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Jim Roddey: Up-close and personal with the candidates for Allegheny County Executive

Sunday, October 17, 1999

By Mackenzie Carpenter, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Jim Roddey is running late.

 
Jim Roddey: Illustration by Ted Crow, Post-Gazette staff artist. 

Five minutes late. And that, for a man who is usually 15 minutes early for everything, is intolerable.

So when he shows up in the lobby of the Acmetonia Elementary School in Harwick, alone except for a campaign aide, the usually cool, collected Roddey -- a longtime Pittsburgh businessman and now candidate for Allegheny County executive -- seems uncharacteristically flustered.

But even in slight disarray, he looks as if he could have stepped out of a window at Kaufmann's -- actually, make that Saks. While his silver-white hair is slightly askew, his perfectly tailored, dark pinstripe suit with heavily padded shoulders and narrow waist is still standing at attention; indeed, it looks as if it could walk away by itself. His loafers are polished to a high gleam; his perfectly folded handkerchief peeks out of his pocket in three snowy triangles.

Roddey's shoulders relax slightly when Laurie Singer, chairwoman of the Allegheny Valley Chamber of Commerce, informs him that the forum is running late, and then, suddenly there's another flurry of activity at the door, and Cyril Wecht, looking equally windblown, enters, trailing a crowd of people in his wake.

Wecht is greeted warmly by Singer, who has a few small Band-Aids on her face -- courtesy of a trip that day to the dermatologist -- and the good doctor does a double take.

"What happened?" Wecht asks, peering at her in concern, and then, in his familiar rough-edged rumble, tries a gentle joke: "Did you cut yourself shavin'?" Singer laughs it off as too much sun. Then, Wecht spots Roddey standing 10 feet away, and his smile fades. Indeed, his eyes hit the floor, the walls, anyplace, it seems, to avoid eye contact with his opponent.

The forum's moderator wants to talk about the order of speakers, but Wecht cuts him off. "He was here first," waving in Roddey's general direction without acknowledging him by name.

But eventually Wecht must make his way past Roddey, who waits patiently for him to pass, and when he does, Roddey shoots out his hand and grabs Wecht's.

Gotcha!

"I just wanted to tell you that you were wrong about the polo matches," Roddey says, smiling, in a pleasant low voice to Wecht, as if he were complimenting him on his suit (a simply cut Brooks Brothers number in dark glen plaid). Wecht looks startled.

"You said that while you were doing autopsies I was at polo matches," Roddey continues in his soft, almost-Southern drawl, while Wecht looks increasingly uncomfortable. "I haven't been to a polo match in 10 years. I was at the Central Baptist Church when you said I was at the polo matches. I just wanted you to know that."

"Yes! Well. Hmmn," says Wecht, who finally manages to extricate his hand from Roddey's and makes a bolt for the auditorium door. "I don't know. I'll have to check on it."

There are several things going on here.

Wecht is known as an amiable and kindhearted man who inspires fierce loyalty among friends and family; but he is also known as someone who does not suffer his enemies gladly.

But Roddey doesn't want to be Wecht's enemy; he doesn't want to be anyone's enemy. Sure, he's made a few during the 20 years he's spent navigating Pittsburgh's social, political and business circles, but for the most part, Roddey has earned a reputation as a pleasant, easy-enough-to-get-along-with guy. Even in this high-stakes county executive race, Roddey doesn't seem interested -- as of press time, anyway -- in getting personal with his opponent.

And there's another factor at play: Roddey's own sensitivity about his reputation as the rich man's candidate. Sure, he's made millions as an entrepreneur, but I am not a capitalist pig. I am not "Duquesne Club Jim," he seems to be telling Wecht.

And then, maybe Roddey, the fun-loving Southerner who got kicked out of not one but two colleges for his pranks (before talking his way back into the second) was just funnin' a little bit when he ambushed Wecht with that handshake.

"I do that to him all the time," he later admits, grinning slightly. "It drives him crazy."

This would appear to be James Clark Roddey's moment. Everything he's done in life so far, both as private businessman and peripatetic, not-exactly-publicity-shy civic do-gooder, seems to have led him to this place in the spotlight as candidate for a job that could end up being the third most powerful in Pennsylvania, after the governor and the mayor of Philadelphia.

