Jacob Kern Jr. knows he's a community gadfly, and he doesn't mind that description one bit.
"We're like the farmer who goes out and sows the seeds," Kern says about himself and others who speak at public meetings. "We hope they grow. Our comments are our seeds. But sometimes they fall on a rock, and they don't grow."
The 72-year-old Lockport resident is a regular at Lockport Common Council meetings, and he also frequents the Lockport School Board sessions. Mayor Thomas C. Sullivan says he's never surprised when Kern drops by his office to talk.
"If American people want to be free, they should go to these meetings," Sullivan says. "They should voice their concerns."
But Kern wasn't always so vocal. A little pushing from a high school teacher made a big difference in his life.
Take a stand. Debate. Speak up. That was A. Marie Murphy's advice to the reserved, polio-stricken 16-year-old boy in her social studies classroom more than 50 years ago.
Little did anyone know that she was transforming a quiet student into a vociferous, outspoken gadfly.
"I was a very shy person because of the polio," he says, crutches resting against the living room wall. "I was very self-conscious."
He got over that quickly in Murphy's class.
Murphy encouraged Kern to debate, and he gravitated toward topics ranging from Germany to the U.S. Constitution. No wonder: Germany is his parents' native land, and he learned from them that free speech and citizen participation shouldn't be taken for granted.
So to this day he participates in government. Of the 38 Council and School Board meetings annually, you probably can find Kern at 30 of them.
It's a pace he has maintained for 40 years.
Not much keeps him away. An out-of-town vacation will do it or a candy convention -- he used to run the family business, Jacob Kern & Sons, wholesalers of confections and tobacco. Deeply religious, he'll put a Latin Mass before a Council meeting. But otherwise Kern is there, eager to speak.
"We were considered the two big troublemakers at the Common Council and the Lockport Board of Education," says George Kugler Sr., a Lockport resident who attends meetings almost as often as Kern. "He comes out, talks and stimulates people. And there are other people now who are coming forth and talking."
Kern talks at nearly every meeting he attends. He doesn't praise much because his customers did not praise him when they made a profit. That was his job, and city leaders should be expected to do their jobs, too, without commendation, he explains.
He doesn't prepare his comments beforehand. No notes scribbled on index cards, no scrawlings on legal pads. Sometimes he'll jot down a word or two when someone at a meeting says something he wants to comment on later but for the most part, it's impromptu. "Spontaneous," he likes to say.
"All of a sudden, something will flash in that I'll want to talk about," he says. "It's a flash of a mind. I can't explain."
The first Council meeting Kern attended was about a rezoning issue.
"I thought it was going to be a one-shot deal," he says. "But at that meeting, I realized I should stop in and check to be informed. It's like a person going to the theater. You can read the book, but you need to see the performance. And this is a performance."
Kern considers himself one of the actors.
"You went down, and you're sort of shy anyway," he says of his first Council meeting. "Then afterward, it got easier. And now it's just a matter of talking about whatever's on your mind."
That's exactly what he did at a recent Council meeting.
Kern looks directly at the aldermen. He wishes them all a good evening, and then he launches into his speech for the night, barely pausing for a breath.
This time, there's a lot on his mind. High taxes. Pay increases for elected officials. Police services. Landlord and tenant licensing.
"I love my city," he says. "I was born in this city. I want to see this city prosper. This is going to be a bedroom city. Let it be a clean bedroom city."
As he talks, his speech quickens. The pitch rises.
Mayor Thomas C. Sullivan instructs Kern to lower the microphone a bit.
"I'm very loud when I get excited," he chuckles. "I love to talk."
He compares Lockport with Germany. He draws analogies between running a candy business and running the city -- selling candy is like selling ideas.
When he's finished, the aldermen sing a chorus of "Thank you, Jake. Thank you."
"He's always here, he always has an issue," says Council President John T. Pitrello, D-at large, who is serving his ninth year. "Sometimes he goes too far and ends up going places we don't want to go. Sometimes he gets long. Sometimes it's hard to sit up there and listen to his stories about Germany and Hershey.
"Times change," Pitrello says. "Sometimes he doesn't keep up with the pace of changing times. His nickel candy bar is 55 cents now. But I enjoy him coming down. You never know what he's going to talk about, but I respect that man."
At a time when there are murmurings in the city that the Council wants to cease local cable broadcasting of the public comment portion of the meetings because many speakers are too crude, the mayor and aldermen say Kern addresses the Council with full respect.
"He's basically letting us know we should get our act together," says Alderman Sean M. Smith, D-2nd Ward.
"He's always a gentleman," Sullivan adds.
Some of that respect comes from Kern's religious upbringing, and some comes from his six-month aldermanic stint in 1971. When David R. Haley vacated his 4th Ward seat when given another city position, Mayor Rollin T. Grant appointed Kern to the seat in July. Kern ran for the seat that November, but he lost by about 80 votes.