Remembering Mitchell Chester

On August 28, Harvard’s Memorial Church was packed with local and national education and policy leaders to say farewell to MA Commissioner Mitchell Chester. At the time of his death, he was the longest serving Commissioner of Education in the country and Massachusetts reaped the benefits of his steadfast leadership and commitment to children’s educational excellence and equity. Mitchell was also a HGSE graduate. Governor Charlie Baker and former U.S. Secretary of Education John King joined Paul Reville in providing remarks at the service. Reville's remarks are included below:

I have to tell you that as I prepared these remarks, I still didn’t really believe it, I was overcome with a sense of unreality, like a hazy bad dream. Was this a practical joke? Is he going to pop out with his mischievous grin? No. He couldn’t be gone, my colleague, my friend, our Commissioner. That firm hand, that persistent fighter, that straight-ahead guy. Gone. Totally unbelievable, but all of you are here, and I’ve pinched myself several times, so it must be true.

Like virtually everyone, I was bowled over by the news of Mitchell’s tragic and unexpected death, and I felt acutely bereft of the opportunity to say “good-bye.” When the media asked, I collected myself and said, “Mitchell was a rock-solid, centered leader with a great gyroscope that kept him balanced, yet relentlessly focused on equity, evidence of what’s best for children and the pursuit of a path with integrity. I will miss my friend and colleague.”

That’s a decent start, but there’s so much more to say about this man who was such a relentless force for good in our Commonwealth. We were so lucky to have been the beneficiaries of his leadership, just when we needed a steady hand at the helm.

I was lucky enough to have served as chair of the state Board of Education and the search effort that brought Mitchell to Massachusetts. It wasn’t an easy process. The competition was stiff and the process was complicated. Hundreds of people were involved and in classic Massachusetts tradition, they all rendered strong opinions. Nonetheless, Mitchell eventually emerged as the Board’s consensus choice.

Characteristically, he pondered his decision to accept the job deeply. One night we had dinner and he asked me, gently but bluntly, “Why don’t you take this job, Paul?” I responded that I appreciated the optimistic presumption that I’d get it even if I wanted it, then I mumbled something about being a policy guy, finally blurting out the truth, “God no, Mitchell, I’m much happier talking about the work. We need somebody, like you, to roll up his sleeves and do the work. You’re our guy!” 

Thank God, he took the job, but before he could arrive, the Legislature decided to change the education governance structure and Governor Patrick appointed me Secretary of Education, an honor for me to be sure, though now I’d have to do the work too. But for Mitchell, I and my new Executive Office of Education would sometimes represent just another layer of bureaucracy with which he’d have to contend. Over the years, he would jokingly but pointedly remind me that he considered the whole maneuver one big “bait and switch."   

Nonetheless, we became good colleagues and friends despite the many stresses and strains of leading the state’s education ship of state. I had known Mitchell only a bit before, but once he settled in as Commissioner, I began to develop an appreciation for his defining qualities, among them principled intellectual leadership, compassion, and perseverance. I only have time to touch on a few of his special qualities and achievements. 

He asked great questions like “Why doesn’t the Department have strong curriculum bureaus in a state known for its high standards?” He was relentless in pursuing probing lines of questioning and was an astute listener. He was always respectful but never bashful, often bullish in advancing his point of view. He was a stickler for evidence and as a former teacher, his north star was always what works best for kids, what was most helpful in advancing student learning. 

Over the course of his tenure, just about the longest of any contemporary chiefs, he developed the political skills that enabled him to serve an ever changing board, two governors from opposing political parties, and three secretaries of education. He became nimble and adept at working the many constituencies, from the Governors, to the Legislature, to the myriad interest groups, with which he had to contend. It wasn’t always easy.

He wasn’t perfect either. In the early years, he could sometimes be bull-headed and naïve about the political consequences of the principled positions he stubbornly maintained in the face of competing viewpoints. He came close to the edge on several occasions, but learned to pull back, regroup, and carry the fight tomorrow. He was nothing if not resilient.  

He also learned to cope with the hazards of public life, extremists from all quarters, zealots mounting ad hominem attacks, a press often hungry to over-simplify and generate controversy, various despicables periodically calling for his head. He flew well above their altitude, but was never afraid to meet and talk with even his most ardent opponents.

From his perch in Massachusetts, he became one of the most highly respected education leaders in the country and, as you have heard today, had an important and positive impact on many of the most significant education movements of our time. People here were often unaware of the degree to which our seemingly, lunch pail commissioner had become a towering, national education reform leader. He was modest and didn’t need to brag, but he was so proud of the work being done in Massachusetts by his colleagues at the Department and our educators and students in the field.

He wasn’t flashy or egotistical. The work was always about the children. It wasn’t about him, but he did have a definite personality. He had a winning smile, those dapper clothes and a mischievous penchant for poking loving fun at colleagues and friends. I loved his sense of humor.

I, Dean Ryan, and my colleagues here at the Harvard Graduate School of Education revered Mitchell, not only because he was one of our most accomplished graduates but because he so well exemplified the bridges between policy, research and practice. He was an ideal exemplar of the kind of leader we strive to prepare.

Not only was he a distinguished graduate, but he was a regular presence on campus. He visited our classes, engaging and advising our students, involving many of them as interns, residents and employees at the Department. Mitchell met with our faculty and was always looking to get smarter on the issues, to discover new data, to hear different viewpoints, to help commission and guide usable research, all the while thoroughly enjoying the give and take of the academic community. We particularly admired the way he unabashedly used and insisted that others use research to guide policy decisions. What an idea! And children were the beneficiaries. We will sorely miss him on this campus.

Mitchell and I shared a number of family and life challenges which we often discussed. I took great comfort in his support and perspective. He wore his humanity on his sleeve, always inquiring about my loved ones, celebrating their joys and empathizing with their challenges and sorrows. He was this way with all of us lucky enough to be his friend. When contemplating someone else’s suffering, he often feelingly said “I can only imagine…” And he meant it. We loved him for that.

And to Angela, Mitchell’s children and entire extended family, it’s my turn to say to you, “I can only imagine…” The shock, the profound loss, the pain and emptiness, the finality which we his colleagues and friends share, in lesser degree, with you. We can only imagine how you must be feeling and our hearts and prayers go out to you and for you.

In sympathy, I can only tell you how I’ve coped with this tragedy. First of all, I tell myself, and I do believe, that he’s not really gone, he’s still here, just over my left shoulder and he’s ready to provide support and advice if I only take the time to listen. The spirit of a giant lives on. He will always be with us if we let him.

Secondly, I imagine how he would cope with a comparable tragedy. He would be devastated by such a loss, but he would get up the next day and keep going. He’d cherish and celebrate the memories, he’d imprint the lessons learned from the departed, he’d cry but then he’d forge forward with courage and conviction, sadder and wiser, determined to make each day count and lead us on to a better future.

And that is what we must all do to honor Mitchell’s memory. Go forward and make it better. He would be proud of us, too. We can only imagine…