Some consider Roddey's business background grounds for suspicion -- "He's a nice man, but he's a businessman, and the business of business is business, not politics," said former House Speaker K. Leroy Irvis after one candidates' forum. Others say he is the perfect fit for county executive, a job that, in an ideal world, would seem to require the skills of a manager, not a politician.

Whatever the case, ever since arriving in Pittsburgh in late 1978 -- "in the dead of winter from Atlanta," as he reminds people -- a kind of urban legend has grown up around Roddey: that he's a skillful turnaround artist who can fix a government agency or charity or civic enterprise that is mired in debt or scandal, that he can make the buses run on time and the boat races come in under budget, that he has worked tirelessly and for free for uncounted philanthropic causes.

There is another legend, too, one slightly less admiring: that he is the ultimate self-promoter, Pittsburgh's own Toastmaster General, for whom no charity-ball master of ceremonies job is too humble, no committee chairmanship too mundane; a showman who'll ride in on an elephant for a Barbara Hafer fund-raiser; a bon vivant who gamely flirts with pretty women; a ham who will don a wig to roast University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg -- whose selection he helped to engineer.

As always, Roddey shrugs off the comments without defense or apology. But he also reminds anyone who will listen that he's a businessman of substance, that he's started about 10 companies and managed thousands of employees (to this day, he's declined to reveal his net worth -- although once he became the Republican nominee, he disclosed earning $900,000 in 1998).

It is that unwavering devotion to business principles that either turns off or transfixes observers of Roddey's career. His distant relationship with unions dates back to his days as chairman of the Allegheny County Port Authority board, when he backed legislation weakening the drivers' right to seek arbitration during contract disputes, and more recently for his role as heading an unsuccessful effort to privatize the county's four Kane Hospitals, which raised fears among unions that their members would be replaced with nonunion workers at lower salaries -- something Roddey denies.

There are other critics, too -- many of them prisoners in facilities across the country that receive health care from Wexford Health Sources, which is owned by Roddey. The firm has been the target of 212 lawsuits charging negligence by Wexford staffers, 80 of which have been thrown out, seven settled and 125 still pending. A U.S. Justice Department report this summer criticized Wexford's performance in Wyoming's prison system, and Wyoming has terminated its contract with the company. Roddey hasn't commented on the litigation, but his campaign manager Kent Gates says that the firm's overall legal record has been good, considering that it deals with the care of more than 200,000 inmates.

And depending on who's talking, Roddey has either fixed or sold out public television in Pittsburgh. Republican Party grande dame Elsie Hillman, for one, praises Roddey's role in rescuing financially strapped WQED. Besides praising him for helping to recruit New York television executive George Miles as new station president, she notes that, as WQED's chairman, Roddey "brought humor to the station when it needed it during serious times."

Others haven't found Roddey so funny. His efforts to rescue WQED financially by selling its sister station, WQEX, to a Christian station, have enraged many longtime supporters of public television, who are trying to convince the FCC to block the sale. Opponents, led by West Virginia University professor Jerry Starr, are still smarting about Roddey's remarks to City Council more than three years ago about WQED's plans.

"He told City Council that one option would be the sale of WQEX, when in fact, FCC documents show he had already signed an agreement [for the sale]. That, in my view, shows that Jim Roddey lies," says Starr.

No time to waste

 
The real Jim Roddey, right, strides past a cardboard cutout of himself placed beside a similarly posed cutout of Andy Warhol at a Roddey fund-raiser at The Andy Warhol Museum on Oct. 6. Roddey's staff had noticed the similarity between Roddey's usual posture and the Warhol photo and made the cutouts for the event. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette) 

Roddey's public history has been well-documented in the news media. But getting him to sit down and talk about himself isn't easy. While he can easily joke about himself, serious self-analysis doesn't seem to be his forte. Besides, he's so overscheduled these days, he can barely contain his horror at the thought of a two-hour interview session.

This is, after all, a man who once wrote an article titled "Life Is a Waste of Time," in which he dispensed tips for avoiding what he considers a "natural human affliction."

Time, for Roddey, is the most precious commodity of all, and to waste it is a crime against nature. That's why, even today, at the age of 66, he gets up at 3:50 a.m. to exercise -- 30 minutes on the Ellipse machine followed by 300 stomach crunches -- all while following the news on television. Finally, though, in the elegant but comfortable living room of his Squirrel Hill townhouse, Roddey collapses in an upholstered Victorian chair and begins to tell the story of his life.

