On the issue of educational equity, Tom Sobol is an unabashed friend of the people. On the issue of Tom Sobol, he takes a tougher line
When Tom Sobol was superintendent of schools in Scarsdale, New York, there was a guy named Bob who came to all the budget meetings—the classic, thorn-in-your-side self-appointed public citizen who haunts town halls across the nation.
“Bob used to roundly excoriate us for violating the public trust, and I had to hand it to him, he did a great job at doing his thing—he knew the budget better than just about anyone except me,” says Sobol.
It’s a warm spring day, and Sobol, 75, who retired in 2006 as TC’s first Christian A. Johnson Professor of Outstanding Educational Practice, is talking with an interviewer in his new office on the second floor of Grace Dodge Hall. (He still teaches one course per semester.) He is a kind-faced man whom time has given the craggy features of an eagle, with a thatch of white hair atop his head. His voice is soft, the result of medicine he takes for a spinal cord disorder that has left him without feeling in his legs, confined to a powered wheelchair; however, his eyes are clear and steady.
“Well, then Bob’s wife died, and he stopped coming to meetings. And one year, we were going along, and I knew the annual budget hearings were coming up, and I thought, I wonder how Bob is doing. So I picked up the phone and called him. I said, ‘How are you?,’ and he said, ‘Well, it’s hard getting along without Jane.’ I said, ‘Are you up on your numbers?,’ and of course, he was, he wouldn’t have been anything else. I said, ‘Are we going to see you out there at the meeting?,’ and he said, ‘No, I can’t drive anymore.’ And I said—and this was before my own legs gave out—‘Listen, the meeting is at eight, I’ll come around beforehand and pick you up, and we’ll go over together.’ So I did, and we drove over, and the meeting went along, and around nine o’clock, he stood up and roundly excoriated us for violating the public trust. And afterward I drove him home. I’ve always felt good about that.”
The story captures many familiar aspects of Sobol—the good Samaritan, whose many students and friends distributed “Noble Sobol” buttons for his retirement party; the adroit politician whose sense of community interaction (he wrote his doctoral thesis at TC on the subject) helped him become New York State’s Commissioner of Education under Governor Mario Cuomo; the dry, self-deprecating wit who effortlessly mixes quotes from Robert Frost, E.M. Forster and May Sarton with amusing stories of being “parked” by his grandchildren so they can ride around on his motorized wheelchair. Perhaps the most singular, however, is the man so concerned about choosing the moral course of action—and so committed to public engagement as the best means of arriving at it—that he quite literally imports his own toughest critics.