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The Insider

School boards and superintendents come and go, but Tom Corcoran is forever.

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Tom Corcoran is about to explain how Ted Kimbrough really got hired as superintendent when the phone rings. It's an aide from the mayor's office wanting to know about the unions in the school system. No one at City Hall--not even the mayor, who's about to make a general speech on the subject--knows precisely how many there are or what they are.

"No problem," says Corcoran, and launches into a flawless recitation of the 20 different unions, from the teachers' to the engineers' to the pipefitters'.

It's nearly ten o'clock on an April morning, almost time for the school-board meeting, and I'm starting to wonder if he'll ever finish his tale about Kimbrough and the interim school board. The phone hasn't stopped interrupting. Before the mayoral aide it was a reporter, before him a member of the board, before her another board member. It's as if they'd burst out of bed with questions--about union negotiations or superintendent selections or what they should say when reporters ask about the deficit. Corcoran, calm and reassuring, has answers for them all.

Corcoran is secretary to the school board, its official record keeper: the fastidious fellow at the board's public-comment sessions who keeps checking his watch and tells speakers when they've exceeded their two minutes.

Of course this job description says little about Corcoran's real role in the central office, where he's something of a legend. He's been in the system since 1962; if it were possible, the joke goes, he'd stay there forever. Every item on the board's agenda--every bid, every hiring, every firing, every superintendent search, every union contract--first passes through his office. His command of procedure, his remarkable memory, his eagerness to please are the source of endless anecdotes and speculation. There are those who say he's the real power behind the throne, making the system bend to his will. Others say he's just an incredibly knowledgeable and hardworking factotum who hangs on by shrewdly adapting to change and loyally serving the real powers. Still others say he's somewhere in between. Whichever he is, he's one of those players on the inside you're supposed to know.

Corcoran hangs up the phone. "Come on, the meeting's starting," he says. "It's crowded in the chambers, but I'll get you a seat. I'll show you exactly where to go."

Thomas Joseph Corcoran was born May 13, 1940, one of seven children--five girls and two boys. His parents were Irish immigrants who'd come directly to Chicago. His mother, Bridget, worked as a housekeeper; his father, Thomas, worked in the city's water department and was a precinct captain for Frankie Lyman, Democratic committeeman of the 46th Ward.

The Corcorans lived in Uptown not far from the intersection of Montrose and Clark. Tom attended Our Lady of Lourdes Grammar School and Saint George High School. He went to church on Sunday and spent much of his free time playing softball and basketball with friends in Chase Park.

"Tom always looked young for his age," says Jim Boyle, a childhood friend. "He looked like Opie from The Andy Griffith Show--the Opie of Chase Park. He wasn't a fighter. He was more of a conciliator. Even then he was seeing to it that people got along. He was very likable, very charming, and he didn't mind staying out of the spotlight. He was trained in the Irish Catholic way, where you're taught that you're not that important. It's the other guy who's important."

Corcoran won an athletic scholarship to DePaul, ran the high hurdles for two years, then quit the team, staying in school with an ROTC scholarship. Through Lyman he got a job as a gym instructor at Chase Park. His boss was Ed Kelly, soon to be the Park District's general superintendent.

"If I'd stayed at the Park District it would have become too political for me," says Corcoran. "My dad told me, "It's bad enough that I have to ring doorbells.' I might have followed Kelly to the top, and it would be interesting to be the top aide to the top person. But then you don't want to have to be too dependent on one person."

Corcoran graduated from DePaul in 1962 and took a job as a gym and general science teacher at Waller High School. A few months later the Army called on him to fulfill his military obligation for the ROTC scholarship. He was sent to Korea, stationed high in the mountains in the demilitarized zone. He was a second lieutenant, a communications specialist. "I was the one who had to make sure that when a colonel got to the battlefield he could pick up a phone and get the general. I brought order out of chaos--I love doing that. It was the best training I've ever had. I learned to stay on task. I learned about presence and control and how to develop an argument and lay out the facts. I learned that you don't have to be the top man in a system so long as you have access to decision makers.

"I was this skinny little kid, but I knew enough to know that I didn't know everything. I had great guys under my command--real tough, hardened veterans of World War II. I'd ask them, 'What do you think, Sarge?' They would tell me, and I would remember what they told me--and that's how I learned how the system worked. That's important. Every system has a plan, every plan a design. It's not just chaos. All too often people want to go from A to Z without going through D and Y. People want to take shortcuts. You can't do that. You have to take the time to master the details--and I learned that in the Army."

His tour of duty ended in 1965, and Corcoran settled in Chicago with his wife, Rita, and their three kids (Theresa, now a lawyer; Thomas Joseph, a captain in the Air Force; and Brian, a university student and former marine). He returned to Waller High, then undergoing rapid change as whites moved out of the neighborhood and blacks and Hispanics moved in. "I didn't have any trouble," says Corcoran. "Shig Murao was the assistant principal and the basketball coach, and Shig liked me. When Shig became assistant principal, I got to be the head basketball coach. That was '67-'68. Every step along the way I learned things that help me today. At Waller I learned to get along with people of different races and ethnicities. If you respect people you can get along with them."

