Squitiro’s let-it-all-hang-out style creates friends, foes

Jul. 01, 2008

By STACY DOWNS

The Kansas City Star
Even though the room was dimly lit and their coffee hadn’t quite kicked in, passengers boarding an early-morning Amtrak train at Union Station instantly spotted the 6-foot-8-inch mayor of Kansas City. Then the loud voice of first lady Gloria Squitiro jolted them awake:

“C’mon, Funk, move your ass.”

Brian and Amy Murray, an Overland Park couple, witnessed the scene in mid-May. As is so often the case with people who encounter Squitiro in public and private life, each reacted differently.

Amy Murray says Squitiro struck her as crass, lacking the decorum expected of one of the area’s most recognizable civic figures.

Murray’s reaction mirrors criticism generated since Squitiro came to prominence as the unpaid right-hand woman in the mayor’s office. And it seems to fit with the portrayal of Squitiro’s demeanor as described in a lawsuit filed against the city by a former staffer, who alleges Squitiro used sexually and racially insensitive language in the office.

Yet Brian Murray took Squitiro’s early-morning words to be funny, indicative of a close, playful relationship with her husband.

That sentiment squares with what friends and family say about Squitiro, whom they describe as nurturing, charming and refreshingly down to earth. Her casual but cut-to-the-chase attitude, they say, is why she’s often misunderstood in the political arena.

“My biggest flaw,” Squitiro says, “is that I’m completely open. I treat everyone I meet like family.”

Ever since Mark Funkhouser took office in May 2007, Squitiro has been at the center of one controversy after another:

There was the dealership offer for a free hybrid Honda. She initially accepted the loaner, but Funkhouser later declined.

There was the park board appointment, at Squitiro’s suggestion, of Minuteman Civil Defense Corps member Frances Semler, which drove a convention from Kansas City. Semler eventually resigned.

There were the bodyguards Squitiro requested to protect her husband during meetings in Hispanic and black neighborhoods.

Then came her family Christmas newsletter last year, in which Squitiro detailed her husband’s prostate exam. The letter, sent to 100 people, including reporters, was mentioned in The Washington Post and became a hot blog topic.

“Whether she likes it or not, she’s a role model and an ambassador of Kansas City,” says David Donovan, a Kansas City psychologist and psychoanalyst who consults with businesses. “Being down-home and acting like the rules don’t apply to her make it feel like she’s flaunting her position. It seems narcissistic.”

Over and over again, Squitiro hears: “We elected her husband, not her.” She dismisses the sentiment as naive. She points out she was her husband’s campaign manager, a position that commonly turns into a job in the administration.

And, she adds, “When you elect a man in office, you get his wife, too. It’s been like that since Eleanor Roosevelt and even before that.”

Birth instructor

Squitiro’s personality was partly shaped by her years spent teaching natural childbirth classes.

Before becoming Kansas City’s first lady, she instructed more than 500 women and men in the Bradley Method, a breathing and relaxation technique for drug-free labor. She got into the business after having both her children delivered by Caesarean section, which she thinks can prevent parents from instantly bonding with newborns.

Squitiro also worked as a certified doula, assisting in the deliveries of more than 100 babies at hospitals and homes. Doulas care for an expectant mother’s emotional needs.

“The first delivery I assisted was a twin birth. I became instantly addicted,” she says. “There’s a holiness with birth. It’s so powerful and moving.”

For 17 years, couples drove to her Brookside home each week and walked inside without knocking. She greeted them with herbal tea and plates of fruit. Up to 11 couples at a time sat in her dining room surrounded by paintings of pregnant women on the walls.

In the class, Squitiro broke the ice with humor.

“Penises and vaginas are what got all of us into this room together,” she would say.

“By skipping formalities,” she says now, “we could comfortably talk about the intimate subject of childbirth and all its graphic details.”

Whit and Kelly Wright, who recently moved to Fort Bragg, N.C., from Kansas City, Kan., credit Squitiro with helping them through an emotionally painful time. Their first child was stillborn. They chose to have their second child naturally.

“We loved her personality,” says Kelly Wright, mother of 2-year-old daughter Hadley. “She was empathetic to what happened to us and gave us the mental strength we needed.”

“I was skeptical of a natural birth, as a typical Army officer,” says Whit Wright. Yet, he adds, “Gloria has an incredible way of connecting with people.”

Squitiro encouraged expectant fathers to tell their wives during delivery that they were strong and beautiful. Her approach helped deflect the nervous anticipation of being a first-time parent, says Matt Riggs, outreach coordinator for Mid-America Regional Council’s solid waste management, who took Squitiro’s classes with his wife, Annie.

“But we didn’t include her in our delivery,” says Riggs. “She can be brash, and my wife and I can see her saying some of the things she’s been criticized for.”

Still, Riggs recommended Squitiro to Raegan Buatte and her husband, Dawud Hasam.

“She was warm and very concerned that all the women in the class, no matter how reserved, speak up for themselves,” Buatte says. “I think a lot of Midwesterners aren’t accustomed to her East Coast-style directness.”

