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The Record, Stockton, Calif., Michael Fitzgerald column

By Michael Fitzgerald, The Record, Stockton, Calif.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

April 13--He grew up in the Conway Homes projects in the 1960s, back when south-side Stockton schools were segregated and largely second-rate.

His parents, farm workers, drummed in him the importance of hard work, strong family, religion, education. Of picking friends who saw beyond the ghetto.

"A lot of my friends that I grew up with, they couldn't envision even graduating from high school, let alone going to college," Albert Fierro said. "So I was very selective in the friends I chose."

His dad died when he was 9.

He worked two paper routes.

Across the street undulated the greens of the Van Buskirk Golf Course. He could not afford to play, but he got work there as a janitor.

"We can't pay you much," the golf pro said. "But you can listen to me give lessons, and shag balls, and you can play as much golf as you want."

His older brother gave him hand-me-down clubs. A family friend donated used shoes. He golfed, and stayed off the streets, going to Mass at St. George's.

"My gang became the golf course, and schools became a haven," Fierro said.

When he got to Edison High School, he saw a flier for the speech team. Be a leader. Have a command of the English language. "I thought, 'Gosh. This is what I want.' "

An exceptional teacher named Donovan Cummings shaped him into a powerful speaker. He finished top 10 in the nationals in Kansas with a speech called "In Racist America."

"High school speech ignited in me a fire of passion for creating a vision," Fierro said. A vision of escaping Conway Homes for a lofty career. "I worked toward those goals."

He graduated from high school. "No one from my family ever graduated from high school." He envisioned blazing a trail out of his family history. "I could possibly go to college."

He landed a scholarship to University of the Pacific and a spot on the debate team.

He earned a bachelor's degree in political science cum laude from Pacific and a master's degree in public administration, also cum laude, from California State University, Stanislaus.

He went to work as an assistant to the city manager of Davis, aiming to become a city manager himself.

But he became intrigued with a sophisticated municipal discipline called risk management.

Risk management limits liability (legal and financial damages) to companies and organizations. It helps them not get sued and hampered so they can function as they should.

He became head of Solano County's risk management division. He devised an insurance fund for 36 Bay Area cities. He did the same for cities in Australia.

Today, Fierro is president of the AARP Andrus Insurance Fund in Washington, D.C.

AARP Inc., formerly the American Association of Retired Persons, has 40 million members. It is the largest organization in America outside the Catholic Church.

Fierro supervises the national "captive insurance" portfolio. His division insures the parent company. He also has risk management responsibilities for 50 state offices plus the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

Stockton's poor neighborhoods are widely seen as whirlpools that suck away the potential of their youth. Yet Conway Homes failed to hold Fierro back.

"You've got to have a dream," Fierro said. "Then you have to have a plan. Then you have to execute it. That's about the simplest way I can say it."

Contact columnist Michael Fitzgerald at (209) 546-8270 or michaelf@recordnet.com. Follow him at www.recordnet.com/fitzgeraldblog and @Stocktonopolis.

___

(c)2014 The Record (Stockton, Calif.)

Visit The Record (Stockton, Calif.) at www.recordnet.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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