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Lancaster moves ahead by putting Redskins behind it

He always had faith. Faith that people would do the right thing. Faith that the community would show its kinder colors. Faith that most people were embarrassed by the town’s connection to a slur, didn’t want to be seen as backwards, or cling to a demeaning remnant of a less-enlightened era.

Even so, Ken Graber was equally relieved and elated with Tuesday’s election results.

“I felt that people wanted to move forward,” Graber told me, two days after the vote. “But I thought it would be close. I was shocked by the margin of victory. Once again, I’m proud to say I’m from Lancaster.”

He should be. In a School Board election widely seen as a referendum on the district’s “Redskins” mascot, the two pro-Redskins hopefuls were crushed by a pair of candidates who want to leave the past behind – thus preserving the board’s progressive majority.

Lancaster, happily, won’t be going back to the past for its future.

Long before voters stood up, Graber and his cohorts on the seven-member board led the way.

Graber was board president early last year when the long-simmering issue boiled over. Intensified national debate over the NFL’s Washington Redskins had trickled down, with townspeople taking sides. A group of Native Americans told school officials the nickname was offensive, a slang term for scalps taken for bounty. Redskins supporters strung a banner across Central Avenue, the village’s main drag. Local schools with numerous Native American students boycotted games against Lancaster. School Board meetings devolved into verbal scrums, with a police presence.

A subject the board had back-burnered for years was on full boil.

The Graber-led board took the heat head-on. It voted unanimously 14 months ago to jettison the mascot, to catcalls and having many of the hundreds of spectators protest by turning their backs. Given the predictable blowback, the move by Graber, Patrick Uhteg, Wendy Buchert, Kim Nowak, Marie MacKay, Bill Gallagher and Michael Sage was, to my mind, a profile in courage.

“There were other concerns,” said Graber, sitting Thursday in the kitchen of his neat home in a Lancaster subdivision, as a pair of landscaping crews worked up the block. “But No. 1, it was a matter of principle.”

Graber is Danny DeVito-diminutive, with sharp eyes and a quick smile. A longtime administrative court judge, he has a keen sense of fairness – and a concern that the mascot, given State Ed’s anti-bullying edict, opened the district to a potential discrimination lawsuit.

The board had to act. From the St. Bonaventure Brown Indians to the St. John’s Redmen to numerous high schools, institutions had for years erased the remnants of a culturally blind era. It’s wrong to reduce a race of people to a stereotype – whether it be a Tonto-like sidekick or the war-whooping savages of countless TV and movie Westerns.

Dan Snyder, owner of Washington’s NFL team, clings to the nickname. But that’s a private business. Official sanction of a racially offensive term shouldn’t pass for public educational policy.

Amos & Andy is piled with the Frito Bandito in history’s trash bin. Yet Redskins and its variations somehow endure, even though a cross-section of religious, civil rights and Native American groups condemn it. Granted, Native Americans are not unanimous in their distaste for the term, as indicated by one new poll claiming most don’t take offense at the word. But that is not unusual, experts say, for a people who have long been marginalized by larger society.

Graber said a Native American friend had never complained to him about the nickname – until the district dropped it.

“He said it was easier to go along, he didn’t want to deal with repercussions,” said Graber. “But afterwards, he told me, ‘Of course I thought it was insulting.’ ”

Not that change comes easily. For a legion of Lancasterians, “Redskins” conjures images of pep rallies, football games and varsity jackets. Some didn’t want their “happy days” memories messed with, no matter which minority was insulted. Never mind that there are barely a handful of Native Americans in Lancaster – the mascot was part of the district’s “identity.”

The battle was on.

It got ugly, a town divided. The board’s vote 14 months ago to drop the nickname was met with catcalls and turned backs from many of 700 spectators. Days later, several hundred students walked out of the high school in a pro-Redskins protest. Board members talked of an “intimidating” opposition, while pro-Redskins’ leader Brenda Christopher accused Superintendent Michael Vallely of “throwing his community under the bus.” Christopher and another pro-Redskin candidate rode the emotional wake of the drop-the-mascot decision to seats last May on the School Board. Some irate spectators turned their backs at a board meeting last June announcing the new, student-chosen Legends mascot. Catcalls and a cry of “Heil Hitler” – particularly offensive, since Graber is Jewish – were heard at the same session.

“It was uncomfortable, absolutely,” Graber acknowledged.

Until last week, no one knew whether the battle was ongoing, or over. With two pro-Redskins candidates on Tuesday’s ballot, the faction could potentially take control of the seven-person board. Their to-do list presumably included a mascot restoration and the ouster of Superintendent Vallely, who guided the name-change process.

It didn’t happen.

Uhteg, the current School Board president, prefers to look ahead.

“We felt validated by the vote, but we’re ready to move on,” Uhteg told me Friday. “Let’s focus on working together.”

It presumably gets easier from here.

“I really feel that the community spoke,” said Graber, who leaves the board next month. “People felt that the longer this went on, the worse Lancaster looked.”

The days of looking bad are presumably gone. The new day started with the Graber-led board, and a unanimous vote to leave the past behind.