Mother

Squitiro, who turns 50 on Saturday, grew up with three brothers and a sister in a working-class city on Long Island, N.Y. Her parents spoke Italian at home. Her father was a roofer. Her mother and the kids helped with the family business. Gloria answered the office phone. From her father she learned the art of practical joking, something she enjoys to this day.

Families on Squitiro’s block were from Puerto Rico, Germany and Israel. Neighbors were considered surrogate parents and routinely shared their traditional foods.

“I grew up believing that it wasn’t different for people to be different,” she says, slowly rocking on a chair on the front porch of her home. “That can be harder here.”

The porch is where friends and family congregate most nights — and Squitiro carries the theme into the mayor’s official weekly e-mail newsletter, “Funk’s Front Porch.” The newsletter she writes is a folksy mix of city news and personal information, such as an item announcing the couple’s children, Tara and Andrew, are home from college this summer.

“First, I am Tara and Andrew’s mom and Funk’s wife,” she says. “Beyond that, I don’t need too much in the world.”

Funkhouser was attracted instantly to Squitiro when he met her in West Virginia. He was an instructor at Salem College and she was a student, though not in his class.

“I thought she was damn good-looking,” says Funkhouser, 58. “She had a lot of personality and spunk. She was a very special person and I knew I was not going to date anybody else at the same time. We’ve been together ever since.”

Funkhouser loves how Squitiro has created a close-knit family. Squitiro wanted more children but wasn’t able. So she built an extended family. She and Funkhouser have hosted 10 foreign exchange students, many of whom return for visits. Over nearly a decade, two of Andrew’s friends, brothers Nick and Alex Gripp, lived with them for weeks at a time, because their mother, a single parent, frequently traveled for work.

“I call her mama and I consider her my second mom,” says 18-year-old Alex Gripp of Kansas City. “I talk to her for advice all the time.”

Life in the Squitiro-Funkhouser household was different from that in their children’s friends’ homes. Four years ago, Tara and Andrew took their mother’s last name. Squitiro felt it was important to pass on her family name; Funkhouser said it made no difference to him.

Squitiro fed her family organic food years before it became common.

“I ate tofu hot dogs in elementary school,” Tara, now 22, says. “Everyone thought I was so weird.”

And Squitiro commonly tells crude jokes, Andrew, 19, says. He remembers mixed reactions to her sometimes raunchy humor when the family hosted “park nights” on summer Fridays, which brought together friends, neighbors and childbirth-class families.

“People either love her or hate her,” says Andrew. “Men sometimes don’t like her much, because they’re intimidated by funny women. I’d always notice men being quiet and cringing with an oh-God look on their faces, but they’d go along with her, because their wives love her.”

Squitiro can be a cutup. In a photo session with a Star photographer and a freelance writer last year in her home, she mugged for the camera, placing a hand in front of her husband’s groin until a picture was snapped. Funkhouser, smiling, moved her hand away.

The family holiday newsletters, filled with Squitiro’s offbeat wit, have embarrassed Andrew. In last year’s notorious letter, containing the graphic depiction of the mayor’s prostate exam, she wrote: “I waited in gleeful anticipation as I watched the doctor’s sausage-sized fingers go up under the sheet.”

“I find her and the Christmas letters funny,” says close friend Susanne Norris, an education specialist for the National Park Service in New York. Norris was Squitiro’s college roommate in West Virginia. “Her sense of humor is not everybody’s, but she’s just herself and she’s real. I don’t find her offensive.”

Kristi Pollington of Tonganoxie became friends with Squitiro after taking her birthing classes. Pollington also found the letter funny but concedes, “Unless you know her, it seems odd. I would never go to my husband’s prostate exam.”

Six months later, Squitiro still feels hurt by the wide, howling reaction to the holiday newsletter.

“I find it strange, because year after year, people who receive them tell me they enjoy them so much that I almost feel pressure to write them,” she says. “And it’s not unusual to accompany your spouse or have your spouse accompany you to the doctor. I don’t remember everything the doctor says, so it helps to have someone there.”

Squitiro also thinks it’s all right to be a little R-rated and swear sometimes, so long as it is not directed at people.

First lady

Squitiro sits in a tiny cubicle next to one of the two main doors to her husband’s office on the 29th floor of City Hall. A receptionist answers the phone and sits outside the door used by visitors. Squitiro’s desk fronts a line of staffers’ cubicles.

Posted behind Squitiro’s computer are three quotes she finds inspiring. One reads: “The more controversy there is, the better the job you’re doing.”

The current controversy involves Ruth Bates, a former Funkhouser staffer and past family friend. Bates filed a lawsuit against the city, the mayor and Squitiro. Alleging discrimination and retaliation, Bates, who is black, contends that Squitiro referred to her as “mammy” and made crude jokes about male genitalia and staff members’ sexual activity.

“Needless to say, it’s been a difficult time for us,” says Squitiro, wiping away tears. She won’t comment specifically on the lawsuit.

“It’s been hard on me, too,” says Bates, who also declined to comment further.

Ten days ago, a majority of City Council members said the lawsuit and other incidents related to Squitiro were distracting. Other civic leaders and political leaders feel the same way.