Some of the narrative seems practiced; he has told parts of his life story before in countless interviews and speeches. To the question, which always comes up, of why he is so ... ubiquitous, willing to take on so many causes, he talks of a childhood in a military family where he moved so much that, early on, he decided to be "a flaming extrovert, because I wanted to establish myself."

Such a life didn't leave lasting scars -- or if they did, he's long since stopped examining them.

"I always like wherever I am," he says with a shrug. "Wherever I live is a nice place to live, and I enjoy it. I wish I could give you some great philosophical reason why, but I think I'm kind of like a chameleon. I adapt."

But it could be that Roddey the manisn't giving Roddey the boy enough credit for having a tough childhood.

"I would go to a new school, and I didn't know anybody. And I was always very confused, because I would go to one school, and they would be on the multiplication tables and I hadn't done mine yet, and I'd go to another school and they'd have just finished American History up through the first World War and I was still in the Revolutionary War ... so I was always out of sync."

The "unspoiled only child" of Navy officer Cecil Roddey and his wife, Margaret, Roddey was born in 1933 in Asheville, N.C. He ticks off the names of the towns he lived in before he was 10: Greenville, S.C; Bryan, Texas; Miami; San Francisco; Alameda, Mendocino and Santa Rosa, Calif., before finally returning to Corpus Christi, Texas, after World War II, where he would finish high school.

His father was, by his son's description, "very difficult to get along with, very conservative."

Still, the affection in his son's voice is clear as he relates how, until his death in 1987, Cecil Roddey never drove a car with an automatic transmission because, his son says with a laugh, "they never perfected it."

There was a shared love of the sea and sailing, and at age 10, Roddey got his first sailboat -- built by his father. Convinced that he could do most things better himself, Cecil Roddey "made everything himself. If he wanted a chair, he could make a chair. He was marvelous. He could make a refrigerator. He could do anything with his hands. He built an airplane and flew it when I was a child."

.

One bizarre, seminal memory: At age 6, Roddey was taken by his parents to an air show, and they were taking people up in a Piper Cub, a tiny, underpowered airplane, "and they had a midget who was the pilot, which was part of the attraction.

"And my father put me in this airplane when my mother wasn't looking and away I went with the midget, flying around," he recalls with a grin.

Strained by the demands of World War II and the senior Roddey's prickly personality, Margaret and Cecil Roddey would divorce during their son's first year in high school. How the stress of the breakup shaped Roddey's character isn't known, but as a boy, young "Jimmy" was always in trouble. But he also always got good grades, excelled in sports, especially track and football, and when he graduated from Corpus Christi High School, he received athletic scholarship offers from all over the country.

He chose Louisiana State University. He would last only a semester because, it seems, "I was determined to see how much fun I could have."

There was that beautifully landscaped pond by the dorms with ducks in it; Roddey and his friends purchased an alligator and put it in there to see what would happen "and of course it ate all the ducks, and, [school officials] were a little upset about that."

Then there was the time that the LSU Athletic Department had a father's day. Roddey's father couldn't come, "and a friend of mine was an orphan, so the two of us didn't have a father to take to father's day."

So they went down to the local pool hall and found a wino, and brought him back to campus. "It was really sort of disgusting, I guess today, but we thought it was pretty hilarious, and we took him back to school and said he was our father. He hadn't had a meal, they laid out this big meal, and, well, I think he probably smelled bad, and the people were not pleased at all."

The school banished him to LSU's equivalent of Siberia -- a room at the stadium complex far from the dormitories, figuring he could stay out of trouble there. Unhappy, he called the track coach at Texas Christian University, where he had been offered a scholarship, and the coach jumped at the chance to get him.

The coach expected problems if the school inquired about his background. "So he told me, 'What I would like for you to do is enter the ministerial college, because they never check those guys.' "

Texas Christian is a private school located in Fort Worth, and even today its track team consistently places among the top five in the country. TCU is historically affiliated with a Protestant denomination called Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which included among its members Lyndon Johnson and cult leader Jim Jones. Its generally liberal religious climate suited Roddey, who describes himself as "pretty much middle of the road" when it comes to religion.

