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December 19, 2012

Frank Macchiarola, an Extraordinary Man

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People reading Frank Macchiarola's obituary today will, no doubt, be struck at the variety of his achievements. Frank, who wrote for this site,  was widely regarded as the most successful New York Schools Chancellor, but he was also a success as a Law School Dean, Chair of Charter Commissions, CEO of the NYC Partnership and President of St Francis College.  I had worked with Frank in a few of these roles.  But it was only after I became Scholar in Residence at St. Francis that I saw the full dimensions of his extraordinary persona.

Slowly walking through the halls of St Francis with Frank, a school of nearly 3,000 students was itself an experience to remember.  I say slowly because every few steps a student would stop Frank to speak with him. After a warm greeting, the student would tell their college president what was new in their student lives.  And like the best of the old time ward politicians - Frank who was a member of the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club in Brooklyn - knew each by name and situation.

When Frank and I had lunch it was smack in the middle of the student cafeteria where he ate regularly.  And there as he and I talked about subjects such as the over-financialization of the national economy, the fiscal misgovernance of New York and the role of religion in enhancing democracy, we always paused when a student came by. Frank would first tell the student what we were talking about - suggesting that it was a topic he needed to pay attention to - then he would listen to their concerns. 

Some would come by to tell him that they had improved in their grades in an area where Frank had told them they needed to pick up the pace. Others would lay out an ongoing problem. He was warm but firm sometimes telling the student that they simply weren't working hard enough. This was in loco parentis in its very best form.   Listening, I was struck not only by how much he knew about each student but even more by his ability to connect with the student through the problem at hand. In talking to him, the students, as they told me, realized that he had really listened to them in their previous conversations. 

His father was a sanitation worker who placed a high value on education. Frank attended St Francis as an undergraduate before he went on to a law degree and a PhD. in Political Science at Colombia.  What he wanted for today's students, he told me, was the same kind of personal attention he had received as young student in the early 1960s. Frank's intelligence, warmth and concern suffuse the halls of St Francis. The successes of the St Francis students he has nurtured will be an important part of his legacy.


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