The FBI named Bob Pawloski a 2018 honoree of the Director’s Community Leadership Award

Every morning for the past 21 years, Bob Pawloski’s feet hit the floor at 5:00 AM.

He slips into a pair of Nikes, plods across the hardwood, and makes his way to the gym. The routine is the same: a workout, followed by a run outside, weather permitting.

His usual route takes him through the streets of East Hartford, over Founder’s Bridge into Hartford. As dawn breaks, he’s logged ten miles through the neighborhoods that have shaped his career. If these streets could talk, the stories they would tell – none more improbable or impactful than that of the runner chasing the miles of pavement. They would speak to a person who found a greater purpose, an unsung hero that has at times literally saved lives, and at the very least, shaped the trajectory of thousands.

In a seminal speech, The Drum Major Instinct, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. extolled the virtue of those who serve with little thought to the acclaim it might bring. These servant leaders are the best leaders, because when the accolades come, as it did for Bob one Wednesday in March, they are all the more meaningful.

On March 14th, 2018, COMPASS Youth Collaborative’s CEO Robert Pawloski received the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award.

Every year, the FBI Director recognizes leaders from across the country who make extraordinary contributions to the community. The honorees are formally recognized at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., but prior to the official ceremony, the nominating field office presents a certificate locally.

Those who know Bob know that his style is atypical for the corner office. He is more comfortable in a tracksuit (emblazoned with Oakland Raiders regalia, of course) than a business suit. After 21 years, he still tries to fix the copier and makes the daily office trash runs. In that vein, the local presentation was to be an understated affair. Bob wanted the COMPASS staff and his family there, because as he insisted, this award was really about them, not him.

Three speakers were invited, each reflective of certain facets of Bob’s career, to join the FBI’s emissary, Senior Supervisory Intelligence Analyst Dennis Hatton.

Kim Oliver represented the City of Hartford, in her capacity as the Director of Youth, Families, Children and Recreation. Melissa Yennie St. Juste spoke as a founding COMPASS member, and Sgt. Steven Austin of the Hartford Police Department shared his rational for nominating Bob.

Each made remarks that far surpassed a testimony of a singular award. They spoke of an extraordinary person who built a community of caring in a remarkable organization.

As an anthropologist, Joseph Campbell spent much of his career contemplating and writing about heroes, mostly on account of their cultural ubiquity.

Bob Pawloski with the invited speakers

The hero’s journey speaks to the very essence of what makes us human, and to Campbell’s mind it followed a specific arch: the hero responds to a call of the universe, one that presents a myriad of obstacles, and labors until achieving his noble endeavor.

You might say that Bob got the call to service in 1996, riding shotgun in a police van. Mark Rubera, a Lieutenant for the Hartford Police Department (HPD), was at the helm, fiddling with the radio, and Wilbur Harrison’s voice warbled over an oldies station.

Bob thought Harrison’s song – Kansas City – was prescient: he and Mark had just loaded up the van with eight teenagers and a weekend’s worth of provisions. After months of training, Mark registered the kids for a golden gloves boxing tournament in Missouri. He convinced his friend Bob to help chaperone.

They split the driving, coached their prize fighters through to the finals, and came back the next day. For the kids, many of whom had never left the state, visiting the Paris of the Plains felt like the opportunity of a lifetime. For Bob, the 48-hour road trip felt like an answer to his personal soul-searching.

Back then, the Police Athletic League (PAL) was one of the few outlets for kids in Hartford. It was a desperately needed respite to the gang violence plaguing the neighborhood, and Bob began volunteering as a fitness instructor at the PAL gym on Broad Street.

“If the gym closed late, Mark and I would walk the kids home,” Bob remembers. “I’ll never forget those walks. It wasn’t unusual to see ten or fifteen gang members watching, and when you got to the kid’s house, it was obvious just how difficult some of their circumstances were.”

Bob saw the need to bring consistency to youth who had tremendous promise, but little stability. He found his calling, and flipping through the want ads of the Sunday paper, also found his mission.

Hartford Areas Rally Together (HART), a local organizing group, sought a Director for their newly formed South End Knight Riders Youth Center. Bob sent off a resume and a glowing recommendation from HPD.

He got turned down, at first.

“I couldn’t move to Harford, because of my family, and during the initial interview they indicated it was a deal breaker,” Bob recalls.

Nevertheless, he received a call back for a second interview. The panelists asked about his previous experience and areas of expertise. Bob fielded the questions until a voice piped up among the young people present. Craig Yennie, a middle school student at MD Fox School, asked the question on everyone’s mind.

“How long will you stay?”

Bob answered in the best way he knew how – from the heart.

“I’ll give you my word,” he said, “and my word is my commitment. I strongly believe that I can make a dedicated commitment to the development of the youth center.”

A Hartford Courant article from 1997 captures the youth center’s early beginnings