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Thursday, September 3, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Surprise! Stanford Shows Up At Back-To-School Rally

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

SEATTLE'S SCHOOLS SUPERINTENDENT stole the show at today's gathering to kick off the new school year when he walked onto a Westlake Center balcony and addressed the crowd.

In a dramatic surprise appearance, Seattle schools Superintendent John Stanford left the hospital today to speak in person at a back-to-school rally in Westlake Plaza.

Stanford, who is being treated for leukemia and is recovering from a stem-cell transplant three weeks ago, stepped onto the balcony at Westlake Center early this afternoon to cheers and prolonged applause from a crowd gathered in the plaza below for the school district's rally.

He came directly from Swedish Hospital, where he is being treated by doctors with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

"This is really, really a terrific day," Stanford told the enthusiastic crowd in a strong, energetic voice.

He thanked all the participants and school officials for bringing the rally downtown, "so everybody knows what we're all about, and what this city is all about."

"This rally is about a world-class, student-focused system," Stanford said.

As he closed his speech, Stanford told the crowd, "I continue to be so honored to be a member of the Seattle public-school system and to be with you."

Doctors approved Stanford's appearance only hours before the rally, saying he isn't at risk for infection, said Trevor Neilson, the district's communications director.

Neilson said Stanford wanted to be at the rally "as his way of saying thank you to this town" for its support of the schools and him during his illness. The superintendent's appearance before the crowd would give him a big boost, said Neilson. "As we all know the mental part of his recovery is so important."

One reason for the ongoing hospitalization of transplant patients is that chemotherapy kills disease-fighting white cells and infection can be a major danger. It was that concern that prompted Stanford reluctantly to cancel plans to appear as the grand marshal in the Seafair parade earlier this summer.

But his doctors reported yesterday that donor cells from Stanford's sister are growing and producing healthy red cells, white cells and platelets. They said he could be able to return home for convalescence as soon as late next week, slightly earlier than initially projected.

School security staff drove Stanford from the hospital to the Westlake Center parking garage and spirited him through the mall to the balcony overlooking Pine Street.

Today's back-to-school rally is the fourth since Stanford became superintendent in September 1995. Previously, the district had, from time to time, held rallies - usually in the Opera House or Hec Edmundson Pavilion - for teachers and other district staff, but Stanford expanded the idea by inviting parents and students, as well, to Memorial Stadium.

This year's program added the rally at Westlake, following a parade from the stadium at Seattle Center, about a mile away.

School officials set out to make the rally much bigger this year - in part, to reflect the outpouring of support for Stanford in his battle against leukemia, and in part, doing something Stanford has said he wanted for quite a while: arrange a major demonstration of community support for the schools, teachers and students, according to Neilson.

But the district's intense push for a big turnout also made some teachers nervous, wondering if attendance was mandatory. Today is a paid preparation day for teachers, the last before classes start Tuesday. Teachers weren't required to attend the rally but could if they had time, said Neilson, who had suggested they attend just one part of the event.

As a result of teachers' worries, the Seattle Education Association included a clarification in its newsletter, telling teachers they weren't required to attend and that their first duty was to get ready for their students.

Several teachers said in earlier interviews that they planned to go to support their principals if they could find the time. They hadn't felt any undue pressure to attend, they said, but were glad to receive the union's clarification of the policy.

At 7 this evening, Planet Hollywood at 1500 Sixth Ave. downtown will host a fund-raising auction of celebrity memorabilia to benefit the Stanford Book Fund. The fund has raised about $525,000 since Stanford first entered the hospital in April.

Dick Lilly's phone message number is 206-464-2479. His e-mail address is: dlilly@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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