Thomas H. Reece: 1937 – 2006

Thomas H. Reece: 1937 – 2006
Ex-chief of Chicago Teachers Union
Strong advocate for educators worked toward consensus in negotiations

By Trevor Jensen, Tribune staff reporter
September 19, 2006

Thomas H. Reece, who took over as president of the Chicago Teachers Union from the outspoken Jacqueline B. Vaughn in 1994 and ran it with a significantly lower profile until he was voted out in 2001, died on Sunday, Sept. 17, at Rush North Shore Medical Center in Skokie, a hospital spokesman said.

The cause of death was a cerebral hemorrhage, said Mr. Reece’s son, Eric. Mr. Reece, 68, was a longtime North Side resident who more recently lived in Morton Grove.

Mr. Reece was vice president of the then-31,000-member teachers union when Vaughn, known for her stylish hats, confrontational style and press-ready comments, died in January 1994. He was named interim president until being elected to a full term the following May.

He was also president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers from 1994 until September 2001, when he retired.

Mr. Reece presided over a period of relative peace between the union and the school board. For most of his tenure he sat opposite school leadership installed in 1995 by Mayor Richard M. Daley and charged with reform.

“Believe me, this guy was no shrinking violet,” said Gery Chico, Chicago school board president from 1995 to 2001. “But he operated with a very broad framework of what this was all about.”

Mr. Reece was adept at listening to all sides and working toward consensus without acrimony, said Don Turner, a former vice president with the teachers union who was president of the Chicago Federation of Labor from 1995 to 2002.

“When you negotiate contracts, you always have people who get hysterical over one part or another,” Turner said. “He’d listen and say to them, `Let’s move ahead on this together.'”

His reputation for working well with the school board contributed to his defeat as union president in May 2001. Deborah Lynch-Walsh, who had run unsuccessfully against Mr. Reece in two prior elections, defeated him. In her last campaign she accused him of “acting more like an agent of management than a guardian of teachers.”

Pam Massarsky, who served as the union’s recording secretary under Mr. Reece and is now a lobbyist for the union, credited Mr. Reece with increasing wages for teachers and freezing the cost of health care for union members.

Chico said Reece’s ability to forge agreements with the school board was a key factor in the improvement of the city’s schools. “Without Tom Reece, Chicago (Public) Schools would not have enjoyed its resuscitation,” Chico said.

Mr. Reece grew up in the South Shore neighborhood and attended Bradwell Elementary School and South Shore High School. He received a bachelor’s degree from Chicago Teachers College and a master’s in teaching science from Chicago State University.

He taught science at Bradwell beginning in the early 1960s, and in the early 1970s he became assistant principal at Walt Disney Magnet School.

Mr. Reece’s son, Eric, said he entered the lottery to get into the school for six years before finally being admitted as a 6th grader.

“He just said, `Your number didn’t come up,’ ” Eric Reece said. “He couldn’t rig it, it would be unethical.”

Always an active union member who as a teacher spent many nights as a grievance counselor, listening to complaints from members, he became the union’s financial secretary in 1982 and vice president in 1987.

“He had such a strong advocacy for teachers because he felt they got the raw end of the deal,” Eric Reece said.

An avid fisherman and birder who belonged to several conservation groups, Mr. Reece filled notebooks with more than 168 pages of poetry and had a fine singing voice that Massarsky said he used with little provocation.

“He attributed that to being Welsh,” his son said. “He said a Welshman’s always enamored with the sound of his own voice.”

Mr. Reece is also survived by his wife, Marilynn; and two grandchildren.

A memorial service is set for 1 p.m. Monday, Sept. 25, at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Michigan Avenue and Delaware Place.

Copyright (c) 2006, Chicago Tribune

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