City's managing director turns loss of dad, daughter into mission to make others' lives better

Philadelphia Managing Director Rich Negrin meets with members of the community around 27th and Sterner in North Philadelphia on Tuesday, January 10, 2012. Shown from left are community members Keith Jackson, Rich Negrin, Richard Elliott and Vincent Kennedy in front of PhillyRising Mural at 27th and Silver. Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer
Philadelphia Managing Director Rich Negrin meets with members of the community around 27th and Sterner in North Philadelphia on Tuesday, January 10, 2012. Shown from left are community members Keith Jackson, Rich Negrin, Richard Elliott and Vincent Kennedy in front of PhillyRising Mural at 27th and Silver. Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer (Philadelphia Daily News)
Posted: February 03, 2012

WHEN HE WAS 13, Rich Negrin saw his Cuban-activist father gunned down by anti-Castro terrorists. He held him as he died, kneeling in the street covered with his father's blood. After he became a father himself, Negrin watched his 5-year-old daughter die in 2006 after a lifelong battle with an incurable neuromuscular disease that devastated her ability to breathe.

Every day, the memory of his father and his daughter inspires the city's powerful managing director to reach out to its least powerful residents, and try to help.

Since cleaning up the patronage-infested Board of Revision of Taxes and being named managing director in 2010, Negrin has trained 300 community leaders to access city services directly through the 3-1-1 nonemergency system, taken PhillyRising neighborhood rejuvenation from a pilot program to a citywide movement and trained 1,000 city employees in customer-service delivery.

And after a week of 16-hour days, Negrin, 45, spends his weekends on the city's most troubled streets, clearing trash from vacant lots in Swampoodle and alleys in Point Breeze, painting with both hands in Hartranft.

"The roller's for the walls; the brush is for the nooks and crannies," he says casually, as if every managing director is a two-fisted painter.

Slain in front of him

Negrin - who spent years as a lawyer for the District Attorney's Office, Morgan Lewis and Aramark Healthcare before becoming the mayor's right-hand man - has the mind of a mega-manager and the heart of a block captain.

He gets that heart from his father, Eulalio Jose Negrin, who met with Cuban President Fidel Castro in 1978 to help negotiate the release of 3,000 political prisoners. The next year - on Thanksgiving Day 1979 - Negrin's dad was gunned down by anti-Castro terrorists from the Omega 7 group in Union City, N.J., while getting into his car to drive son Rich, then 13, to a Pop Warner football game.

"My parents divorced when I was 5, so this was the first time my father was going to see me play football," Negrin said. "He never made it into the car."

One of the few details Negrin remembers clearly about that day is his father lying in the street, mortally wounded. "He had a look of shock and horror on his face, but when he saw that I was alive, I could tell he was relieved," Negrin said.

"I kneeled down and held him. I tried to get the blood to stop. It was pouring out of his mouth. I was covered in blood. That's what I remember most. The blood."

Both of Negrin's parents were among the thousands who fled communist Cuba and came to America in the 1960s. "My dad came from a place where people weren't allowed to say certain things, and if you did, you disappeared," Negrin said. "So he loved and understood how special it is to live here."

Negrin grew up in a tough North Jersey neighborhood sandwiched between the Port Newark-Elizabeth marine terminals, an oil refinery and a junkyard.

"I hung out with black kids, Latino kids and a tough Polish kid named Stanley who lived behind my house," Negrin said. "We'd wake up, eat sugar cereal, then go out all day and play football. We heard about gangs, about races fighting each other - something I didn't want any part of."

Helping those in need

Negrin said that witnessing his father's murder - and testifying at the federal trial during which the hit's mastermind, Omega 7 leader Eduardo Arocena, was sentenced to two life prison terms - drives his intense focus on helping people in desperate need, as his father did.

Angelique Darcy McGuire didn't know Negrin or his history as she waited in an intensive-care unit last March, praying for her husband, Mike, a Philadelphia firefighter who had rushed up 11 flights of stairs to rescue residents from a burning high-rise, had run out of oxygen and collapsed from carbon-monoxide poisoning.