"I'm not an agnostic, but I'm not a very religious person."

After six weeks in TCU's ministerial program, he transferred into the Speech and English department. It was a perfect fit; Will Towers, head of TCU's speech department today, says graduates are expected to know how to "make a public presentation, to present their ideas coherently, to think on their feet," and surely some of that rubbed off on Roddey.

But he wasn't ready to get completely serious -- not yet. At one point, he and his friends decided they needed, in his words, "a diversion."

So they decided to create a "fake murder" on the streets of downtown Fort Worth. While walking down the street eating an ice cream cone, Roddey was "gunned down" by his comrades. For extra drama, Roddey slapped a plastic bag of ketchup mixed with water against his chest and collapsed in what appeared to be a pool of blood. Then, his friends threw him in the back seat of their car and they roared away.

"We thought it was really funny," he says.

The police did not. "They set roadblocks around the city and reported it as a real murder. Someone had taken down the license plate number and traced it to the school and arrested the car's owner, who said, 'There was no murder. I'll show you the victim.' "

The police burst into Roddey's dorm with guns drawn and, like the officials at LSU, "they really were all very upset."

Roddey was expelled, but his track coach got him back in.

Smoothing the rough edges

 
After the fund-raiser at the Allegheny Club, located inside Three Rivers Stadium, Roddey ponders the adjacent construction site for the new Steelers stadium. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette) 

By the time he graduated in 1955, Roddey's transformation from bad boy to responsible adult appeared to have taken place, since by then he was a married man with a year-old child. He had met his wife, Elin, at TCU several years earlier while trying to crawl into her first-floor dormitory window.

He had been planning to take her roommate out for a beer, and when he saw Elin, he asked her to come, too. She was a tall, blue-eyed beauty, a rancher's daughter from Dallas, and today she jokes about his rough edges.

"I like to tell people he married up," she says, remembering a "goofy guy" honking a horn out her window. And she still sounds nonplused when she describes how, 20 minutes into their first date, he handed her his college ring and asked her to wear it.

"I thought, who is this guy? I don't even know him. But I took it. "

Soon, she told her mother "this is the man I'm going to marry, and he's going to be something."

But not right away.

After a failed attempt to qualify for the 1956 U.S. Olympic team in track as a runner, Roddey joined the Marine Corps.

He quickly ascended into the elite ranks of the Marines as a member of an amphibious reconnaissance unit. The three-year experience, from 1955 to 1958, did more to shape his attitude about life and discipline than anything that came before or after. Assigned to a Marine landing force, his was a clandestine unit that would go ahead of an invasion, report on obstructions under the water or on the beaches, relay information about the terrain and egress and exit points.

There wasn't much of an enemy to invade during the late 1950s. His unit was one that stormed the beaches of Lebanon and rescued downed pilots close to hostile Cold War borders, but he didn't see combat. Still, Roddey raves about the experience.

"I learned the principles of leadership, where you have to set goals, a clear mission, where everyone understands what their role is. You have to be clear in your communications and follow up, hold people accountable and learn ways to measure your progress.

"And you can't be afraid to fail."

After leaving active duty in the Marines -- he would serve in the Reserves for six more years before being honorably discharged in 1962 -- Roddey's odyssey in business began in earnest, with a $75-a-week job leasing property for a billboard company. In all, he would move his family 23 times. Like many men of his generation, Roddey put his career first: He was gone much of every week when his kids were growing up.

Pat Conroy's Southern novel "The Great Santini" -- the story of a South Carolina military man's competitive relationship with his son -- wasn't the story of Roddey's relationship with his father, he says, "but it probably is the story of my relationship with my children," James, 45, and Margaret Elin, 42, who were grown by the time their parents moved to Pittsburgh.

"I see a lot of myself in that. ... I was in the Marines. My son and I played one-on-one basketball for probably 10 years. When we started, I could beat him 100-to-nothing because he was little, and when he got so he could dunk the ball" -- and then he can hardly contain his rueful laughter here -- "why, he would just destroy me.

"Oh, I'm awful. I couldn't have a game of catch with my children without saying the first one to miss five times is out. I have to turn everything into a contest."

