to fund a new elementary school this spring, Steve Kornacki’s own words about the impact that the town and the schools had on his formation are worthy of contemplation.
He wrote, “By middle school, I began to find myself, and gradually to set the course that ultimately brought me to where I am today. I can, for instance, draw a straight line from my sixth grade social studies class to the work I now do. It was our teacher, Mr. Catalini (who became the GDRHS athletic director and basketball coach in the mid-'90s), who awakened my interest in politics and government.
“I had some amazing teachers, whose impact continues to resonate in my life. I don't have space to name them all, but a few really stand out. Mrs. Trask, who taught us geography and current events in seventh grade, was determined to make us conscientious about the world.
“Mrs. Kwajewski wrote me a long note after I turned in my final English class paper that same year explaining that she never gave out A-plus grades but that she was making an exception because she wanted to impress on me that my future was in writing - and not, as I'd been telling her, dentistry.
“And then there was Mrs. Peabody, the most demanding teacher I've ever encountered. Her reputation for drowning her freshman English students in work preceded her, but I quickly found that it wasn't work for work's sake. Her mission was to turn us into critical thinkers, and for all the hours that we'd put into crafting essays and arguments, she'd put in even more reading our work and giving us feedback that challenged our assumptions and forced us to consider other perspectives. I look back and think she belonged on an Ivy League campus. I never
had a more rewarding academic experience than the year I spent in her class. She passed away during my senior year - far too soon.”
Town politics provided an outlet for his new interest, in part because the decisions made by selectmen and school committee members affected life around him in such tangible ways. He wrote, “There were some fascinating local characters too; no matter where I go in life, names like Brooks Lyman, Frank Belitsky, and Bob and Becky Pine, among others, (whose names) will always trigger an instant flash of recognition. I ended up getting involved myself, and one particular episode stands out.
“It came in spring 1993, when a Proposition 21⁄2 override was on the ballot and massive school budget cuts looming if it failed. There was an extra measure of urgency for me; the next fall would be my freshman year at GDRHS, and its accreditation had just been threatened. Especially back then, with the Internet still a futuristic concept, the most efficient way to reach a mass audience was through The Groton Herald. So I penned a letter to the editor and got the entire eighth grade class to sign it. I also printed up my own leaflets and distributed them. By land area, Groton is one of the biggest towns in Massachusetts, a distinction I fully appreciated after covering every inch of it on my bike that spring.
“As I stood outside the polls with a pro-override sign on Election Day, an older man in a pick-up truck pulled up next to me. I recognized him from some volunteer work and figured he was stopping to say ‘hi’ and maybe offer some encouragement.
“Instead, he jabbed a finger in my face and snarled, ‘YOU pay for it!’ Then he drove off. I was taken aback, but it was a valuable reminder that not everyone in town had the same automatic interest in the school budget that I did. It also made me wonder if the sight of a 13-year-old student campaigning for a tax hike to pay for his education won over any voters to my side, or if it mainly stirred resentment on the other side? I'm still not sure of the answer."