Aristotle wrote, that those who educate children well are to be honored for they give “the art of living well.” Many deserve that honor, but none more than Joe Kornder, who died on June 20 after a six-year battle with Parkinsons. He was 79.
During his life, the multi-talented educator and City Council Member inspired countless students and colleagues with his dedication, generosity and accomplishment. His quietly persuasive letters and editorials on educational questions and public policy had immeasurable influence, without creating animosity. Kornder relied on logic, facts and clear, direct speaking and writing to persuade.
Kornder was a man of many facets.
He played the piano, trombone and vibraphone and started a band, The Red Hots, that won a Southern California TV talent contest. Throughout his life he wrote songs and poetry. He gardened and made pomegranate jelly that was renowned among his family and friends. He was a fisherman – a career in itself – and a pilot.
He seldom missed a family event. Even when his illness limited his activities, he was always on hand for his grandchildren’s activities. “One of the last times he was out was to a granddaughter’s baseball game,” says his wife of 56 years, Dorothy.
A native of Southern California, Joseph Frederick Kornder was born in Huntington Beach to Joe and Ardath Kornder. His mother died when he was two and his father, a truck driver, was away for long stretches of time. His father remarried, but was soon drafted after the outbreak of WWII. For many years Joe Junior lived with his aunt and uncle Adele and Fiore Fiscalini, whom he regarded as his second family.
These experiences gave Kornder deep insight into the difficulties faced by children whose lives are disrupted by family breakups, financial problems and other misfortunes.
After high school graduation in 1954, Kornder attended UC Riverside; studying comparative literature, English and Spanish. In college he played three sports and sang in the college choir – all while working nights and summers to pay for his schooling.
At Riverside, Kornder met his future wife Dorothy Carroll at a Hello Dance. She wasn’t as taken with him as he was with her, and it took six years of wooing before she married him in 1960.
Following service in the U.S. Army at Fort Ord, Joe joined Dorothy in Campbell, Calif., where she was teaching at Rosemary School, and continued his education at San Jose earning a teaching credential.
In 1962 he began teaching English at Buchser High School. The Kornders bought the Santa Clara home that Dorothy still occupies today, where their son Michael and daughter Kelley grew up.
Over his four-decade career at Santa Clara Unified, Kornder embraced new challenges.
He served in every role in the district from classroom teacher to assistant to the superintendent. He coached basketball at Buchser High School, leading the team to seven league championships. He ran the talent show and organized the Teachers Band and Choir. He started the schools Hall of Fame in the district office.
After he formally retired, he returned as a consultant for special projects. Kornder oversaw the construction of the Mission City Center for the Performing Arts at Wilcox High School, Santa Clara High School’s theater and science buildings, and managed the innovative Don Callejon school at Rivermark.
His dedication twice earned Kornder the California School Board Association’s Golden Bell Award for educational excellence, several nominations for Teacher of the Year, SCUSD’s 1995 Administrator of the Year award and four PTA Honorary Service Awards.
Despite the accolades, Kornder focused on others’ success, not his own. “There was nobody better than Joe, he was always there to help.” says retired Santa Clara Unified Superintendent Don Callejon, who hired Joe for his first job in SCUSD, teaching English. “He was one of the finest people I ever worked with.”
Assigned to four English classes, Kornder needed a fifth class to make a full schedule, recalls Callejon. “He said, ‘A study hall – that’s not a real class. I didn’t tell you I had a minor in Spanish.’ So he started teaching Spanish, too. He volunteered to coach basketball for no extra salary.”
“He always thought of himself as a coach” says Dorothy.
Council Member Teresa O’Neill was one of Kornder’s students in freshman English. “He really helped me with writing,” she says. “I kept some papers from high school that had his very distinctive comments – ‘you can do better,’ ‘develop this thought.'” Kornder helped students dig deeper, always posing the question, “How do you build on this thought?”
In another example of Kornder’s willingness to go the extra mile for his students, he later worked with O’Neill on an independent study, after she mentioned to him that she disliked study halls.
“He was so natural and fair, he was very popular,” says O’Neill. “It wasn’t that he didn’t have high expectations for students. He just had such an easy-going manner.”
A lover of literature, Kornder had a vast appetite for literature and reading, and a vast zeal to inspire similar passion in students.
As a School Improvement Coordinator, in 1985 Kornder instituted a “silent sustained reading” program at Santa Clara High School – a half hour during the day when everything stopped and everyone in the school – students, teachers, staff – spent half an hour in pleasurable, not assigned, reading.
One of the most famous stories told about him is his 1995 reading challenge at Milliken Elementary School, where he was the principal. He promised the school’s students, parents and school staff that if they collectively read one million pages in two months, he would spend a day working on the roof.
”We’ve certainly captured the imagination and attention of our families,” Kornder told the Mercury News in January 1995. The goal was met, and in March Kornder was taking calls from Milliken’s roof.
In 2006 Kornder was considering running for school board, but changed his mind after Council Member Pat Kolstad suggested he run for Santa Clara City Council. When asked about his past civic involvement during the campaign, he answered simply, “Education is a civic duty.”
Kornder was elected in 2006, and served until 2010, when ill health prevented another term. During that time the Council faced one of the most momentous decisions in its history: whether to go forward with a proposed stadium project. Kornder’s position was simple.
“The bottom, bottom, bottom line is, is this good for the city,” he told the Santa Clara Weekly in 2007. If it’s good for the City, then it’s a no-brainer. If it’s not good for the City, then we can’t afford to do it. If there’s a way to make this do-able and still be good for the City, our City Council will find it.”
After what he described in a 2010 letter to the Weekly as a “slug-slow process,” he became a supporter of the “painstakingly crafted” stadium term sheet that went to the voters as 2010’s Measure J. In the letter, Kornder laid out 10 reasons for his support, including economic benefits to the City, schools, and a financing structure based on stadium revenue, not taxpayer subsidy.
In 2006, Kornder laid out his political philosophy for supporters.
“Good government both guides and follows, providing insight and wisdom and at the same time reflecting the true and measured will of the people. Good government is grounded in honesty, worthy of trust, guilty of prudence, capable of inspiration. Good government challenges its constituents to be greater than they are. Good government meets needs that otherwise would remain unmet. Good government is open and understandable, welcoming and approachable, reflective and calm.”
Ten years later, we couldn’t do better than to heed his words.
A Celebration of Life will be held Saturday Aug. 20, 1 p.m. at the Santa Clara High School Theater, 3000 Benton St., Santa Clara. Donations in memory of Joe can be made to the Santa Clara Schools Foundation (santaclaraschoolsfoundation.org).