This was at the height of the antiwar movement, but Corcoran was never a rebel. He kept his hair short, disliked rock 'n' roll (preferring Frank Sinatra and the Platters), and was prowar. "I grew to oppose the war, to hate what it did to our country," he says. "But at the time, well, you have to understand a lot of the guys from our neighborhood, including my younger brother, John, were serving there. I felt an obligation to support them. I thought the demonstrators at the Democratic convention were instigators, and I respected Mayor Daley. All around me the world was changing, but I was living in a cocoon. While hippies and cops were fighting, I was playing softball in Chase Park with my buddies--just like in high school. Why would I want to be involved in civil disorder? My dad left Ireland to get away from rebellion. My dad was very well read. He believed in Ireland for the Irish. But it wasn't a religion for him. I guess I'm the same way."

In 1969 he took a job as a counselor at the public schools' Montefiore Family Guidance Center. The school system was bursting with opportunities for a young man with energy and ambition, and Corcoran took advantage of every opportunity he got. He taught summer school and night school, and ran the gym on the weekends and the social center on Friday nights.

Around this time he hooked up with two other educators, Bryant Feather and Ed Tromanhauser, and together they started an undergraduate program in criminal justice at Chicago State University. "Bryant was our mentor, Ed was the writer, and I was the organization man--I negotiated with the grant givers. We developed a program out of whole cloth and secured grants worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, mostly from the federal government."

It was through the criminal-justice program that Corcoran met Joe Cronin, state superintendent of schools. "Cronin offered me a job, and I told Cronin that I'd only take it if he could get Joe Hannon [then the schools superintendent] to give me a leave of absence. Now, to be honest, I didn't really want the state job as much as I wanted Cronin to mention my name to Hannon. See, I have always had an ability to look at circumstances and see potential connections. In this case I figured Cronin would call Hannon to ask if I could work for him. And Hannon would wonder, 'Hmm, who is this guy Corcoran?' Well, I'll be damned if Hannon didn't call my house one day at seven in the morning. Rita says, 'You just missed Tom. He's on his way to work.' That really impressed Hannon, because he's an ex-marine who likes guys who get up early. Hannon calls my office and says, 'I've heard some things about you. Let's talk.' The connection had been made just as I wanted. A few weeks later I went to work for Hannon."

In those days the board's central office was at 228 N. LaSalle, but Hannon wanted Corcoran to work as a special assistant at the Center for Urban Education, a think tank Hannon was establishing in a vacant school not far from Cabrini-Green. From his new vantage point Corcoran could watch the system operate. He already knew a lot of lower-echelon bureaucrats; now he was able to watch the real players--the central-office power brokers--as they sucked up to the boss and stabbed each other in the back trying to persuade Hannon of their indispensability. "For Joe, CUE was a getaway place," says Corcoran. "It's where he came to get away from all the petty office politics. It's where he could concentrate on cutting-edge solutions."

The headaches of managing CUE fell to Corcoran and his top assistant, Norma Tsuhako, a former school clerk. He supervised the rehab of the old school that housed CUE, dealing with the trade unions and scavenging throughout the system to find desks, chairs, pencils, paper, and phones. Through CUE's office each day streamed dozens of volunteers assigned by Hannon to tackle one issue or another--including Tee Galley, Steve Ballis (now a board member), Illa Daggett, and Annie Harris, all of whom would remain active in school affairs for years to come. Hannon preached the importance of public service and made Corcoran feel he was part of an audacious experiment. (Corcoran still has in his office a photograph Hannon gave him of John and Robert Kennedy huddled in conversation.)

"Tom was capable and responsive," says Galley, who sat with Ballis and Daggett on the City Wide Advisory Committee, which was supposed to concoct a desegregation plan that would avoid court-ordered busing. "It was a difficult situation. He [oversaw the] details of getting an old building into shape, while dealing with the needs of all of us volunteers. When we needed something, we turned to Tom."

Only once during his tenure at CUE did Corcoran's name pop into the papers. That happened in April 1978, after Hannon fired Ed Welling, the director of the advisory committee. "Joe asked Ed to step down, and Ed refused," Corcoran recalls. "When Joe heard that Ed was going to attend a committee meeting, he called me on the phone and said, 'Get that son of a bitch and get him out of there.'"

So Corcoran marched into the meeting 45 minutes after it had started and, according to an article in the Tribune, said, "I am authorized to inform you Dr. Welling has been relieved of his duties. If he speaks, he speaks as a private citizen."

When that story broke, people outside CUE began to follow Corcoran a little more carefully. "After the Welling incident I called Corcoran the 'eyes of the czar,'" says George Schmidt, a high school English teacher who's written extensively about the schools. "He was clearly Hannon's guy."

But that meant nothing, because Hannon's power was short-lived. In November 1979 the board went bankrupt, the result of fiscal mismanagement, and Hannon resigned. The system was in turmoil, under state orders to cut spending and trim staff. Corcoran had made the mistake he'd wanted to avoid: he'd become too dependent on one patron, and now that patron was gone. Like everyone else, Corcoran was left to fend for himself.

