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Philadelphia’s Guardian Angel

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Paul Vallas, thin, balding, nearly gaunt, was standing at a big podium on a dark little stage, in the lower level of St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children. The hospital is located at Front Street and Erie Avenue, in North Philadelphia, in the neighborhood they call the Badlands. That’s a long way from any place you’d like to see your own kids grow up.

Everyone was there for the graduation ceremony of an extraordinary, high achievement program called Health Tech. But the only thing they wanted to talk about today, celebrate, really, was Kal Rudman and all the kids he has saved – not merely helped, but saved. Once again, in a setting that would never make the headlines, Kal Rudman was more than living up to his nickname as the Guardian Angel.

“To me,” Vallas said, “Kal is like a force of nature. It’s fitting this is my last public event in Philadelphia because one of the first people I talked to when I came here five years ago was Kal Rudman. All he wanted to know was how could he help. Well, he helped plenty.”

Seated in the front row, next to his wife, Lucille, Rudman, who is more than familiar with the spotlight and the microphones after 40 years in the music business, with stops at the Today show, 20/20, Time, The New Yorker, Forbes, and about 50 television variety shows that he produced himself, looked just a little uncomfortable. But that’s Kal Rudman; he would much rather be doing something, even in his mid-70s, than listening to someone talk about things he has already accomplished.

Vallas called Health Tech, a mentoring and scholarship program aimed at economically disadvantaged and at-risk high school students from North Philadelphia, “the most successful program of its kind that I have ever been involved with, I cite it as the national role model all the time.”

Picking up on a statement that an administrator from St. Chris’s had made earlier, Vallas continued, “It is true that these programs come and go. It isn’t easy to sustain them. Sometimes the school district’s support fizzles out and sometimes the corporate sponsor fizzles out. What makes Health Tech different, what has seen this one survive three CEOs, is the fact that Kal Rudman has dispensed a considerable portion of his own wealth to fund the scholarships, to offer his wisdom and to be there every single time that the students needed him.”

Kal Rudman has, in fact, heard things like this before. How much has he given away to scholarship programs, to assorted police and fire departments, to houses of worship of every imaginable creed, to schools and shelters and more hopeless cases than even Saint Jude knew about? “Millions,” says a close friend of the Rudmans, “many, many millions. As fast as it came in he gave it away. He still is. Their foundation has practically no overhead. Kal wouldn’t put up with that. Every penny goes to worthy causes. Kal writes the checks himself.”

Often, those checks are big checks, really big ones, about three feet by four feet. The sense of theatre in that touches something deep inside the man. As Rudman likes to say, “Everybody has two businesses – the business they’re in and show business.”

Kal Rudman would know.

A generation or so ago, Kal Rudman was Simon Cowell, as in American Idol – with a few significant differences. First of all, when it comes to the business end of the music trade, and to picking out and promoting future stars, Rudman knew – and still knows – precisely what he’s talking about. He calls it “understanding both the demographics and the psycho-graphics of the audience.”

His flagship trade publication, among six, is Friday Morning Quarterback, still flourishing as a bible of the music industry. Forbes called Rudman one of the major influences in the leisure and entertainment industry in the United States. Time and The New Yorker pretty much agreed in thoughtful profiles. While the Simon Cowells are pretty much road-show attractions, Kal Rudman and his generation created pop music.

Unlike Cowell, who never finished high school and doesn’t talk about it, Rudman graduated with the highest honors from Central High School and the University of Pennsylvania, the classic Philly education, and went on to graduate school, in Special Education, at Temple University. Originally, he planned to be a doctor, but Rudman’s expanding life and profession got in the way.

He spent the beginning of his career as a science and special ed teacher who moonlighted as a music guy, landing his first show biz break-through as the Rhythm & Blues expert for the trades, and then branching out from there: Top 40 Disk jockey, music magazine publisher, long-time Today show and NBC music correspondent, television producer (in partnership with TV entrepreneur and star-maker Merv Griffin), 20/20 talking head for any entertainment stories that came along, live show impresario — it is a long and impressive list for a guy who still lives and works where he grew up.