Four days after the fire at the Norman Blumberg Apartments in North Philadelphia, McGuire was at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, fighting for his life. "He had developed pneumonia," Angelique told the Daily News recently. "I was terrified."

As she prayed, Negrin walked in, told her his personal story, asked if he could help. "I want the best for my husband because he's in zombie land and I need him out of zombie land," said Angelique, a teacher at J.H. Brown Elementary School.

"We're both cancer survivors. We need each other very much, and so does our 8-year-old daughter, our treasure of a little girl."

Angelique asked Negrin if he could get the head of HUP's pulmonary care to check in on Mike.

Negrin, whose stepfather, Raul Cordero, a pastor in Elizabeth, N.J., nurtured his deeply spiritual side, held McGuire's hand while he and his wife prayed together. A few hours after he left, the doctor she'd asked for walked in.

"Mike recovered," Angelique said. "Our family will forever be grateful to Rich Negrin. I believe God had our paths cross."

Negrin spends so much time in the neighborhoods - personally helping everyday Philadelphians, and responding to their messages sent via Twitter - that he shatters the image of a managing director as a bean-counter who leaves his office only to walk to another office.

He is a big bear of a man - a former All-American lineman who co-captained the Wagner College Seahawks to the 1987 Division III National Championship - so when Negrin shows up in a neighborhood, people notice.

After a Daily News story described a blighted block of Dakota Street in Strawberry Mansion that had been long-neglected by city services, Negrin took a walk with its 77-year-old captain, Willie McRae, and promised to clean the trashed vacant lots and demolish the dangerous vacant buildings. He kept his promises.

Making a difference

While Negrin's father gave him the determination to touch people's lives, his late daughter, Abigail, gave him a heartfelt empathy with anyone who has suffered, or is in danger of suffering, a devastating loss.

"It's hard for folks to fathom the depth of the anguish when you lose a child," said Negrin, a father of four.

From early childhood, Abigail's genetic disease, spinal muscular atrophy, left her struggling to breathe and swallow. "My wife left the D.A.'s Office, where she was a child-abuse prosecutor, to manage Abigail's care full time," Negrin said. "We were Abby's Army. Our mission was to keep her alive until there was a cure. Unfortunately, we lost that race."

Abigail's daily fight to survive fueled Negrin's need to make a meaningful difference in other people's daily struggles.

Last year, he expanded PhillyRising from its pilot Hartranft neighborhood in North Philadelphia to five more communities. PhillyRising created resident-run computer labs, reopened a long-shuttered indoor swimming pool, started a Police Athletic League program for hundreds of kids, and cleaned up vacant lots that were carpeted with dangerous trash.

"In neighborhoods that have been under siege for so long, people go, 'Wow, the managing director is coming down to our little church basement,' " said John Farrell, who supervises PhillyRising.

"To people who have lived in a community for 30 years and seen tons of city officials come and go, how do we prove we're not just some other guy in a suit? Rich shows up, builds trust quickly, gives us credibility. That is huge."

This year, Negrin will expand PhillyRising to 20 neighborhoods, which means more personal moments like this:

While revisiting the site of a PhillyRising cleanup recently, Negrin was told that a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting had traveled through a bedroom window, narrowly missing two sleeping children.

He felt compelled to visit the family to assure them that PhillyRising would stick around until shootouts and stray bullets were ancient history.

"This little 4-year-old boy, one of the kids that the bullet just missed, sprints across the living room and leaps into my arms," Negrin said, his voice thickening with emotion.

"Huge smile. Adorable spirit. Just a lovely, lovely kid. I'm this big, giant guy. You'd think little kids would be afraid of me. But this kid thinks I'm a playground."

Negrin paused to collect his thoughts. "I see his face before I go to bed every night," he said. "Making life safer and better for that kid is what I'm all about. I love this job."

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