About 200 people have shown up for the April public-comment session--a mixed crowd of African American political activists, Hispanic mothers from the northwest side, truancy officers, custodians, and the regular gadflies and grumblers.

The guards at the door, mothers with children, political activists say hello to Corcoran, addressing him as Tom. "How's your son?" he asks one man. "Tell him I say Hi." One activist who was late signing up on the first-come-first-speak list asks if Corcoran will let him speak early so he won't have to wait around all day. Corcoran promises to do what he can. A television reporter asks about the budget. "After the meeting, when I have a little more time," Corcoran says.

Corcoran's proud of these monthly public-comment sessions. He designed the format. Each speaker is given two minutes to discuss any school-related issue before the board, though speakers can accumulate more time by speaking on behalf of allies who've signed up. Fifty-four speakers have signed up for today's hearing. It's ten o'clock. If all goes smoothly testimony should run until one. Then the board will break for 30 minutes before beginning its regular meeting.

"A few housekeeping matters," Corcoran tells the audience, most of whom have heard this spiel many times before. Rest rooms, phones, and water fountains are down the hall, he explains, and Spanish-speaking translators are available. "If you find yourself getting nervous, please just step back for a moment," he says, his voice softening. "Take a deep breath and start again. I'll wait. We are very interested in hearing what you have to say. I don't want you to think you're being rushed."

The session starts with testimony from the custodians, who are protesting the board's budget-cutting proposal to eliminate some of their jobs. Then a man reads an essay titled "What Is the Board Doing to Meet the Challenge of the Year 2000?" Then four different truancy officers protest board plans to eliminate their jobs. Most of them start to repeat themselves and go over the time limit. Little children in the audience are stirring; a baby starts to cry. Almost an hour has passed, but 40 speakers are still left.

Corcoran interrupts. "You need to come to a summation."

The truant officer at the podium looks at Corcoran. Corcoran looks back. "How many minutes do we have?" the truant officer asks.

Corcoran looks at his watch. "You have 13 minutes."

The officer nods and his testimony continues.

Shortly after she was appointed superintendent in March 1981, Ruth Love needed someone to write a grant application for federal funds to help pay for the system's desegregation effort. Corcoran volunteered for the job. "I knew a few things about grant writing from my years with Ed and Bryant, but even if I didn't I would have seized that task," says Corcoran. "Ruth Love didn't know about me. I was a nobody, a minnow in the sea, but this was my chance to prove my value to her. A lot of people didn't want anything to do with that grant because integration was so controversial. But I told Love I was ready to take the challenge precisely because it would be tough."

The 600-page document secured nearly $2 million in federal dollars, and Love quickly hired Corcoran to work on grants in the central office. A few months later board president Raul Villalobos invited him to lunch and asked if he would replace the board's current secretary, who was retiring.

On the surface it was a low-level position: the secretary's main functions are to maintain board records and oversee the board's bidding process. But Villalobos was looking for more than a record keeper. He wanted a central-office insider who could help the board change the system. "I didn't want someone bogged down by traditions," says Villalobos. "I didn't want someone who would say, 'We have to do it this way because we've done it this way a zillion times before.'"

Corcoran immediately told Love of the offer. "She said, 'What do you want with that nothing job?' But I didn't see it that way. I have always considered a staff job a very honorable, very credible position. If you provide solid advice, well, you can influence the decision makers. Ruth said, 'What can I do to keep you working for me?' I told her I'd like to be her chief of staff. Ruth said we'd talk about that later. I said I didn't have the luxury to wait that long."

In July 1981 the board gave Corcoran the job for a year (last December it extended his $95,000-a-year contract until August 1995). Corcoran hired Tsuhako as his assistant, and she took charge of computerizing the board's antiquated record-keeping system. Together they devised a new, more open bidding process for all vendors, in which the bid box was rolled out every Tuesday afternoon and bids withdrawn, announced, and recorded for everyone to see. "No vendor ever tried any funny stuff," says Corcoran. "They knew better. The secretary's office used to receive all sorts of gifts at Christmas--bottles of booze and various products. I sent them back with a little note saying, 'Please, no more.'"

At the time the system was in flux--it was no longer the domain of powerful central-office white men who could ignore black parents. Blacks and Hispanics now made up roughly 80 percent of student enrollment, and they were determined to exercise their clout.

The board was also changing. It had previously been an acquiescent assortment of housewives and businessmen. The new board included several young and outspoken black, white, and Hispanic activists. Villalobos, a lawyer and the first Hispanic elected board president, made it clear to Corcoran that he didn't want the board to be Love's rubber stamp. "I told Tom that I wanted to have someone who could provide the board with fresh and independent information. I didn't want to be dependent on the superintendent's staff, especially if we were going to be held accountable for all the decisions that we made."

Unfortunately for Villalobos, Love was much more popular--with politicians, reporters, and business leaders--than he or any board member was. The board members weren't even certain how independent they should be. Many black members felt it was disrespectful to accord Love anything short of the unconditional support her white predecessors had received. Privately they suspected that some of Love's critics on the board couldn't tolerate a black woman in such a prominent and powerful position. "You'd have board members asking her questions like, How many teachers are there at Lane High School?" says William Farrow, a former board member. "Now how's the head of a multibillion-dollar operation supposed to know a detail like that? They were trying to embarrass her."

