A Life Well Read
When Michael Sartisky ’73 was nine years old, he and a friend would ride the subway from Flushing, Queens, into Manhattan, where they’d scrounge around secondhand book stores, searching for musty old marble-spined classics by Dickens and other luminaries. Today, he’s the Pied Piper of literacy, a nationally renowned educator who’s exposed thousands of children and adults in Louisiana and across the U.S. to the joys of reading and the questions of life.
Now president of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities (L.E.H.) Sartisky began his illustrious career at Sarah Lawrence with, ironically, a bad case of writer’s block.
“For a literature course taught by the always compelling Ilja Wachs, I had to prepare a thesis on Dostoevsky and deliver a lecture in class on The Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov. Totally blocked on the lecture, I confessed to Ilja that I might have a fear of failure. He looked right at me and said, ‘No, you have a fear of success. Because if you succeed, you’ll realize what teachers have to know to teach.’ That was a watershed moment in my life.”
After graduation, Sartisky designed a year of study in Paris, reading 300 books by American authors. Then he went on to SUNY Stony Brook, where he earned a Ph.D. in American Literature, and on to Louisiana to teach at the University of New Orleans. In 1982, he accepted the L.E.H. presidency.
Under Sartisky’s leadership, the L.E.H. has emerged as the national leader among state humanities organizations. It has the largest endowment, thanks to his skill in dealing with donors, foundations and the state legislature; Louisiana Cultural Vistas, its award-winning magazine which tells the story of Louisiana’s music, art, architecture, history and people, has featured such writers as Richard Ford, Tony Kushner and Stephen Ambrose; and the L.E.H.’s extensive Teacher Institutes for Advanced Study have elevated the sights and skills of more than 3,000 middle school and high school teachers in Louisiana.
But it is a program called Prime Time Family Reading that truly sets Sartisky’s organization apart. Launched in 1991, the program brings low-literacy, low-income parents and their children to libraries throughout the state—and the L.E.H. provides the transportation that is much needed by many families. Under the guidance of university professors and professional storytellers, families read award-winning children’s books that stimulate discussion about universal human themes like friendship, courage, dreams, greed, coping and death.
Reading leads to discussion—which leads to bonding and, as Sartisky notes, “family bonding makes everything else possible in education.” Moreover, good reading leads to more reading. “Prime Time is not a short-term ‘feel good’ program,” he says. “We want to make a lasting difference. We want to change lives.” And that’s another Prime Time distinction: L.E.H. does important follow-up. For example, L.E.H. monitored the library usage of 25 former Prime Time families and discovered that in one year these families had checked out more than 2,000 books. L.E.H. also tracks the excellent school retention records of students served by Prime Time.
Prime Time has been granted awards by the U.S. Committee on the Arts and Humanities, the national Federation of State Humanities Councils and the Public Library Association. More important, Prime Time has spawned more than 80 similar programs in 37 states, thanks to L.E.H. training and funding by the National Endowment for the Humanities, state foundations and legislatures. Sartisky observes proudly, “The Prime Time program is spreading like wildfire!”
Sartisky’s recent comment to a potential donor—a doctor—reflects his steadfast belief in the power of words to change lives. “Medicine keeps people alive. The humanities give them a reason to live.” Indeed.