Asked if he would do things differently today, Roddey says he should have been home more. "I'm not focused on it. I don't wallow in it. But if I'm advising someone today, I recommend that they do that."

Life as a salesman also meant constant encounters with rejection. It was a steep learning curve.

"Rejection doesn't bother me as much today as it did when I was starting out. Then, I couldn't understand why I couldn't close every sale, and that was frustrating. I had this great sales pitch, and people would say no, and I was just astounded."

His big break came when the small company he worked for was bought out by Rollins Inc., a huge firm with interests ranging from oil to exterminating to television and billboards.

He stayed on, and Randall Rollins, the company's head, became kind of a mentor to Roddey, impressing upon him again and again the importance of hard work, preparation, attention to detail. It paid off; he was named assistant manager. Regional manager. Vice president.

And then, he was asked to become president of a billboard company owned by a man named Ted Turner.

Roddey's relationship with one of the most fascinating media tycoons of our time was not the defining moment of his career -- but it certainly was one of the more interesting.

Turner and Roddey met about five years earlier, when both were young businessmen running billboard companies. Turner would invite Roddey to speak to his sales staff, and after one such meeting, Roddey vividly remembers how "Ted took me for a ride in his Ferrari, and he showed me how we could go 100 miles an hour down Peachtree Street -- in second gear."

After Turner Outdoor Advertising, with Roddey as president, purchased a low-power station, Channel 17 in Atlanta, the company then metamorphosed into Turner Communications Inc., with Roddey as president.

In some ways, it's easy to see how the loquacious Turner, the "Mouth from the South," would take to Roddey. Both of them were part of an emerging "New South" dedicated to economic growth, venture capitalization, risk-taking and entrepreneurship. Both were fun-loving "bad boys" -- Turner got kicked out of college, too. And they both loved the sea, although Turner's sailboats were probably, even then, bigger than Roddey's.

But the formal business relationship lasted just three years -- and not, Roddey, insists, because of any major falling-out. In 1971, Roddey returned to Rollins as president of its media group in Atlanta, a position he held until 1978.

Turner "was high-maintenance," Roddey says. "I had a direction I thought the company was going in, and he had a direction that he thought the company should go in, that's all."

Roddey was simply more cautious than the freewheeling Turner, whom he once described to a biographer as "wacko." He also has admitted to advising Turner against embarking on such ventures as CNN.

"There were some irresponsible aspects of what he would do. I thought we should have two months worth of payroll in the bank, and he thought that was too conservative," Roddey says with a laugh, then turns serious.

"Look, [Turner] has lived life right on the edge. But he's so smart, he just outruns his mistakes."

It's hard to know what Ted Turner's opinion of Roddey is: Efforts to contact him were unavailing. No matter, Roddey says. "He doesn't like to do that sort of thing. He's just kind of strange that way."

Ventured and gained

The 12 years spent in Atlanta were the longest the Roddey family had ever spent anywhere in their married life, and when Jim told his wife in late 1978 they were moving to Pittsburgh, she resisted.

But it was an opportunity, and to a natural-born entrepreneur, passing it up was unthinkable.

"I wanted to run something of my own. And I wanted to make money. Both. That was the motivation," he says.

Pittsburgh Outdoor Advertising, owned by billboard king Henry Posner Jr., was for sale, and when Rollins declined to buy it, Roddey put together his own team of investors and purchased it for $13 million. Three years later, he sold it for $34 million and put the money back into other businesses. For the next two decades, he would build his wealth that way, acquiring, selling and growing other businesses, always careful not to waste an opportunity -- "although I don't know that it's waste as much as it is maximizing opportunity, making something realize its full potential."

That skill earned him plenty of admirers. When Neal Holmes, chairman of the Port Authority and a close friend, is asked to describe their relationship, he insists on telling this one anecdote about Roddey's tenure years ago as a board member of his company, Allied Security Inc., which he believes says it all:

"When Mr. Roddey came on the board, our stock was maybe hovering around 10 or 12 dollars a share. But when we went private, we sold the stock at $70 a share. I credit him for that. He brought back a great return."

Now, Roddey is focusing on a different kind of opportunity. But while he's known as someone who never takes unnecessary risks, the county executive's race is definitely uncharted territory.