It didn't help that the board's two most prominent Hispanic members, Villalobos and Myrna Salazar, thought Love was ignoring issues that concerned their community. "We had some serious policy disputes with her on issues like overcrowding," says Villalobos. "Ruth tried to roll over the board. She underemphasized the board. She once told me that we are nothing. We have no power. We are just appointees. We just obey. I said, 'Ruth, you're wrong. If you have that opinion, it will be your downfall.'"

Taking it all in--eyes open, mouth shut--was Corcoran. "Two years into Ruth's tenure, I knew she was in trouble," he says. "The board has five blacks, three whites, and three Hispanics. Almost everyone but the African Americans was against her."

As Corcoran saw it, the swing vote was George Munoz, the young Mexican American lawyer appointed to the board in 1983 by Mayor Harold Washington. "George was new on the board and had just been voted president when the issue of Ruth's contract exploded. Ruth was publicly demanding that the board act on her contract, and I don't think George was ready to take her on. But the Hispanics thought that Ruth had been disrespectful to Raul. Myrna Salazar did a number on George. She sat him down and said, 'You cannot let her treat Raul like this.'"

On July 23, 1984, roughly a year before Love's contract was to expire, the board voted six to five to reject a proposal to offer her a new contract. The African Americans voted for Love, and the whites and Hispanics voted against her (the position was immediately offered to Manford Byrd Jr.).

Board members say Corcoran played no role in that insurrection. Love, who could not be reached for comment, did not name him as a defendant in her $12-million discrimination suit against the board (which she eventually settled without receiving any money). Corcoran says, "Of course I stayed out of that fight--it would be suicidal for me to jump in the middle of a conflict between board members. I knew there were factions. I knew who was on which side. I knew what people were saying to each other. But I kept it to myself. That's the way I am. If you tell me something in confidence or if you seek my advice in confidence, I keep it to myself. I will never, ever get involved in a board fight. If I were to have gotten involved with the anti-Love slate, five board members would have hated me."

He emerged from the fray with stronger ties to all the board members. They were roundly criticized for dumping Love, but he was loyal and dutiful, counseling members from both factions on parliamentary procedure, massaging their pride when they were excoriated in the press. At one point when Love was still a lame duck, he even blocked her from entering a closed-door meeting of the board. "That was tough to do," he says. "But the board wanted me to do it, and I had made it clear to Ruth, as I have made it clear to every superintendent, that I serve the board."

His loyalty was appreciated. "Tom was a great secretary, for all of us," says Farrow. "He's brilliant." Munoz says, "Tom is someone that every board member could trust. That was part of the message the veterans passed to newcomers just joining the board--you could trust Tom."

His stock with the board rose even higher when the central headquarters was moved to the old Army munitions warehouse at 1819 W. Pershing Road. "That move was made on the business community's recommendation," says Corcoran. "They had done a study and concluded that it would make sense to consolidate our operations into one building. Who were we to argue? [U.S. Representative Dan] Rostenkowski got us the building for almost nothing--I think we got the title for $1. Of course, it was a public-relations disaster."

That's putting it mildly. The central-office headquarters became a national symbol of bureaucratic waste. It took three years and $28 million to rehab the three separate six-story buildings, each subdivided into a bewildering array of cubicles. "It was this enormous white elephant stuck way out where it was hard to get to," says Corcoran. "Every time a TV reporter was going to do a story attacking the board, they'd film the endless aisles of Pershing Road. If I had to do it over again I'd fight like hell against moving here, no matter what the business community said."

Yet the central-office move also enhanced Corcoran's stature, making the board even more dependent on his ability to maneuver within the system. He did for board members what he'd done for the volunteers at CUE, on a grander scale. He saw to it that they each had a private office, telephone, stationery, envelopes, stamps, and staff. He designed the layout of the board chambers--making sure there were separate rooms for committee meetings--and even decided what artifacts, including old school clocks and bells, hung on the wall.

"At [the old office] the board members shared two cubicles," says Corcoran. "If they wanted to make a phone call they had to wait until the cubicle was available. That's ridiculous. I figured, these are citizen volunteers serving on the hottest board in the city, and they should at least have a little room where they can shut the door and conduct their business in private."

By the time the Pershing Road headquarters was completed, Corcoran had been on the job for six years and his relationship with the board had changed. He had become less of a functionary and more of a leader. Or maybe the two were like old dance partners, embracing so tightly that no one could tell who was leading whom. It didn't really matter. The board gratefully allowed Corcoran free rein on technical matters--and he could be fiercely defensive about such things, fending off, for instance, any attempt to change the design of the chambers. Yet he remained behind the scenes, unknown to the general public, never attempting to steal the board's limelight. He talked to reporters, but never for attribution and never on TV. He never socialized with politicians or wormed his way into the gossip columns. He was low-key even in his private life. On weekends he played tennis on public courts or went for bike rides with his wife. Every year he would drive downstate with Shig Murao, the old basketball coach at Waller, to watch the state high school basketball championship. His best friends remained the guys from the old gang in Chase Park.

