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New York City Schools Chancellor Harold Levy on the phone in his office in downtown Brooklyn, N.Y., Thursday, May 11, 2000. Levy, then head of the country’s largest school system, pushed for music and poetry in a system plagued with rats, guns and crumbling school buildings. “Art and music are the hook by which we get the attention of students who might otherwise drift away,” Levy said. Credit: AP Photo/Suzanne Plunkett

New York – The first time I met Harold O. Levy, he looked oddly out of place at the grimy Board of Education headquarters in downtown Brooklyn, sporting a crisply starched pastel shirt with a white collar and a double-breasted pin-striped suit.

This was 1995. Levy, a corporate lawyer, son of a hardware store owner and graduate of New York City’s public schools, was announcing findings from a volunteer commission he headed. Angrily, he listed deplorable conditions they’d uncovered: crumbling buildings, rotting windows, archaic coal-fired furnaces.

Children struggled to learn while schools in the nation’s largest system were falling apart and in need of billions in new investments, Levy said, adding bluntly: “No one would tolerate this in the private sector.”

Levy, who died Tuesday at age 65 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, (known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) looked more Wall Street executive than educator, with his slick-backed hair and suspenders, clutching one of those clunky new-fangled blackberry phones you could read your emails on. At the time, I had no idea (and I doubt Levy did either) that five years later he would become the city’s first businessman and non-educator to become chancellor, New York’s sixth in 11 years.

Levy’s building commission struck a nerve. As a reporter covering city schools for now defunct New York Newsday, I began visiting schools from Queens to the Bronx to see for myself, compiling records and photos and publishing the horrific results.

Five years later, I saw Levy once again, in his 10th-floor office at the Board of Education, now a luxury condo building. This time, he was interim chancellor. He was, as ever, dressed in his corporate uniform, which seemed even more out of place, considering he’d spent the morning scanning the garbage bins to make sure they’d been emptied.

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Levy had already made headlines by declaring the building “an absolute pigsty” and threatening to fire the janitor. His blunt, take-no-prisoners approach jolted the sprawling bureaucracy overseeing more than 1.1 million students, along with its divided, highly political board. He pushed unheard-of accountability and organizational measures.

Children struggled to learn while schools in the nation’s largest system were falling apart and in need of billions in new investments, Levy said, adding bluntly: “No one would tolerate this in the private sector.”

I had prepared a long list of questions about his transition from businessman to educator, and expected he would be arrogant and impenetrable. The day of the interview, my babysitter was late, so with great trepidation and many apologies I wheeled a stroller containing my sleeping baby into the interview.

Within minutes, Levy was showing off photos of his daughter Hannah and son Noah. Years later, he would still ask me about the baby, now a New York City public school graduate and college student.

From then on, Levy was surprisingly available and articulate – and unfailingly honest. If he didn’t like a story, he had no problem letting you know exactly why, in excruciating detail, at an improbably early hour.

“This is Harold,” he would say, as if I didn’t already know. Reporters always called him Harold.

Harold relished the massive and often impossible job he’d voluntarily taken on, one that his wife, architect Pat Sapinsley, said she was shocked he wanted. My reaction was, ‘who in their right mind would take such a terrible job?’ ” she told New York Magazine.

And it was terrible, for awhile. Harold frequently clashed with bulldog Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who had been highly critical of previous chancellors. He endured press scrutiny for sending his own children to private school and asking for a monthly stipend to remain in his home instead of moving to the Brooklyn Heights brownstone the board had purchased for its revolving-door cast of chancellors.

He also caught plenty of flak for a failed effort to have the for-profit Edison Schools take over five troubled city schools, but was unapologetic, arguing that some of the schools were so bad “that I am embarrassed…I need to do something to move these schools off the bottom. The school system did a terrible job.”

Harold was also a visionary who started new specialized high schools, an expanded and unprecedented summer school program and a fellowship for bringing in new teachers from different fields.

I saw a lot more of Harold after the tragedy of September 11, when two hijacked commercial planes flew into World Trade Center. My older son was in kindergarten at a public school a few blocks away. Cleanup and recovery took months, amid many questions about air quality and safety. Harold frequently visited the downtown schools that had to close for months afterwards.

I think he expected to stay chancellor for a very long time after that. But when Michael Bloomberg became mayor, he wanted his own man and hired another non-educator, Joel Klein, to usher in a new era of change with mayoral control.

Reporters who covered Harold Levy visited him at home in January. From left, Harold Levy, Carol Anne Riddell, author Liz Willen and Jeff Simmons. Credit: Photo by Pat Sapinsley

Harold and I stayed in touch after he started Kaplan University’s online School of Education, and then became a managing director at Palm Venture Fund. I suspected he always missed being chancellor.

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When I became editor of The Hechinger Report eight years ago, I asked Harold to join my advisory committee. He offered advice on everything from fundraising to education technology and online learning.

When he took the helm of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, Harold convinced his board that high-quality journalism about the inequality that permeates education was a worthwhile investment. The foundation is now among our numerous supporters.

Less than a year ago, we had a tearful lunch at one of his favorite neighborhood restaurants. As always, Harold told me what to order, including the lime rickey. He had just announced his illness and hadn’t yet lost his voice or mobility.

A few months later, two reporters who had covered Harold regularly joined me for a visit. He could no longer speak or eat, but he laughed as we marveled at the irony of dining inside a home we had once staked out.

We all came together again in April, watching Harold walk into CUNY’s graduate center for an emotional commemoration.

Speaker after speaker praised him, many in tears. We saw old television clips of his chancellor days. When the tribute ended, Harold took his wife’s arm and walked out. I knew I would not see him again.

This story was reported by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news site covering inequality and innovation

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