Michael Nutter grew up in West Philadelphia, but there’s something about the bespectacled 50-year-old he has become that makes it hard to picture him as a kid. True, his slightly nasal voice can recall Kermit the Frog, as the Daily News once put it. And there’s definitely something playful about a new mayor-elect who uses his celebrity turn as a TV weatherman to tell viewers, “Bottom line, it’s cold out there. Wear a coat.” But it’s a particular kind of playfulness, a parental kind really, and that’s the vibe Nutter gives out most.
Even reminiscing about his days playing stickball at 55th and Larchwood, the picture he paints has a way of centering on grown-ups. “You really kind of belonged to every parent on the block,” he recalls. “If anybody got in any trouble, I mean, they could discipline you or certainly tell you to stop doing it. They’d let your parents know. It was a real sense of community. And I loved it.”
It isn’t every Catholic boy who remembers communal discipline so fondly, but Nutter was well served by it. His father was a plumber and salesman. His mother worked for the telephone company. Neither of them tolerated “ghetto talk” in the house, as Michael’s sister Renee has said, and both had high expectations of their children.
After attending grade school at Transfiguration of Our Lord just a few blocks from his house, Nutter won a partial scholarship to St. Joseph’s Prep, a prestigious, predominantly white Jesuit high school in North Philadelphia, familiarly known as “the Prep.” By this time he was working at a drug store a block from home, and coping with the gang wars afflicting the city in the early 1970s. The Prep was in some ways a world apart, but by most accounts Nutter had a knack for finding his comfort spot no matter where he happened to be.
“What happens at the Prep is that it’s almost like neighborhoods,” says Jerry Taylor, who still teaches history there and remembers Nutter fondly. “The kids from Jersey hang together, the kids from North Philly hang together, the South Philly kids hang together, and then they mix according to circumstances. I don’t think there was a lot of racial tension in the school, but there was an awful lot of racial tension in the streets, and that carried over into the school. So the ability to live in both worlds was sort of unusual.”
Chris Hannum, one of Nutter’s old stickball pals who also attended the Prep, and now practices internal medicine near Philadelphia, describes his old classmate as someone who fit into all molds by accepting none.
“He wasn’t rambunctious, he wasn’t the life of a party, he wasn’t the class clown,” Hannum says. “He wasn’t a nerd, he played football but he wasn’t a typical jockhe sort of had qualities of all those different types. That’s why he could relate to so many types of people, because he’s like an Everyman.”
By his own reckoning Nutter “wasn’t a stellar performer in high school,” but his grades were solid enough to win him a scholarship to Penn in 1975. He was initially interested in the business side of medicine, but the pre-med curriculum proved no match for life outside the classroom. As a freshman Nutter kept his job at the neighborhood drug store. After that he started working at the Impulse Disco on North Broad Street, which probably shaped his future more than the University did.
When the topic turns to Penn, Nutter ducks for literary cover. “Mark Twain once said, ‘Never let your schooling get in the way of your education,” he quips. “When I was in college I didn’t know that he had said that, but I certainly was a follower of that philosophy.”
There is no telling whether Twain would have amended his advice if he’d lived to hear the 1976 disco classic “(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty”the only number-one song title in history to feature a word repeated four timesbut the Impulse was much more than a place to groove to KC and the Sunshine Band. It was ground zero of a new generation of black leaders whose members would help to shape Philadelphia politics for the next 30 years.
At the nightclub’s frequent political fundraising events, Nutter met the players. He had worked for Xerox after graduating from Wharton, and then spent a spell as an investment banker, but he was still searching. “I may have been either too young or too stupid to have any fears,” he says about those days. “I knew I would be successful at something. It was really just a matter of working hard to make sure I stayed focused.” When his elders at the Impulse pushed him under the wing of Councilman John Anderson, Nutter got a taste of what that something might be.
Most Philadelphians remember Anderson as a closeted gay man who championed liberal causes. Nutter remembers him as a hero. “In 1982 he asked me to manage his re-election campaign,” Nutter says. “Initially I said no, because I didn’t know anything about politics … But he and some others convinced me. So I did. And on the night we won in May of ’83, I decided that night that this is what I wanted to do.”
As it turned out, he would have to do it without his mentor. Shortly after winning the primary election, Anderson died at 41. But Nutter had set his mind on City Council. Eight years later, on his second try, he defeated the incumbent in his districtand the city Democratic party that had supported herto win a primary on his own account. Clinching the general election later that year, he won the only job he would want until the mayor’s office beckoned 15 years later.
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©2008 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/02/08