Most important, he rarely expressed his own views on substantive policy matters. He was very cautious about that. The last thing he wanted was to be on the losing side of a passionately waged policy fight. Instead, he became, in effect, the board's chief strategist. The members told him what they wanted, and he got it done. "I'm very realistic," he says. "I would sit down with each board member when they came on and advise them to set a few important, very specific attainable goals. There's really only so much one member can accomplish. And I would pledge to do what I can to help them accomplish their goals."

When Farrow decided the board should be more accessible, Corcoran took meetings on the road: moving sound equipment, desks, chairs, and a stenography machine from school to school all over the city. When Frances Davis wanted minorities to get a larger share of board contracts, Corcoran helped draft an affirmative-action plan. He also arranged meetings on the subject, calling on experts to give testimony, sitting with the lawyers as they haggled over the fine print. It didn't matter that Corcoran--something of a conservative Democrat--had never before showed an interest in affirmative action. What mattered was that Davis wanted it, as did many of the more outspoken activists who regularly attended board meetings (though in time Corcoran himself became a passionate champion of affirmative action).

So it went with other matters as well, including the board's program to distribute condoms in several high school health clinics and to establish a policy regarding students and teachers with AIDs. "I may not have initiated the idea for any of these policies," says Corcoran, "but I'm very proud of the fact that I helped create the policy- development process. You just don't say, 'Hey, let's have a policy on affirmative action.' You do background studies, you hold hearings, you develop your rationale, you run proposals through staff and budget and legal review. You look for precedents, court rulings that might shoot it down. You place the issue before committee. You frame it for discussion. You lobby the other board members for their support. It's work--hard work."

All the time these policies were being developed, the school system was in constant turmoil and often skewered by the press. But Corcoran was never criticized. Calamities rained down around him--teacher strikes, lawsuits, financial crises--but he never got wet. His office, which oversees the annual disbursement of millions of dollars worth of contracts, was untouched by even the suggestion of impropriety. And not once was he smeared with the charge of racism. "At first some people in the African American community assumed Tom was an obstructionist who worked for the white establishment," says Sharon Grant, a grass-roots activist before she came to the board. "Then a funny thing happened. As more blacks rose to positions of power, people realized that Tom served the black board members just like he served the white ones. And that they needed him just like everyone else."

Corcoran says he worked hard to build bridges with black activists. "A lot of the African American activists, like Bob Johnson and James Deanes, I've been seeing them at the public hearings for years. Geez, Bob Johnson--I remember when his children were in kindergarten. Bob would use them to accumulate time. He would sign his kids up to speak, and then his kid would walk up to the podium and say, 'I yield my time to my dad.' Would I let him get away with it? Yes. Was I bending the rules a little? OK. But I wasn't hurting anyone. Here was a man with something to say and the willingness to come downtown and say it. You have to respect that. By the way, Bob's kids have grown, and sometimes they'll come in and speak at public hearings on their own."

It was the gadflies who irritated him--the disgruntled parents, dissident teachers, and do-gooder number crunchers who paraded down to Pershing Road from time to time, demanding that more money be spent in the classrooms. To Corcoran, they were a bunch of do-nothing whiners, who bellyached mainly for the pleasure of hearing themselves complain. To them, Corcoran had become precisely what Villalobos had hired him not to be--a manipulative back-room operator with a fiercely misguided allegiance to the way things were run.

As they saw it, it wasn't so much that Corcoran had done anything wrong; since he operated behind the scenes they didn't know what he'd done. It was that he'd become too much a part of a system that stifled initiative, squandered resources, fed its pupils cockamamy curriculum, and incited needless teacher strikes--a system clearly drifting toward the rocks.

"If you start from the assumption that there is something terribly wrong with the way these schools are run, then it defies all logic to say that Corcoran shares no blame," says Bernie Noven, a social worker in the schools and a longtime activist. "It's not as though he's just some faceless servant. He's been on the inside for years. It's clear to me that the guy who runs the board is Corcoran, that when people come into the system they don't know anything and everyone is dependent on him."

In September 1987 the system was shut down for three weeks by a disastrous teacher strike. In the aftermath an odd coalition of parents, business leaders, and all the old powerless gadflies persuaded Governor Thompson and the state legislature to pass a school-reform law.

The new law placed each school under the control of an elected local school council. The old school board was ousted and replaced by an interim board of seven, appointed by Mayor Richard Daley. Once again the central office was rocked by talk of decentralization and massive dismissals. At long last the revolution had arrived and many of the "revolutionaries" figured Corcoran would be among the first to go.

After the truant officers finish speaking at the public-comment session, Hispanic parents complain about a principal. Then an African American teacher, upset about the way geography is taught, challenges the board to name the 47 countries of Africa. No one accepts the test. Someone calls the board members a bunch of superwimps. Then a woman launches into a prepared statement in Spanish.

Almost everyone exceeds the two-minute limit. They've been at it for more than three hours, and judging from all the names left on the sign-up sheet, there's another hour to go. The room has no windows; it's hot and airless. A reporter fights off sleep, her chin in hand and eyelids fluttering. The board members stifle yawns, shift in their chairs, and try to look interested. The speaker drones on.

