Naked Truth | Former school supe Jack McLaughlin pens an only-in-Berkeley series.
Jack McLaughlin got a taste for the city’s well-documented nuttiness during his tenure as superintendent of the Berkeley Unified School District in the mid-1990s. So much of a taste, in fact, that after retiring from a career as a school administrator in Sunnyvale, Stockton, and other burgs, he decided to write a satirical trilogy about his favorite career stop—good ole Berkeley. McLaughlin’s self-published Mr. Berzerkeley series zeroes in on the exploits of fictional Berkeley Mayor Jim Sain, the kind of free spirit who still lives with his mom in the boarding house she runs off campus and starts his morning with a freshly rolled joint and a cold beer—at least on Big Game day. How Berkeley is that? Did I mention he also has a penchant for traipsing around town au naturel? I chatted with McLaughlin recently at a Peet’s (where else?) about his nascent writing career.
PK: The main character, the naked mayor of Berkeley, was he in any way inspired by the naked guy about 20 years ago?
JM: I had several experiences with the naked people, I mean as far as the How Berkeley Can You Be? parade. The school district float was right behind them almost every time, so you got to see the naked people.
PK: Oh, really?
JM: I had some of our children watch the first parade. I had a meeting out of town. And I asked them, what do they think about the naked people walking right down the street, right down University Avenue? And they said, “Dad, when they came down, it didn’t matter.” Berkeley is so unique and so lovable.
PK: That seems to be the reaction to your character Mr. Sain in the book—nobody seems to really care that he’s naked.
JM: And that’s another thing I love about Berkeley is you can be anyone you want to be, anything you want to be, dress any way you want or not dress, it’s just Berkeley. You’re free.
PK: A little cold maybe for being naked. That was my impression.
JM: Well, in the book, the mayor seems to take care of that coldness with a few other items.
PK: I know the idea of these books was that you would get a movie deal. How’s that coming along?
JM: I just finished the third and I have not done marketing on it. Of course I’d love to see it as a TV series. That’s how it initially started when an agent called me in between retirements and said, The OC series was going to run its last year and maybe could I think of something that might be like that? Carry on this idea of being focused on people, unique people—not necessarily mystery and so forth, but people. And so, that’s when I wrote it.
PK: Did you have some kind of a background in doing scripts? How does an agent just call somebody out of the blue to do this?
JM: When I was a school principal back in the late ’60s I had written a television script for a show, and I sent it in to an agent—not that agent, but another agent—and I never heard and eventually I saw it on television.
PK: Wait a minute. They used your script without telling you?
JM: It’s about 90 percent mine.
PK: And you didn’t get any credit? You didn’t get a cent for doing it?
PK: Did you hire a lawyer?
JM: I did talk to a lawyer and in those days there was really no way to register your script. There is now but there wasn’t then, so I chalked it up to experience.
PK: You spent your career primarily as a school administrator. Did you wish that you had just moved to Hollywood and starved and tried to make it as a screenwriter instead?
JM: I have a wonderful family and children and mouths to feed and so forth, and so, at that time, there was no way I could just drop it all and go on to this business which fluctuates so much. Feast and famine. Mostly famine. But I got to write scripts for 33 years. I got to write two scripts a month. They’re called school board agendas. And they have beginnings and ends and plots, and you solve problems, and hopefully, it all comes out right.
PK: Of all the places you’ve worked, was Berkeley the most challenging?
JM: A couple of other places we had some severe challenges. But as far as the most fun for me and the best fit, Berkeley was by far the best place. I love Berkeley. I mean, that was the best job I ever had. It was very hard, very complicated, but people were willing to jump in there and help, unlike some other places.
PK: Should we just get rid of Proposition 13? Should you pay property taxes based on what your house is really worth, not what it was worth in the 1970s?
JM: I was a superintendent in Sunnyvale in the ’70s when Proposition 13 went in. We were able to keep the taxes that we had voted on in Sunnyvale. But in the end, it isn’t necessarily that part of 13; it’s the fact that it took local control away from a school district to pass its own taxes. I’m not talking parcel tax. Parcel taxes are a new thing.
PK: Yeah, because of Prop. 13.
JM: We had things called tax overrides in the ’70s that you could add on [to] your taxes based on what your local community wanted. Now, it did create an inequality, because some school districts couldn’t raise very much when they had a tax, whereas Sunnyvale at that time could raise a lot. So maybe it’s time to go back to some way for a school district to pass a tax override. The parcel tax requires a two-thirds vote. The tax override in those days required a 50 percent plus one vote.
PK: People don’t seem to want to do that. But still if you go to San Ramon or you go to Orinda or Moraga, the schools are going to be in better shape than in urban districts. Why?
JM: They’re already high-achieving [students] coming from wealthier families. Now Berkeley, we have such a mix of those in higher incomes and those in the lower incomes but it always presented a challenge. And quite frankly, there are folks that didn’t want to go to Berkeley schools because of the fact that there was this mix of the poor and the not-so-poor. So you know, it just depends on your own feeling as an individual. My own personal feeling [is] I want my children to go to school with everybody. I don’t want them to go to school with one particular group at one particular income level. I want them to be there with everybody. That’s what the world is.
For more Kilduff, go to thekilduff-file.blogspot.com.
Birthplace: Shelby, Ohio.