Smile Politely

Don Gerard and Ignatius J. Reilly

Don Gerard is running for mayor of Champaign. On April 5th, he hopes to defeat incumbent Jerry Schweighart.

One of Gerard’s favorite novels is A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. If you haven’t read A Confederacy of Dunces yourself, it’s a work that’s a little hard to describe ― a comic and satirical novel set in the early 1960s with a sadness at its core (its author committed suicide before it was even published). Its protagonist is 30-year-old Ignatius J. Reilly, an overweight and unemployed man with a Masters degree in a humanities field who lives with his mother. When his mom orders him to find employment, he does, but things don’t work out at any of the jobs he tries. However, he does ― inadvertently ― help out some of the other characters he blunders into along the way.

As even his mother points out, the multiple disasters that occur when Ignatius is around are always his fault, yet many readers of the novel find him endearing. Is he sympathetic or unsympathetic? Hero or buffoon? Misunderstood or malevolent? All of the preceding? I guess it depends on which reader you ask.

I spoke with Don Gerard recently, using A Confederacy of Dunces as a springboard for questions about himself and what he hopes to do if elected.

Two townies

Ignatius J. Reilly has lived most of his life in one city ― New Orleans. He loves his hometown, commenting in an oft-told tale of a disastrous trip to Baton Rouge: “Leaving New Orleans also frightened me considerably. Outside of the city limits the heart of darkness, the true wasteland begins.”

Gerard, who is in his forties, has also lived in one city ― Champaign ― for most of his life. I asked Gerard about his own experiences growing up in Champaign, and how living in the region for so long has formed him. He responded:

I think just having grown up here, being in Boy Scouts, playing Little League, different Park District programs. That kind of thing. When I was a kid, I learned some magic tricks ― the French Drop or something ― from Andy Dallas. When he first came to town he was teaching a class at the Park District.

I went to school with Carlos Nieto and Mike Murphy and a lot of people who own businesses around town. I used to referee basketball games at Spalding Park. It’s kind of hard to realize now that I’m one of the grownups wearing a suit.

And then, perpetuating it, going through the same experiences with my kids ― the Park District, Little League, the community programs, and ― the second time around ― just enjoying it so much and realizing how many opportunities there are here.

Offbeat jobs

One of the jobs Ignatius tries his hand at is selling hot dogs on the street from a cart. Ignatius sells few hot dogs (but eats many), and after he draws complaints from the health department, his fed up boss sends him (with his hot dog wagon) out to the French Quarter dressed in a pirate costume as a sales gimmick. From there, things for Ingatius and the vendor gig go from bad to worse.

I asked Gerard if he has ever worked any offbeat jobs himself. He told me he has, but ― unlike Ignatius ― they worked out for him:

One of the strangest jobs I’ve had was when I was a cook at the Silvercreek and they made me the made-to-order omelet guy. I mean, I could hardly cook behind the wall and the owner was like, ‘No, no, it’s all about personality, rapport. We can teach you to flip omelets. That’s not the hard part.’

Going in, I think we tend to look at our shortcomings instead of focusing on our strengths. So, my shortcoming was that I could hardly cook, but the owner said, ‘Just focus on your strengths, you’ve got a good presence, you’re good with people,’ and sure enough, I can now flip omelets three times in the air and everything like that.

But I’ve had a myriad of interesting jobs. I’ve been a day camp leader; I’ve done construction where I put siding on windows. Just a little bit of everything ― I’ve been a bouncer. I booked bands. I worked in a record store.


One thing that calms the often angry Ignatius is music. He plays the lute (using sheet music), since he likes the sound and because the instrument is a link to the Middle Ages ― a time period that Ignatius feels connected to philosophically. He grows touchy, however, when people in 20th century New Orleans are confused by his enthusiasm for medieval music and instruments: “That is a lute, not a banjo,” Ignatius thundered. “Does she think that I’m one of those perverse Mark Twain characters?”

Gerard, like Ignatius, is a musician, but is more social about it and has played in a number of bands. Also, the music he’s into is more modern. Gerard discussed what music ― and the people he’s met through it ― have meant to him over the years:

I’ve played with people who are just phenomenal: Jay Bennet and others. I’ve had opportunities to play with some of what I consider the greatest musicians around. I could go on and on.

I was not a musician, to be honest. I can’t read music. I didn’t know music. I was in two bands playing bass before I really knew how to play bass. So there again, I didn’t know it at the time, but it’s the whole notion of ‘Go with your strengths.’

I was a good band guy. I was a good mouthpiece. I put up posters. So they could teach me to play bass; it was the other stuff that they wanted ― the unteachables, being the guy who will put up the posters and pester the press.

I fit the Johnny Bravo suit, and I wound up putting out three records on Roadrunner not knowing how to play bass. The band already had a record deal and I didn’t know how to play; I was listed on the record as ‘bass on stage.’

You can go really far in life doing that. Focus on what you’re good at and fill in the rest. Certainly you have to be aware of your faults and liabilities, but don’t focus on them.

Organized labor

Another job that turns sour for Ignatius is his brief clerkship at a clothing company. The firm is decades behind the times in pretty much every way due to its absentee owner’s disinterest in the business. The factory workers are underpaid and demoralized, and ― out of a combination of boredom, fantasy, and wanting to improve his own position ― Ignatius attempts (unsuccessfully) to organize them to revolt against management.

