CHELSEA - When the US ambassador to Spain, Alan Solomont, gave the commencement address to Suffolk University undergraduates last month, Chelsea native Joe Resnek was in the audience, hanging on every word.
Not because the 23-year-old was graduating from college. Because he wrote the speech.
A few years ago, Resnek was a self-described “Chelsea punk’’ with a flourishing stealing-and-selling business who spent every waking hour shooting hoops at Chelsea’s Boys & Girls Club. Now he writes speeches for chiefs of staff and agency heads, and has access to President Obama’s personal basketball court; he recently played a pickup game with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (Salazar won, 7-4).
“It’s a rare day when you get to hire someone like Joe Resnek,’’ said his boss, Rosemary Williams, director for communications and public liaison at the US Office of Personnel Management.
There are plenty of kids from tough backgrounds who get into Harvard and launch astounding careers. But there’s something about coming from Chelsea that makes Resnek’s story stand out.
“When you’re from Chelsea, you’re kind of lucky to get to Everett,’’ said Resnek, a slight young man with an apparently endless supply of energy, who speaks with a sleepy voice and the occasional dropped “R.’’
There was a pall over the city when Resnek was growing up, and it wasn’t just the exhaust from 18-wheelers roaring overhead on the Tobin Bridge, which connects the city to Boston. Chelsea - a poor, grizzled, pass-through immigrant city - was infamous for its crooked politics, chronic deficits, and federal investigations, finally going into receivership in 1991. Resnek, whose relatives came to Chelsea in the 1880s, went to Chelsea High School, which has one of the lowest graduation rates in the state. “Sometimes you’d see kids you used to be close with let themselves go, stop brushing their teeth, start skipping school, and then quietly disappear from the school,’’ he said.
But Resnek had something that set him apart, according to Joseph Mullaney, the principal. “Motivation and people pushing him. He’s known his destiny was something after high school.’’
Bad start, big ‘turnaround’
For a long time, it didn’t look promising. Resnek’s father, Josh Resnek, was a freelance writer and business owner who went bankrupt when Joe was small, losing everything but his car. His parents split up, his mother went on welfare, and his father became a cab driver and moved into a friend’s one-room law office on the third floor of a downtown office building. Joe and his brother Jacob split their time between parents; for three years Joe, his father, and his brother slept on a green futon mattress on the floor, a gun hidden underneath in case of intruders.
Things weren’t much better for his mother, a substitute teacher. One of Joe’s formative moments was seeing her cry on the way home from the supermarket because one of her students had bagged the groceries and noticed her food stamps. (He would later reprise the story in his Harvard honors thesis, which was about the humiliation associated with government welfare benefits.)
Things turned around for the family when Joe was 10 and his father cofounded a new Chelsea newspaper. He eventually started or bought a dozen more papers and is now the vice president and editor of the Independent Newspaper Group. Joe made deliveries and wrote articles, including a weekly wrestling column when he was 10 called “Down for the Count.’’ (His signature sign-off was, “Well everybody, I’m Joseph Resnek saying Good Fight and Good Night!’’)
“He told me, ‘I gotta help my father out of this situation,’ ’’ said his mother, Carol Resnek.
In other ways, though, “I was kind of a delinquent,’’ he said. When he was in eighth grade, he started a candy business with a friend, keeping profit margins high by stealing inventory from the local Save-A-Lot store. In high school, he got lackluster grades, distracted by a lucrative, if dubious, business enterprise with his brother and friends - buying cheap cellphones and selling them at a markup.
Like any good speech, Resnek’s narrative is full of drama and turning points, and the cellphone escapade is a pivotal point. One time, in his junior year, he plotted out an ambitious day of phone-buying, from Brockton to Haverhill. When he got home at midnight he remembered he had a five-page history paper due the next day. He ended up plagiarizing one - and got caught. He got an F in the course.
“I was scared for the first time,’’ Resnek said. His teacher made him a deal: She wouldn’t tell his parents if he did five extra credit assignments.
He refers to this as his “turnaround’’ and credits the teacher, Deidre Collins, with altering his course.
“At that moment, I decided I’m going to get serious about school,’’ he said. Hyper-motivated, he did 17 extra credit assignments, read a whole dictionary, took five AP classes. “He would go down to the basement right after school and not come up till 2 or 3 in the morning,’’ his mother said. “He just read the dictionary, wrote papers, and read books.’’
He also resolved to go to Harvard, inspired by Deval Patrick, a Harvard alumnus whose campaign Resnek had covered in 2006 for his father’s paper when Patrick was running in the Democratic primary. He identified with Patrick’s story of growing up in a tough Chicago neighborhood and beating the odds. He thought he’d cap it off with Harvard Law School, emulating Barack Obama, whose story he also found compelling.