If Rudman predicted that a song, a singer, a group, or a trend (he called the emergence of heavy metal and rap long before the mainstream, for example) would be big, the smart people simply asked, “How big?” Rudman was uncanny that way. He respected the artist and the process, regardless of the genre. In music, Rudman’s stamp of approval not only translated into bookings and dollars, his certification was viewed as credibility itself. Rudman’s reputation grew to be the-showman-with-the-intellect. Over 40 years later, he’s still riding that horse.

To appreciate the philanthropic motivation of Kal Rudman, it’s not a bad idea to ask some very simple questions: Who pays for the free fire detectors the Fire Department installs for the poor and the elderly? Where does much of the money come from to post the rewards offered for tips by the Crime Commission of Philadelphia? When the city’s police dogs were getting sick because they needed better facilities for their care, who paid for it? Many times, if a house of worship, or a school – any faith, any local district – is vandalized or destroyed, who writes the check that gets the place over the hump and gets the fix-up started? If cops or firemen want to go to college to finish a degree, or earn one, in important majors like criminal justice or fire science, and there’s no money to pay for it, who comes up with scholarships? When police bullet-proof vests, or motorcycles, or anything else they need wears out, where do the new ones come from? Ten years ago when the School District of Philadelphia and St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children needed an angel to help underwrite Health Tech, one of the great success stories in public education, anywhere in the country, who did the district turn to?

These aren’t trick questions, but they all do have the same answer: Kal Rudman. He moves in basic, meat-and-potatoes, unheralded ways to make good things happen and bad stuff go away, at least for a little while. It is the innate signature of a profoundly humble man.  “ ‘Why do I do it?’” he responds to a question, “all those thing needed to be done. The work is never finished. All I do is connect the dots.”

All that Rudman has ever asked in return is that the beneficiaries of his extraordinary generosity work with him and care as much as he does. You might be surprised how often that doesn’t happen. But Rudman is a world-wise man. “In show business,” he says, “everybody wants the same thing – F&F, fame and fortune. That’s my business, too. The question is: How much do you want it?

“It’s a pleasure to respond to people who want to work with you; people who aren’t afraid to connect with you. I pay attention to everything. In the end, money, including my money, is always portable, it can move around.”

The fact that his money has not moved around on the Health Tech program that he has been supporting for ten years — approaching about half a million dollars by the time the current class will be ready to graduate – is a tribute to the program and to Rudman. He knows the students and their families by name. They’re comfortable talking with him, hugging him, trying to tell him what it means to them.

Paul Vallas explained what Health Tech has done for North Philadelphia’s children, “Across this city we lose kids because of academic problems, but we also lose them because of their own low expectations. Kal Rudman and Lucille Rudman never allowed that to happen. They lift children up.”

Health Tech began, fitfully and with a lot of fingers crossed, back in 1994. The plan was inspired by Louis Lessick, a teacher at Olney High School. He wanted to give kids, especially at-risk kids, a reason to keep trying, a direction, and an exposure to a profession they could pursue all the way through school.  But nobody would fund it.

“Ever since Kal came onboard we’ve stayed in business and expanded,” Lessick adds. “He changed everything. And he isn’t just the guy with the check. These kids can call him anytime. He’ll talk to them like his own children. He’s there when they need him.” Today, Health Tech involves freshmen through seniors and is also supported by United Way, Communities in Schools of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Youth Network, among others. Rudman has focused it as the educational prototype.

“I fully intend to prove that it’s exportable,” Vallas says of Health Tech, “because I want to try to start something similar in New Orleans – except we won’t have a Kal Rudman behind us, stepping in to change lives.”

Luckily for Philadelphia, the Guardian Angel has his hands full here.

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