While Ignatius’ foray into organizing workers is meant to be comical (at least on the surface), the debates concerning public versus private labor and unions versus management are anything but funny these days. I asked Gerard for his thoughts on organized labor in general. He responded with a comment about his plans for the city if elected:

Currently, what we’re looking at ― we’re focusing on the unions that provide direct services to the community. I don’t think you want to privatize your police and fire. I think they should be beholden to a standard, but I also think they should be protected. These are the people who serve us, including the clerical workers who really deal with the public on a daily basis.

It’s kind of a big concept to try and approach. But I will say that one of the three principles of my budget proposal of my campaign is to save our first responders ― our police and firefighters ― who are unionized groups.

Loving to hate

Ignatius hates popular culture, but he has a strange way of showing it ― he seeks out movies that he knows he’ll loathe. He looks for actors, directors, composers, etc. who have “offended him in the past,” and then rants and raves about how horrible their films are.

I asked Gerard if there is any type of entertainment he loves to hate. He responded:

To be honest, when I was playing in bands, I think half the time when I went to see other bands play ― I didn’t go because I thought they were cool, but because I thought they would suck.

But I don’t tend to do that anymore. It’s funny now, being a dad. I heard a song one time and I really liked it. I said to my son, ‘Is that Hannah Montana?’

He said, ‘No, it’s Miley Cyrus.’

I asked him what the difference was, and he told me that Hannah Montana is the character. So I asked him, ‘Can I still like the song?’

He said, ‘Dad, you can do whatever you want.’

Learning from mistakes

Despite the many things that go bad in the life of Ignatius because of his own misjudgments ― lost jobs, an increasingly angry mother, the threat of commitment to a mental hospital, etc. ― he refuses to learn from his mistakes and is basically the same person at the end of the book as he is at the beginning.

Gerard, however, claims to have absorbed his own life’s lessons better than Ignatius, especially since he became a father:

Having children, good grief, it gives you such a remarkable sense of perspective. Worrying about someone calling you back, or who wouldn’t go on a date with you, or worrying that your boss hates you. This or that. Everything just gets put into perspective, certainly for me, just in my role as a father and what my kids mean to me.

Everything else ― it’s not that I don’t worry about it ― you control the things that you can control, and the one thing I tend to worry about it is my kids.

And that sort of helps with everything else in my life. People say, ‘Why would you want to run for mayor? And I say, ‘Why not?’

I mean, it’s an opportunity, I’m doing it pretty well. People seem to be behind the notion, so it’s kind of cool.

Not being able to catch a break

While Ignatius is unable to learn from bad experiences, he does feel really bad when they happen. For example, at a party when he realizes he is the featured freak rather than the featured guest he thought he was:

Ignatius felt as alone as he had felt on that dark day in high school when in a chemistry laboratory his experiment had exploded, burning his eyebrows off and frightening him. The shock and terror had made him wet his pants, and no one in the laboratory would notice him, not even the instructor, who hated him sincerely for similar explosions in the past.

I asked Gerard if he had ever gone through frustrating times, and ― if so ― how he had dealt with them. He said:

Oh absolutely, I think probably when I was playing in bands, there were periods where I just felt like I couldn’t catch a break.

But, since I’ve had kids, for the past fourteen years, it seems like every day, more and more, I wake up and if I’m breathing, it’s OK. I wake up, and say, ‘So that’s good.’ As long as the sky is above me and the ground is below, it’s a good day. Breathing in and breathing out.

Positives and negatives

Ignatius is driven in life by the many things he doesn’t like: his former professors, rednecks, the 20th century (as opposed to the Middle Ages), and so forth. I asked Gerard where his own motivations come from. He responded:

Negatively, I think it is bullies. I’ve often been a bully in my life, but I like to think now that the bullies I bully are bullies. I don’t want to sound too self-righteous, but I like to stand up for what’s right.

You know, I’m perfectly happy in the little house I live in. One of my best friends has this house where you could put my house in five times. And it really meant a lot to me when he came over to my house and said, ‘You know, if I could trade, I’d live here. My family would go for it, this would be great. I wouldn’t live in this gigantic McMansion.’

At the end of the day, we all kind of want the same things. When I find someone who doesn’t want the same things ― or doesn’t see all the good things about our community and our lives ― those are the kind of people who drive me to want to bring it to their attention. Or at least afford them the opportunity to have the kind of life I’m having.

You know, I’m not particularly wealthy. I’m pretty much living paycheck to paycheck, and I don’t own anything particularly nice. But I’m very happy. I’m a happy man. And I think people should have that opportunity.

In conclusion

In A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius takes a stab at politics himself, but finds out the hard way that his campaign is actually a staged joke at his expense. That’s certainly not the case with the Gerard campaign; it’s for real. As for Gerard’s plans for Champaign if elected, you can get a better sense of his platform by reading Halfway Interesting.

I’d never met Gerard before interviewing him for this article. In the 20 or so minutes we talked, I found him to be genuine and likable. He seemed honestly glad to have the opportunity to chat with a Smile Politely writer (he’s actually written for Smile Politely in the past), even on an afternoon when he was clearly pressed for time. I think he would have been equally glad to speak with me even if he weren’t trying to get people to vote for him.

Ignatius is genuine too ― anyone who reads Boethius extensively when it isn’t assigned for a class is probably genuine. But likable, I’d say not so much. Among other things, he’s mean to his mom.

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