Just about a year ago, shortly after David Kearns had moved into his job as deputy secretary of education, he found himself suffering through a four-hour flight delay in Denver's busy Stapleton Airport.
Accustomed to the luxuries of flight aboard corporate jets, the man who restored the ailing Xerox Corp. to competitive health complained to his wife: "I can't believe how bad this air travel is."
That should be the least of his worries these days.
David Todd Kearns is the man grabbed by President Bush and sent flying, coach class, to Los Angeles to oversee the immediate federal effort to help restore the ailing city to social health after last week's riots.
He was dispatched Monday as the White House scrambled to get a handle on its most serious domestic crisis and demonstrate concern for the plight of the nation's cities. His aides say he is likely to wrap up the first phase of his mission after meeting with the Los Angeles City Council today.
Kearns is a 61-year-old businessman and a long-distance runner. He has the executive's penchant for action but little experience in, or patience for, the world of quick-fix solutions often demanded in tense public crises.
"I don't think he would lack for any ideas of things that could and should be done," said a longtime acquaintance at Xerox. "But probably some are things that won't be accomplished between now and election time."
His assignment has both short- and long-term components. The immediate concern question is: "What can we do right now to make life easier for the people in Los Angeles city and Los Angeles County?" a member of his team in Los Angeles said. The larger objective, the aide said, is to look for ways to break the cycle of poverty in urban ghettos across the country.
"You can rebuild Pep Boys, you can restock the shelves of groceries," the aide said. "But will it make a difference in people's lives? That's what is on David's mind."
For the last two decades, Kearns thrived in a setting where problems were tackled. On the suburban lanes of New Canaan, Conn., while jogging seven or eight miles a day at sunrise in the winter of 1982, his mind would carry him to a "frightening realization," he writes in his book about his years at Xerox, "Prophets in the Dark."
His fear was that Xerox, whose very name had become a verb central to life across the country, a company that looked to the outside world like an invincible giant, "was on its way out of business," the victim of targeted Japanese competition that could sell machines "for what it cost us to make them."
The problem, he wrote, called for a revolution, one over which he presided, to restore the company's competitive position and produce a nearly 25% increase in its share of the copying market.
Kearns, who with his wife, Shirley, has six children and seven grandchildren, graduated from the University of Rochester in 1952 with a degree in business administration. Before joining Xerox in 1971 as a corporate vice president, he worked his way up the middle ranks of the International Business Machine Corp., leaving that business giant as a vice president in the data-processing division.
As Xerox's chief executive officer and as its chairman, he developed a reputation for dropping unannounced into offices at corporate headquarters in Stamford, Conn., striding over from the "stand-up" desk that he favored because a back problem made sitting uncomfortable.
"He would come into people's offices," said a friend at the company. "He wouldn't summon them to a session on high with the king."
He also had a reputation of expecting quick responses, and could explode in anger "if somebody did something dumb, or said they were going to do something and didn't," the friend said. But that flash of anger, he said, would dissipate within moments, and "the next second he'd be laughing."
Those who have known Kearns over the years do not question whether such informality will serve him well in his latest assignment. They only wonder whether he will be able to curb a natural frustration at inaction--wherever he encounters it.