Resnek also decided to try his own hand at politics, walking into the Chelsea city manager’s office one day when he was 16 and offering his services. He was hired as the assistant to the city manager at $10 an hour, organizing events around the city and raising Chelsea’s profile by getting the city’s flag displayed at the State House, in the Great Hall. (He thought it would be bad for the morale of Chelsea schoolkids to visit the State House and not see their flag. But since Chelsea owned only one flag - and it was already in use at City Hall - he lobbied to get a new one made.)
“Being from Chelsea, you are not scared of anybody,’’ said Resnek. “My family, we are scrappy people. When you tell me or my father we want something done, we get it done. We either do it the Chelsea way or the right way, but it gets done.’’
‘A big old connection’
Resnek’s version of the Chelsea way apparently includes having connections and knowing how to use them.
When he decided to go to Harvard, he and his father began asking around for someone with connections to the college. Josh, who had just started a newspaper in Everett, surfaced with “a big old connection,’’ said Joe. Having noticed that a lot of kids from Everett schools were going to Harvard, he called the school superintendent, his longtime friend Fred Foresteire, and asked him for a favor. Could he help him get his son into Harvard? Would he reach out to his good friend Joseph O’Donnell, a major Harvard benefactor whom Boston magazine had recently declared “Boston’s most powerful person’’?
“He promised me he would do that,’’ said Josh, “but not before he met my son.’’
Joe bought his first blazer. “The Harvard gambit moved forward,’’ said Josh.
A few weeks later, Foresteire told Josh he had made some calls, and Joe’s progress would be carefully tracked through the admissions process.
“Good to know people,’’ said Resnek, whose SATs were average by Harvard standards, and his grades well below. But he had newspaper experience and had written a poignant application essay about living in the law office. He was accepted with a full scholarship.
Still, he had a rocky start at Harvard, where he felt out of place and not just because he wore a gold chain, pinkie ring, and “huge Afro goofy hair,’’ said Tyler Hall, a close Harvard friend.
He was placed in the lowest level in every class. “I was demoralized,’’ said Resnek, who resorted to buying fake glasses on eBay “to look smarter.’’
It was time for another turnaround. “I wanted to prove to everybody that a kid from Chelsea can do it and get to Harvard Law School,’’ he said.
He earned straight A’s his first semester. He ditched the bling and wore khakis and polo shirts. He tried to sound more Harvard-like, at one point trying out his newfound voice in an essay draft that said, “Fields’ notion of ideology expatiates on the extant psychological undertones of a humanistic theory which, although persuasive, is as fickle as it is equiprimordial.’’
He joined Harvard’s Mock Trial Team, eventually becoming its president and the top-ranked mock trial attorney in the college mock trial circuit. (Here, his Chelsea voice was an asset: His character was a working-class “bum lawyer’’ who mispronounced words and had a Boston accent.)
What he did not do, though, was tell his Harvard friends about his background. “I was frankly embarrassed by it,’’ he said. “I thought people would think less of me because of it.’’
He did keep in touch with his buddies from Chelsea, “a nucleus of friends I’d take a bullet for,’’ most of whom were going to community colleges or UMass Boston, and had never even been to Harvard Square. “I missed being around people who knew the real me,’’ said Resnek, who still visits them whenever he can, and plays basketball at the Boys & Girls Club. He’s had a profound influence on one Chelsea friend, Edward Garcia, encouraging him to think big.
“I once told him I wanted to go to law school, and he pushed me towards it. He said it would be good for me,’’ said Garcia, who transferred from Bunker Hill Community College to UMass Amherst, where he is studying political theory and joined the mock trial team. This summer he’s in Washington interning for Representative Michael Capuano of Massachusetts. He and Resnek are roommates.
Another plot thickens
As he approached graduation, Resnek made another long-shot decision: to write speeches for the president.
He knew getting hired would be a challenge. “We had connections to Boston,’’ he said, “but not the White House.’’
But last March he saw an opportunity when he was invited to speak at the Harvard Club of Boston’s annual dinner. The keynote speaker was Harvard professor Lawrence Summers, the former Harvard president and US Treasury secretary.
Resnek plotted, the Chelsea way. “I thought to myself, I am sitting at the Harvard Club with all these bow tie people and Larry Summers is sitting next to me onstage,’’ Resnek said. “I will regret it if I don’t insult him in this speech.’’
Resnek opened his speech taking a dig at Summers’s New Haven roots. Summers struck back, with a crack about Resnek’s youth. The next week Resnek made an appointment with Summers and boldly laid out his plan to be a speechwriter. Summers, apparently embarrassed because he hadn’t immediately recognized Resnek, offered to contact Jonathan Favreau, the president’s lead writer, who is from Winchester.
