In a more innocent time than this, before any talk of sweetheart book deals allegedly devoted to helping needy children, former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh sat at a little corner table of a downtown restaurant and talked lovingly about her years growing up on the west side of Philadelphia.

She had a mother who taught her reading and writing, and a father who worked every day in a rubber plant, and a Santa Claus who showed up at midnight every Christmas Eve for her and her six brothers and sisters.

She tried contrasting her story with today’s children. This was long before any talk of Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” books, or half-million dollar payments nobody was supposed to find out about, or federal raids on the mayor’s home and office. And long before resigning in disgrace.

From the first revelations of her blatant conflicts of interest, Pugh has maintained she wrote the books to help raise the consciousness of so many children who eat improperly and don’t get enough exercise and aren’t getting the kind of parenting Pugh once got.

It was a very compelling story she told that day. She said her childhood family had little money but plenty of stability. Every morning, she said, her mother kissed her father, handed him his lunch bucket and sent him to work.

Today in the city of Baltimore, we have nearly two-thirds of all children living in single-parent families. Sometimes, it’s just the exhausted grandmother who’s running things. The city’s child-mortality rate is far higher than the rest of the state’s, and so is the school dropout rate, which is another form of death. 

Long before “Healthy Holly,” Pugh had a storybook childhood. She talked about her parents bathing each of the children, and going for long walks with them, and spending what little money they had to buy the World Book Encyclopedia.

“Every Sunday,” she said, “we went to church, and then we visited cousins. And every Christmas, we had a visit from Santa Claus. They hired a Santa every year, and we peeked down from the top of the stairs.” She seemed swathed in the aura of those years.

“I believed in Santa Claus,” she said, “until I was 12 years old.”

Imagine such a thing, and then contrast it with a mayor who seems to have played Santa Claus for herself. This is not the woman many of us thought we knew.

Pugh always seemed to have a sense of proportion. For much of her political life, she represented the city’s west side, with its pockets of awful poverty and drug trafficking and crime, and the shadow of race hanging over so much of it.

But she wasn’t fixated on victimhood. She’d talk about personal responsibility, about businesses investing in neighborhoods, about community associations buying homes when seniors moved out, about community patrols to offer comfort in anxious neighborhoods.

Oneg Shabbat for Pittsburgh
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh greets attendees of an interfaith Oneg Shabbat to remember the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, at the Park Heights Jewish Community Center. (Photo by Steve Ruark)

That word — “community” — kept coming up, and it led her to talk about Israel, where she’d spent some time years earlier and fell in love with the kibbutz system and the idea of “a community of people working and sharing and living together. They eat together, they learn together. I sat up all night talking to them, saying, ‘Tell me how this works again.’”

At such a moment, you sensed the hunger in Pugh to make things better. She talked about the thousands of troubled kids here, many in families that move every few months to stay ahead of the bill collectors, many with drug-addicted parents.

“Why not look at a kibbutz type of setting for these children?” she asked. “Not as punishment. More like a boarding school thing, so we can catch the trouble before it happens and give these children a fair shot.”

There’s the tragedy – not just so many lost children but a woman like Pugh, who had such hunger to help them that she wrote a little book about it, and then blew the whole thing with a deal every child would know was wrong.

A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.