“She has become the issue,” says Lynda Callon, director of the Westside Community Action Network Center, a nonprofit neighborhood and policing organization. “I understand that she’s a nice person and that she loves her husband and is trying to be a great helpmate. But we all have to edit ourselves. Her missteps in such a public and powerful forum come off as naive and they’re taking her husband’s attentions away from serious business issues.”

Funkhouser has made it clear he doesn’t want Squitiro to go, because he feels she’s a strong asset.

If he gives up, he says, and sends Squitiro home, “I would never know if I did the best job I could. When I’m through with this job, I want both of us to walk out of there with our heads held up high.”

Squitiro gets e-mails and letters from everyday people who support her and tell her to “hang in there.” A couple of weeks ago, she got a dozen coral roses from a stranger in the Northland. Last week a prayer book arrived in the mail. “All this helps,” she says.

Her friends say they’re stunned by the continuing controversy.

“My husband and I have never been to a home that’s so open to people of all races, sexual orientation or religious creeds,” says Sarah Mauzey of Springfield, who once lived in the Kansas City area. “She is so far from being racist, judgmental or crazy. She’s a role model to me as a parent, and she and Mark are role models to me and my husband, because they’re such an unusually strong team.”

At the mayor’s office, Squitiro shuns the typical first lady outfit of business suit and heels in favor of long, flowing skirts and sandals. The relaxed what-you-see-is-what-you-get look, she says, is more in line with what voters want in a politician.

“Before, City Hall projected wealthy elite,” she says. “I don’t pretend. I don’t like phoniness.”

Some City Hall observers contend Squitiro has taken on de facto roles of chief of staff and communications director. But some who have worked closely with Funkhouser and Squitiro say that’s not the case.

“I never had a feeling that people had to get through her to get to Mark,” says Mike Eglinski, who in February became city auditor of his hometown, Lawrence.

Eglinski worked more than 10 years in Funkhouser’s auditor’s office, and moved up to the mayor’s office for eight months.

“I understand people’s concerns about the unusual arrangement, thinking that she’s the unofficial face of Kansas City,” Eglinski says. “But that’s more of the perception than the reality.”

Squitiro points out that she doesn’t set policy. But she does push her husband to push his agenda and attends many public meetings.

“I urge him to act fast, because he only has a few more years in office,” she says. “I don’t mind giving up our lives to try to help people.”

She also helps organize parties and writes the mayor’s weekly newsletter and thank-you cards. She handwrites condolence letters to families of murder victims.

In May 2007, Misty Kirwan’s son, Chris Bartholomew, 21, was killed as a bystander in a gang-related drive-by shooting. At a Northland town hall meeting last year, Kirwan took a microphone and spoke about the crime. She broke down crying and left the room. Squitiro followed her outside.

“I didn’t know her, and for someone in her position to take a personal interest in my son meant something to me,” says Kirwan. “She’s called me three or four times since just to check in to see how I’m doing.”

Squitiro is the heart of the mayor’s office, says Tara, who is studying for a master’s degree in public administration.

“My dad would come off so much colder without her,” Tara says. “She makes sure he honors people, whereas my dad focuses mostly on business.”

On a recent afternoon, sitting in Muddy’s coffeehouse near the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Funkhouser explains how he and his wife interact differently with staffers.

“I don’t give a s— if it’s Joe’s birthday,” he says, his voice rising and speeding up. “But Gloria made sure there was a cake and threw a party.”

Funkhouser describes Squitiro as a “skydiver who’s afraid of heights,” willing to jump into situations without regard to personal consequences. Once the couple was shopping at Sam’s Club when a man apparently suffered a stroke. Funkhouser stood aside, but Squitiro rushed to aid the man and his wife, even though she didn’t know exactly what to do.

“She’s assertive, but she worries about what people think of her,” he says. “She can be timid. She won’t fly on airplanes and she hates taking elevators.”

But for now, she’s willing to face the heat at City Hall.

“I have nothing to hide,” she says. “I don’t see what the big deal is.”
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Mother Keeps Son’s Case, Memory Alive
Slain Man’s Family Gathers For Ceremonial Balloon Release
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Nearly a year to the day after her son was shot to death in Westport, Misty Kirwan kept his case and his memory alive Sunday.The family gathered for a ceremonial balloon release at the Children’s Fountain in North Kansas City, Mo., for Chris Bartholomew.”Chris was an All-American kid,” Kirwan said. “He loved sports. He worked hard. He loved his family. He loved his friends. He’d do anything in the world for you. If you asked him, he’d be there.”On May 20, 2007, Bartholomew, 21, was in front of Walgreens in Westport when someone started shooting. He was caught in the crossfire and later died from his injuries.

“I’ve gotten messages from total strangers saying even though they didn’t know Chris, his death has affected them just because he was a good kid,” Kirwan said.Though Kirwan wants justice for her son, she said even that wouldn’t take away her pain.”It’s not going to change anything in my life. My son’s still gone, and it’s still going to hurt every day, but if I can keep another parent from going through what I am, it’ll all be worth it,” Kirwan said.A $30,000 reward is being offered in the case. Anyone with any information is encouraged to call the TIPS Hotline at 816-474-TIPS.

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