“I loved his nerve and ambition,’’ Summers said in an e-mail. “It seemed like a dream but kids should have dreams.’’
(Leaving nothing to chance, Resnek also wrote Governor Patrick to tell him he wanted to work for the president, saying anything he could do would be appreciated. For good measure, Josh Resnek did the same with Representative Ed Markey.)
A few days later, Resnek got an e-mail from Summers: “the pres chief writer wants to meet u.’’
Employing some pushback
Resnek has a so-called “Schedule C’’ position, meaning he’s been appointed by the White House without applying for the job. Which was a good thing, as he sees it. “I was not qualified to write speeches,’’ he said, “given that I never wrote them before.’’
He is assigned to the Office of Personnel Management, where he writes speeches for Director John Berry, as well as chiefs of staff and agency heads across the federal government, on topics ranging from labor management issues to gay rights to, in the case of Solomont’s speech, the opportunities available to graduates in a global economy. Sometimes he offers services to other officials who haven’t been assigned speechwriters. “Any office where I’d meet someone I would sort of tell them to tell their friends as a way of becoming better at speechwriting,’’ he said.
The job is a collaborative process involving a lot of research and interviews. Sometimes, “I’m still kind of lost,’’ he said, at which point he’ll use one of his favorite lines from a courtroom scene in the movie “Philadelphia’’: “Explain this to me like I’m a 4-year-old.’’ “I often say it to people to break the ice a little bit.’’
The job of political speechwriter is “very competitive, very nerve-wracking,’’ said Williams, Resnek’s boss, noting that Resnek - “a really gifted writer’’ - seems “astoundingly unfazed’’ by the pressures of the job. “Imagine the thick skin you have to have. . . . You have to know when to [accept] changes respectfully and know when to push back.’’
Resnek seems to have no trouble pushing back, as when he nudged Solomont in a more personal direction for the Suffolk commencement speech. Solomont wanted to speak about the lessons he had learned from “The Wizard of Oz.’’
“I was literally scratching my forehead,’’ Resnek said. “I’m going to write a speech about ‘The Wizard of Oz’?’’
“Joe squashed that idea at the beginning,’’ Solomont said.
To hear Resnek tell it, he also pushed back on the president’s basketball court where he plays every day “in the hope that the president will come in and I’ll look like I’m nonchalantly not waiting for him.’’
A few weeks ago, the Secret Service entered, “looking kind of uptight’’ and attempted to shoo him off the court. In came Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Resnek wouldn’t go. “I’m 10 feet from [Salazar],’’ he said. “I said, ‘Are you scared you’re going to get beaten by a younger guy?’ ’’
Salazar told him to wait while he warmed up, then shot the ball to Resnek. They played a game, and Salazar won.
“I could have spanked him,’’ Resnek said. “But I thought it was a better move if I didn’t win. I can’t demoralize Cabinet secretaries.’’
He hopes to keep the job “until they fire me or if President Obama is voted out of office,’’ and plans to apply to Harvard Law School. He’s already written a draft of the law school application essay, outlining his plan for the future - to be a public defender in Chelsea District Court and start a nonprofit in Chelsea for at-risk kids. He wants to be a lawyer, he said, “because I firmly believe where I come from the difference between a Harvard graduate and a criminal is a few people who make a difference.’’
He will do it, of course, the Chelsea way.
“I want to become the most persuasive, toughest advocate for the poor,’’ Resnek wrote, “so that when I go to a rich Boston businessman and ask him for a million dollars to help me fund my charity, he’ll comply.’’
Learning to ‘keep it real’
The weekend of the Suffolk University speech, Resnek finally came clean to his Harvard buddy Tyler Hall and told him about his background.
“It definitely fit with who I thought he was, in a positive way,’’ Hall said. “I respect him even more. It’s very impressive of him to come from Chelsea and go to Harvard, which is mildly incredible. But he’s still managed to retain that Chelsea part of himself. He really has retained his background.’’
Just before he returned to Washington, Resnek stopped at Chelsea High School to say goodbye to his mother, an English teacher. He was spotted by his old journalism teacher, Jay Kirby who asked him to stop in and speak to his students. Kirby introduced him as a former student “who is actually a speechwriter for the Obama administration.’’
“What?’’ one girl said in disbelief.
“Does anyone know what the President’s Cabinet is?’’ Resnek asked the class. One student said yes.
He described his job, then told them that the best way to write is to pick topics close to their heart, and to always write in their own voices.
“This is my advice to you,’’ Resnek told the students. “Just keep it real.’’