It is with great sadness that I write to commemorate the enormous contributions of a dear colleague, Dr. Mike Riley. Mike was the superintendent of the Bellevue School District from 1996 to 2007. More recently Mike was a senior vice president at the College Board. His charge there was to create 1000 college-ready urban high schools across the country. Mike died on October 8, 2008 of a fatal heart attack. I wish we were celebrating rather than commemorating—his birthday, which he would have hated, or his success in creating 1000 college-ready urban high schools, which he would have attributed to everyone else, or the fact that he lost 10 lbs, which he and I celebrated a couple times, or the fact that he might have taken a day off, which he never did—anything but his death. All of us who worked with Mike are saddened and feel inept at finding the words that would give wings to how much his life and his friendship meant to all of us.
Mike was a man who had a compelling and imaginative vision that drove him every day. It attracted all of us to him. It was a simple but exceedingly difficult vision: he wanted to create an educational system that worked for every one of our kids from the time they began to zing through elementary school through to their cap-tossing graduation from high school. He envisioned that all of our kids would gain entrance to college and while there, would raise Cain with their college professors—a sign of their thorough engagement. He wanted schools that grabbed kids, fueled their natural passion to learn, and held their interest right into productive adulthood. He spent every waking moment on this. He felt lucky to have such compelling work. The thing I loved the best about him was that he believed that thinking about educating children was riveting, essential, and the stuff of the finest, most fascinating of lives.
Because he was so energized by his work, he gathered fabulous people from far and wide and many of us benefited from his associations. He worked with some of our nation’s finest teachers, principals, superintendents, and staff. He attracted the great thinkers from America’s colleges and universities—not the ivory tower types but rather the committed, roll-up their sleeves sort who shared his vision—people like Bill Schmidt, John Bransford, Jean Floten, Uri Treisman, and Dave Connolly. He searched for national organizations that shared his purpose and his drive—organizations like Achieve, Washington’s Partnership for Learning, and Wireless Generation. He partnered with the very best of our foundations—the Gates Foundation, the George Lucas Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, among so many others. Mike worked with and valued our great, local corporations as well—Microsoft and Boeing—among so many others. He had a nose for talent—and figured out how to get the very best out of his external partnerships. God love him if he didn’t have the best and the brightest of the UW College of Education faculty working nearly full time every week in his schools and on his projects. Not only did he recruit us to work with him, he actively recruited for our programs and taught in them whenever asked. Half of the UW’s principal and superintendent preparation programs are comprised of Bellevue district people, hand-picked by Mike. Our programs were essential to his vision and as a result he paid careful attention to them, which made the programs more valuable for everyone. Mike had marvelous integrity—if he had a complaint, he delivered it in person and stuck around to think of possible solutions. He was incredibly valuable to those of us who worked with him because of his contributions to OUR work. Despite his own daunting work load, he showed up to help so many of us accomplish the work we were engaged in: changing universities, doing research, creating new curriculum, designing new organizations, thinking about the applications of new technologies, or improving school systems.
More recently, I have never seen anyone more excited about a new job than Mike was about the College Board. His excitement emanated from his belief that what the excellent educators of the Bellevue School District did for kids in an affluent Washington suburb ought to be available to kids growing up in much less fortunate circumstances. He believed that the College Board was the very best kind of organization—one that was not content to rest on old laurels—but that was pushing forward towards reinvention and greater, renewed social responsibility.
As a friend, Mike was a great gift. He was funny. He liked to gossip about the people in the world of education. He loved to poke fun at himself. He was oblivious of much of the rest of life: a couple of us visited him in New York and had to walk him around the block to show him that there were at least 5 good restaurants within a few minutes walk of his office. He had eaten in the same place every day—all meals—for weeks. In New YORK!
Mike was a rare man. He was generous and kind and loved connecting us to each other. He sincerely believed that together we could do much for the young people of our country. It goes without saying that from his new invisible post, he expects as much of us without him as he would have if he had had more time with us. Given the month of his passing, I hope that Mike’s memory haunts and spirits us all towards the accomplishment of his very worthy dreams.
Patricia A. Wasley,
Dean and Professor
University of Washington College of Education
Elham Kazemi : I am still stunned about the news of Mike's death ...
J. Gary de Gorgue: I started down the path of my real vocation in life thanks to Mike Riley...
Mike Copland: Mike Riley was one of the smartest, clearest, most dedicated, most committed school district leaders I've known....
College of Education, University of Washington
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