I'm finding it hard to concentrate. There have been so many woeful tales--the problems in the system are as big as the Pershing Road behemoth we're in. I start to wonder how many African countries I can name. I'm at 15 before my mind shuts off. You can almost hear the buzzing of the fluorescent lights. The reporter's eyes close, her head cradled in her hand. I'm hungry. The board lawyer sitting nearby opens a can of pop. I'd die for a sip. We all seem to have lost our sharpness, turned to mush. Except for Corcoran. He's sitting ramrod straight, eyes glued to his watch. "Time," he says. The Spanish-speaking lady stops, and another speaker starts.

In those first few days of reform in the summer of 1989, Pershing Road was charged with bold promises and stirring rhetoric. The interim board was led by James Compton, president of the Urban League. It also included Bill Singer, corporate lawyer and City Hall insider; Joan Jeter Slay, longtime activist; Adela Coronado-Greeley, a schoolteacher; and Joe Reed, a retired AT&T executive. They were billed as an uncompromising band of determined reformers. Backed by budget watchdog groups and community organizations, they vowed to clean the deadwood from the system and redistribute millions of dollars in central-office salaries to the classrooms, pledging that every child in every school would score above the national average in math and reading within five years.

There was only one problem--none of the new board members or their allies knew the slightest thing about running the system. Schools still had to open, employees still had to be paid, and supplies still had to be ordered. They quickly realized that it was easier to criticize the system than run it, particularly when so many central-office employees fiercely resented them.

Corcoran did for the interim board members what he'd done for their predecessors--found them office space, saw that their documents were typed--and then some. When they wanted to have a big rally celebrating reform, he choreographed the event. When they wanted to fly all over the country conducting their nationwide search for the ideal "reform-minded" superintendent, he booked their flights. He also helped them sift through the countless reams of contracts and legal documents the system churns out.

"You'd find yourself in a pinch, and then you'd look to Tom to bail you out," says John Ayers, an aide to Joe Reed. "Joe used to say that people at the board couldn't organize a one-car funeral, and to a large degree that's true of everyone but Corcoran. It's kind of funny because when you think about it, his should have been the first head to roll. I mean, he was the power behind the throne, and this was the revolution."

The interim board's biggest task was to hire a superintendent. They solicited the assistance of a select panel of advisers, all of them education experts, to produce a list of the best and brightest candidates from across the country. Working in secret--on the grounds that their negotiations with the leading contenders were too fragile for public view--the board whittled the list down to one: Willie Herenton, the superintendent of the Memphis schools. They were all set to unleash a full-scale public-relations campaign, proclaiming Herenton the system's latest savior, when they discovered through a routine background check that Herenton was involved in a messy lawsuit with a former aide.

The board members were in a bind: hiring Herenton would be too controversial, but they didn't want to return to the contenders they'd already rejected. So Corcoran got on the phone and started calling around. From a colleague in California he got the name of a superintendent outside of Los Angeles, Ted Kimbrough, who'd just received the state's superintendent of the year award. Within a few days Singer and Compton flew out to meet Kimbrough, and not long after that they announced he was their choice, gushing that their nationwide search had yielded the greatest possible champion of Chicago-style reform.

In retrospect the hiring was a fiasco. It made a mockery of the well-intended activists who allowed themselves to be used as cheerleaders at Kimbrough's coronation. And it soon became obvious that Kimbrough had no intention of dismantling the central office and redistributing power to the LSCs. Within a year he was bickering with various LSCs over who should control how schools spend their discretionary antipoverty funds and who they hire for security guards, among other things.

The board members didn't blame Corcoran for Kimbrough's performance. Why should they? It wasn't as though he'd urged them to hire Kimbrough. He had no stake in his selection. If anything, Corcoran had bailed them out by finding them a superintendent.

To some reformers, like Noven, it seemed that the interim board had allowed itself to be deceived by Corcoran. "I've watched Corcoran operate for years," says Noven. "If you have power, he either kowtows to you or seduces you. If you don't have power, you're ignored. A person like me? I'm extremely critical of the board. I'm aggressive. I attack. But I don't have any great power."

At one point during the summer of 1989 Noven was invited into the inner sanctum of Pershing Road when Joan Jeter Slay asked him to work on a project involving special education. "At first the clerks were extremely cooperative," Noven says. "They even typed for me. But Corcoran was different. He would walk by me and say curt things. After a couple of days of him glaring at me the clerks changed. It was like a blade had dropped. They said, 'Sorry, Mr. Noven, we can't type this. Mr. Corcoran says you have to have his permission.' Every time I needed a page typed I'd have to ask Singer to ask Corcoran to have it typed. Corcoran listened to Singer, because Singer was tied to City Hall."

Noven and others urged the interim board to fire Corcoran. But they didn't, and in time their dependency on Corcoran became a joke among reformers. It was even rumored that Corcoran tricked them into extending his contract--a rumor all parties deny. "There was some talk of bringing in a new secretary, but we decided we didn't know anything and we needed his experience," says Slay. "I'll give you an example. I wanted phone operators to be on-line when people called seeking information about the first LSC elections. Well, everybody was confused about where we were going to get those operators. But Tom comes into my office and closes the door and says, 'Joan, you tell me what you want, and I'll get it for you.' It turns out we had phone operators on the site who could do the job and we didn't even know it.