Certainly, it's not all hardship. Roddey openly delighted in a campaign fund-raiser at The Andy Warhol Museum this month, where young professionals paid $45 a head to mix and mingle among the silk screens of Marilyn and Jackie. With 500 people attending, that's not a huge amount of money, but Roddey seemed to enjoy simply being the host at a wonderful party.

And he's been venturing out elsewhere, too, seemingly undeterred by the idea that he might be rejected: An uninvited guest at the Labor Day parade in Downtown last month, Roddey has also been visiting black churches regularly. His reasons are practical, rather than spiritual: "I am interested in seeing how to turn around problems in these communities, and I think the key is in the black churches."

On one recent Saturday, Roddey stood in the basement of the AME Zion Church in Braddock and fielded questions from the members of the Mon Valley Action Committee, a group of African-American activists representing distressed communities up and down the Monongahela River. Standing in what Roddey watchers describe as his "at ease" position -- ramrod straight, his hands clasped together in front of him -- he quietly and methodically listed his accomplishments as a businessman, his record in hiring minorities and his pro bono work as a civic "volunteer" who had chaired the United Way and the Port Authority, the latter of which, when he took it on in the early 1980s, had a patronage system "the envy of every ward heeler in America."

He also told the group that, if elected, he would give them "a place at the table," and would ensure that there will be plenty of representatives from their community on his transition team.

It's a message that seemed to resonate in this basement, despite the apparent disconnect: a silver-haired man in a navy blazer and khaki slacks talking to a group of skeptics whose suspicion of Pittsburgh politicians, unions, banks and numerous other institutions had hardened into outright hostility.

When the meeting was through, Roddey asked to say the closing prayer.

Bowing his head, he asked that "Allegheny County be placed not in the hands of Cyril Wecht or Jim Roddey, but in the hands of God."

Victory is the only option

Yeah, right.

Roddey wants this job badly, according to everyone who knows him well. He wants it as badly as Wecht does.

For sure, neither he nor Wecht appears to relish the six-appearances-a-day schedule or the exasperating audience questions -- "Hey! It says here that the county executive has no more power to cut taxes than the county commissioner had! Why weren't we told this?" demands a beefy man in a T-shirt, waving a copy of a newspaper at Roddey at one recent forum.

During a taping of "Pittsburgh NightTalk" with John McIntire, Wecht and Roddey sparred on camera but chatted amiably off-camera about tennis. And after a debate at the University of Pittsburgh, the two men discussed ways to plan their next debate -- on the scintillating subject of the "structure" of government.

Still, during the debate, their differences flared -- both in substance and style. To a question about USAirways' exorbitant air fares to Pittsburgh residents, Wecht shouted about how the airline "is giving us a real shafting job and they have to be talked to," while a more subdued Roddey claimed "we need USAir" and the employment it provides the region.

Whatever the case, it may be that, thanks to Roddey's insistence on shaking hands and making small talk, and to Wecht's ability to accept and warm to it, this campaign may actually end up being more civil than not, although with the election two weeks away, it's still early.

Could it be, though, that Roddey's fabled charm -- his whispery small talk, his handshaking -- has another purpose? Is Roddey, ever the savvy operator, hedging his bets rather than burning bridges? After all, a good relationship with Wecht is infinitely preferable to a bad one should Roddey be the loser, because regardless of the outcome, Roddey doesn't seem to harbor any thought of giving up being the man he has spent decades becoming: the fixer, the rescuer, the turnaround artist, the man to call when things go wrong.

Of course, he puts it somewhat differently.

"I can't imagine wanting to retire before I'm 90," he says. "I just can't imagine not having activities and things to do and things to be concerned about."

At the moment, though, defeat -- for both Roddey and his opponent -- does not appear to be an option.

During the debate at Pitt on Oct. 5 -- a noisy, standing-room-only affair on the subject of "human services" that featured crying babies and grizzly academics and people sporting "Mon Valley Unemployment Committee" T-shirts -- there was one particularly convoluted question from the audience, a question that included the term "funding streams" that had both candidates scratching their heads.

For a moment, there was a dead silence.

And then, like two mismatched partners who are determined not to stumble, both men seemed to find their rhythm:

Wecht quipped, "I'm going to concede the election if [Roddey] figures out the question."

To that, Roddey shot back, over the loud audience guffaws, "I'm going to declare victory if I come up with the answer."



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