Posted: March 4, 2013
JOHN MODICA, 1931-2013
By Celia Cohen
John Modica loved teaching, coaching and politics, and it was a good thing. Otherwise, who would have been there to corral some of the well-known free spirits in public life?
Modica, an educator by training and a Democratic Party stalwart by conviction, was a counselor and sometime father figure to a generation of Delaware politicians. He died Friday at the age of 81.
"It is like losing a second father," said Charlie Oberly, the U.S. attorney and past three-term Democratic attorney general who was one of the free spirits Modica took under his wing.
Modica was a blend of smarts, athletic vigor and common sense, someone who instinctively knew right from wrong, embracing the one and shunning the other with easy confidence.
He was around long enough to remember the days when a lot of politics was conducted in basements with stashes of cash, but it was never his style. Instead, he was part of a great political renewal, fueled by a new spirit of public mindedness, the inspiration of the youthful John F. Kennedy, and post-war prosperity some 50 years ago.
"We go back to 1959. We all really were getting into it because of Kennedy. I was getting involved in Citizens for Kennedy. A lot of us were," said John Daniello, the Democratic state chair.
It is a testament to Modica's tenacity that he survived and thrived in politics even though he was based in Brandywine Hundred, in those days a Republican stronghold fortified by legions of civically inclined DuPonters.
What Modica had going for him was his larger-than-life presence at Brandywine High School, where he was an art teacher and football coach. The football field there is named in tribute to him.
Modica's fondness for free spirits goes back to those days. Just ask Alan Levin.
Now the state's economic development director, a Republican in Jack Markell's Democratic administration, Levin used to run the Happy Harry's drugstore chain, started by his father, until it was acquired by Walgreens.
Levin was a student a Concord High School, also in the Brandywine School District.
"I would come home, and my father would know how I was screwing up at school, and I could never figure out how. I was just amazed my father knew what I did or did not do," Levin said.
Not until Levin was a senior in college did his father reveal his source. It was Modica, no doubt getting the information from other art teachers at Concord.
"I was very fortunate because I don't think Mr. Modica told him everything," Levin said.
Years later, when Levin was in charge of Happy Harry's, he retained Modica as one of its lobbyists in Legislative Hall in Dover.
By far, Modica's most famous reclamation project was Charlie Oberly, who was a problem student back in his days at Brandywine High School but still found himself on Modica's good side.
"Many athletic coaches found value only in athletes, but John didn't. Yes, he was a football coach, but other students mattered to him, maybe because he was an art teacher. John treated non-athletes with every bit as much respect as athletes," Oberly said.
Oberly eventually got himself straightened out academically, earned a law degree and became a state prosecutor. He got into politics in 1982 by running against Rich Gebelein, the sitting Republican attorney general who was his boss.
For the voice of reason in the upstart campaign, Oberly turned to Modica, whose store of political knowledge and experience included a term as a chair of the New Castle County Democrats.
"When I started to think about running for office, he was the first guy I thought of," Oberly said.
Oberly has never forgotten Modica's caustic review of his performance after his first debate with Gebelein. Oberly thought he had done well, but on some point or other, he had agreed with Gebelein, and Modica let him have it.
"He said, if you like the guy so much, why don't you stop running and vote for him? That's not the way you run for office, by praising him," Oberly said.
Modica nearly saved Oberly from one of the greatest pratfalls in modern Delaware politics, if only Oberly had listened.
Going into his re-election campaign in 1986, Oberly was feuding with the Democratic Party, which he thought had not properly reimbursed him some money from his first race. Oberly decided to withhold part of his filing fee, which is collected by election officials and turned over to the party.
"I've told this story to my own embarrassment. John was sitting in the car with me when I went to file and said, Charlie, I don't think you should do this," Oberly said.
Oberly did, anyway, and it nearly cost him his spot on the ballot. Long story short, he needed a ruling from the Court of Chancery to be able to run.
"Not taking his sage advice, I proceeded at my own peril," Oberly said.
A sage for the ages, that was John Modica.