"Some of us on the interim board were among the most paranoid people in the world. I didn't trust Tom at first. But after that incident with the phone operators I sort of reminded myself to listen to Tom. I decided that maybe I should step back and learn something from this fellow. He doesn't have my view of the world, but he gave me an appreciation for knowing the rules. And I'll tell you this, he loves the Chicago school system. He has a total commitment to it."

In 1990 the interim board made way for a permanent board of 15. In 17 months the board had gone from 11 to 7 to 15 members, all of them representing different constituencies, neighborhoods, and points of view. The new board was supposed to be part of a new age of local control, in which each school controlled its own destiny. Yet the LSC members were new and naive, and many crucial decisions, particularly money ones, remained in the hands of central- office operatives. Parental participation was low. Incompetent teachers hung on to their jobs, thanks to work rules buried in union contracts. There was never enough money, and the system seemed to waste what little it had. So much time was spent treading water--keeping schools from closing instead of, say, building better ones. Some board members seemed mesmerized by the power and trappings of Pershing Road. Their attention was diverted by petty feuds and personality spats. They told themselves that reform was working, but test scores remained low and dropout rates high.

Some people blamed Corcoran for the problems, if for no other reason than that he seemed to be the only one capable of getting anything done. "You can't get anything through that board without Tom," says Pat Daley, a board member at the time. "It seems the board members are never in a room alone without him present. But they're afraid to speak up when he's around. I can't really explain it. It has to do with the dynamics of group psychology. He's very good at making himself indispensable. He would come into your office, close the door, and talk to you--like he was very interested in you and your cause. He could be sweet. He would be interested in your families. He would be interested in your causes. He would tell you what you didn't know and keep you posted on all the gossip. And then one time I asked Tom to order some curriculum things, and he said we can't afford it. I was shocked. It wasn't a question of money; the material wasn't that expensive. It was an issue of power. Tom felt he, the secretary, had the authority to overrule me, the board member, on a matter of curriculum. It was his way of letting me know that he was in charge."

Daley wanted her colleagues to hire a new secretary. But they ignored her. They thought it was absurd to heap so much blame on one employee--particularly when he was as valuable as Corcoran was. And they resented the suggestion that they dangled from his string. "Tom doesn't tell us what to do," says Steve Ballis. "He makes suggestions, and he tells us what other boards have done in the past so we won't repeat anyone's mistakes. But he doesn't order us around."

"Tom's most valuable asset is his ability to appear as though he's not taking a position," adds Sharon Grant. "He'll call me and say, 'We have a problem.' And I'll say, 'What should we do?' And he'll say, 'No, no, no--don't get me into that.' He wants me to say how it should be done."

It also seemed apparent to many board members that Corcoran had adapted to the changes around him. He spoke like a reformer (using such buzzwords as "empowerment" and "local control") and worked well with the leading reform groups, particularly the School Board Nominating Commission. When Kimbrough left, having lost favor with most board members, Corcoran designed the process to find a replacement. It was more open than the back-room process that unearthed Kimbrough. The finalists were paraded before the public, which was invited to comment on whom it liked best.

"In this day of reform the search for a superintendent should be as open as you can make it," says Corcoran. "If you want to be superintendent of the country's third-largest school system, hey, it's Front Street. It gives the LSCs and parents a feeling that they had more of a say in the selection."

Corcoran had started stepping out of the shadows. He stopped speaking only for background and let his name appear in print. Gradually it became clear that he was thinking about his place in board history. He wanted to be remembered as more than a fix-it man. He kept the Kennedys on his wall for a reason. "There's honor in public service," he says. During his years with the board he says he dealt with some of the brightest minds of corporate Chicago. He believes he could have made it in their world had he wanted to.

He refuses to bad-mouth any board member, even those who criticize him. "I hold no grudge against Pat Daley. Board members do not always feel [I'm] acting in their individual best interests. I try to advise and act in their collective best interest. If they don't approve, they let me know."

He's less hesitant about criticizing Noven and other outsiders. "In that first summer of reform some people, like Bernie, had access. But not everyone had access. Did Bob Johnson have access? Did James Deanes have access? Or the grass-roots parents? Or the African American activists who supported Manford [Byrd]? No, they did not. Some people felt they had all the answers--they were just going to roll this bowling ball down the middle of Pershing Road and let the pins fall where they may without any regard to the consequences. Did I fight some of those proposals? Yes I did. I said then and I say now, the school system is a very important institution in the minority community. Some of these central-office workers who devoted their careers to this institution are anchors of the black middle-class community. It may not be Bernie Noven's community, but that doesn't mean we should ignore it. I keep my perspective. In the whole history of this institution that summer was a blip. That's all--just a blip."

And the charge that he controls board members? "Not true. I may explain things to them, I may show them the correct parliamentary procedure to follow, and I argue my point of view. But I don't tell anybody to do anything. Think about some of the board members I have served. Frances Davis was education director for Operation PUSH, Mattie Hopkins marched with Dr. King in the south, Clark Burrus was the executive vice president of First National Bank. Now think about me manipulating them--it's laughable."

