Finalist says listening is a key virtue

New York candidate began as psychologist

January 19, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Before leading school districts, before earning the National Superintendent of the Year award, John R. O'Rourke was a school psychologist.

His job: working with people to determine what they wanted to achieve and how they would do it -- and listening carefully.

That knack for listening has followed the 55-year-old O'Rourke through life, professionally -- as he's risen to top leadership positions -- and personally.

One of two finalists for superintendent of Howard County schools, O'Rourke listens to music in his spare time.

"It takes over," said the superintendent of Pittsford Central School District in upstate New York.

He listens first thing in the morning as he sips his coffee. He listens when he comes in for the night. He's a regular at the Pittsford high schools' performances.

Rock, jazz, classical, opera -- he likes it all.

Although he's never played an instrument, he can pick out and admire individual contributions to a large orchestral piece, said Eileen O'Rourke, his wife of 33 years.

O'Rourke said his ear isn't special. He just appreciates the feeling he gets when music is playing.

"I'm not a great sophisticated listener, but I love the emotional response I have," he said.

As an administrator, O'Rourke says he tries more sophisticated listening -- to discover what people are concerned about, and what they want for the district.

Pittsford school staff members say he's succeeding.

"He's just a marvelous listener," said Roni Walker, O'Rourke's executive assistant since he began at the district eight years ago. "John has a deep respect for people and their individuality. He's very thoughtful. He's very caring. When he talks to [you], you feel you're the only person in the room."

O'Rourke has a method for making decisions. First, search for opinions, especially from people who would be affected. Then think.

Then act.

"I don't do things impulsively," said O'Rourke.

He's found that he thinks especially well while exercising -- which he does every morning. It usually takes the form of running, until the weather turns too cold.

"It relaxes me, and makes me more open to thinking about things," he said. "It's almost a meditative process."

From 1988 to 1992, he and his wife ran in the New York City Marathon.

In Howard County, with its milder climate, he sees an opportunity for more outside exercise.

O'Rourke said he relishes the challenge of running a bigger school district -- one more than seven times larger than Pittsford -- that has the emphasis on achievement he's come to expect.

"The bigger the district, the more there is to understand, but the substance of the responsibility is much the same," he said.

Jim Metzler, president of the Pittsford Board of Education, describes O'Rourke as a reflective and "thorough" man -- well-respected in the district.

And elsewhere. O'Rourke was named the New York State and National Superintendent of the Year in 1997.

"I think he's an outstanding superintendent," said Darlene Pierce, director of the national program, run by the American Association of School Administrators.

"He has very fine ideas about what should be happening in the school district, but he is also a person who would listen to other points of view," she added.

The lifelong New York resident, who has three adult sons, ended up in administration by accident.

Asked to fill in for an ailing colleague, O'Rourke stepped up to head pupil services in the Fayetteville-Manlius School District.

And he liked it.

Administrators aren't much different from school psychologists, he said. Both jobs require problem-solving and listening.

"I'm somebody who cares a great deal about other people, and wanting to do everything I can to enhance the quality of lives of people," O'Rourke said. "That's what superintendents do. It becomes more than just management, and more than just leadership -- it becomes a way of life."

John R. O'Rourke

Age: 55

Education: B.A., LeMoyne College, 1966; M.S., Syracuse University, 1968; Honorary Ph.D., LeMoyne College

Current job: Superintendent of schools, Pittsford, N.Y., since July 1992

Current salary: $135,000

Visiting: Jan. 18-19; community reception 7: 30 p.m.-9 p.m. Jan. 18; staff reception 3: 30 p.m.-5 p.m. Jan. 19; all events will be held in the board room at the Department of Education, 10910 Route 108, Ellicott City. They will be televised live on cable Channel 72, which is Channel 16 in western Howard.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.