Throughout the early part of this past summer he kept very busy, particularly in the search for a new superintendent. He was enthusiastic about the process, boasting that it was the most open in the country. When the board settled on Argie Johnson, he was almost ecstatic. "I think Argie has the potential to galvanize the school-reform movement and be superintendent for years. She will be an educator for teachers and children first."

He immersed himself in the details of bringing Johnson to town--plane tickets, hotel accommodations, media interviews. He was heading for another superintendent coronation, to be followed by a grueling month of labor negotiations with the teachers' union, when one morning in late July he announced that he was thinking of quitting.

He explained it was because of the board's early-retirement incentive plan, known as five and five, which offered veteran employees a onetime, take-it-or-leave-it opportunity to add hundreds of dollars to their monthly pension checks if they retired by August 15. "This is a very personal decision," he said. "I owe it to my wife to at least seriously consider this offer."

But what would he do? "A lot of things. I might travel for a year, just to unwind. I might go into the corporate world. My wife and I might even join the Peace Corps. There's a lot I can do."

But would the board, which seemed to see him as irreplaceable, let him go? "No one's irreplaceable," he scoffed. "Hannon, Love, Byrd, Kimbrough--look what happened to them. I don't want to go through that. I want to leave on my terms. This system won't stay the same forever. It's changing all the time. We're facing a $415-million budget deficit. We can't make that money up in cuts. We'll have to go to the state. Maybe they'll make us change the board again. Maybe the new board won't like Tom Corcoran. Nothing is for certain."

A few weeks later he was in a sixth-floor central-office conference room, where hundreds of teachers and administrators had gathered for a workshop on five and five. He'd made up his mind. As he stood to the side in a very busy corridor, scores of principals and administrators--men and women he'd met years ago--came by to shake his hand.

"I'm out of here, Tom," one north-side principal told him. "Let someone else worry about these problems."

Corcoran laughed, but he looked a little sad, as though he were already an old-timer who'd been left behind.

A few hours later he met with board president Sharon Grant to announce his resignation. She pleaded with him to stay, saying the board needed his services, particularly now, as they headed into such uncertain times. She suggested the board might retain his services as a consultant.

Absolutely not, he replied, arguing that it would be inappropriate for him to receive consulting fees. However, if someone made a call to the business community, to the civic-minded leaders acquainted with his good work, and they offered to put up some foundation money--then maybe he could stay. By the end of August the deal was set: Chicago United, a philanthropic consortium of business leaders, offered to pay Corcoran's salary, and Corcoran agreed to stay one more year as a consultant. Norma Tsuhako was promoted to the position of secretary. (Corcoran will also work as director of business and planning for George Munoz's law firm. "Basically, I will oversee office operations and use my planning skills for certain clients and issues," Corcoran says.)

His critics were almost speechless. "That guy has more lives than a cat," gasped one.

Board members were delighted to have retained Corcoran's services for another year, even as they busied themselves with plans for a "good-bye" reception. They held the party on August 25 at the break between the public-comment session and the board's regularly scheduled meeting. It was in Conference Room A, one of the three hearing rooms Corcoran had designed, and more than 40 past and present board members showed up, including a few big shots such as Compton, Singer, and Villalobos. It felt a little like a high school reunion. They laughed about old times, bragged about their children and grandchildren, and showered Corcoran with handshakes, hugs, and kisses.

"Old Tom," said one board member, shaking his head in admiration. "He always had things figured out."

Within 45 minutes most of the guests left. Corcoran was in a hurry to get on with his day. There was still the regular board meeting, to be followed by another round of negotiations with the union. He'd probably be busy all night and well into the morning.

At 2:30 the last of the 54 speakers at the April meeting has finished, and Corcoran leads me back to his office. I'm hungry and exhausted.

"It's a meat grinder, huh?" he says with a smile. But he doesn't even look winded. "Take a seat and catch your breath. We have the regular meeting in a half hour."

On his desk behind a pile of phone messages and just in front of my chair sits a plate of steaming-hot mostaccioli. I try not to stare. Where the hell did he find a plate of mostaccioli?

"Help yourself," he says. "It's for you. You must be hungry?"

"Thank you. Thank you very much."

He shrugs and smiles. He has his own plate of mostaccioli, but he doesn't seem interested in it. He has phone calls to return, and board members keep popping into his office with questions. I take a tiny bite, figuring I'll pick at the edges because it isn't polite to gobble down food. But the mostaccioli isn't half bad, and I can't help taking a big forkful and then another. One of his secretaries pops into the room and offers me a cold can of Pepsi. I pop the top and take a big sip. I mop up the sauce with my bread. Then this little piece of tomato sauce drips from my fork onto his desk. I feel awful. He's being so nice, and I've dirtied his desk. I don't wipe it up because that would only draw attention to it.

"This is delicious," I say.

"What?" he asks.

I realize I'm speaking with my mouth full. "I said, this is delicious."

He smiles and discreetly wipes the tomato sauce from his desk. "Good," he says. "Glad I can help."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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