Venture Capitalist Turns Activist

A Chicago businessman uses his clout to recognize teachers and improve urban education

`SOME of us don't view retirement as a desirable goal," says Martin "Mike" Koldyke.

Mr. Koldyke, who is chairman of Frontenac Company, a Chicago venture capital firm, makes it clear that he counts himself as No. 1 in that category.

He could be planning for a future of "playing golf four days a week," admits this millionaire.

Instead, when Koldyke looks several years down the road he imagines himself "spending close to full time seeing to it that society values teachers more and works harder at public education."

About a decade ago, Koldyke's life began to change course. While much of the business world was awash in greed and insatiable ambition, Koldyke was venturing outside of his wood-paneled office and confronting the disturbing realities of urban education.

"After you have had your nosed rubbed in it - or you rub your nose in it - you come to the conclusion that it is grossly unfair," Koldyke says.

For him, it began with a desire to do some pro bono work. "After a series of fits and starts, we decided that ... we'd start a teacher recognition program," he says.

The idea came after watching the Academy Awards on TV. Koldyke wondered: "Why isn't there an Academy Awards program for teachers?"

For a short time while in his 20s, Koldyke worked as a substitute teacher in the Chicago schools. "I was a lousy teacher," he says, "but I have great respect for what they do."

In 1985, Koldyke created the Golden Apple Foundation, and in '86 the foundation began honoring 10 outstanding Chicago-area teachers each year.

"We thought one way to stop the bleeding was to call attention to the importance of men and women who are teachers - and to do it in a dramatic way, on prime-time television," Koldyke says.

Every May, WTTW, a PBS station serving one of the largest viewer markets in the United States, airs an hour-long special devoted to the Golden Apple Awards.

The teachers receive their golden apples with all the fanfare of the Academy Awards and each teacher is profiled in the classroom. "They're the stars," Koldyke says.

This businessman's ambition is to put America's teachers up on a national pedestal and keep them there. It's a slow, incremental process, Koldyke knows.

"We have simply thought that we could somehow ignore teaching and teachers and get away with it," he says. "Society, particularly in the last 10 or 12 years, has been on a real monetary binge. It's been every man for himself and get all you can, when you can. That's wholly inconsistent with service and teaching."

Meanwhile, he points out with anger creeping into his voice, "There's no dearth of talent beating the door down at McKinsey, Booz Allen, or Goldman Sachs. They go like lemmings from the ivy colleges to Wall Street."

The Golden Apple Foundation has expanded its work to include the recruitment and support of new teachers. (See story at left.)

As Koldyke has come face-to-face with the problems in Chicago's schools and on the streets, his interest and concern have multiplied. In the process, he's undertaken a wholesale reassessment of his own values.

"It's a gradual process as you intellectualize and understand the injustice," he says. "It really happens when the injustice is personified. When you actually encounter it yourself, it's not so easy to turn your back on it - intellectually or personally - because it isn't a statistic, it's a little kid."

Through his work with the Golden Apple Foundation, Koldyke began visiting inner-city Chicago schools. His outrage grew over time.

He met the top-ranked students at some of Chicago's high schools but discovered that these same students ranked near the bottom nationwide. He walked into the lives of troubled young people who turned to him for reassurance that he wouldn't disappear and never return.

"Very often, when people like me go into the schools, they see the best," Koldyke says. "They go where the best principals are and where they're working hard at it. So you don't see the worst."

Although he's a registered Republican, Koldyke sounds like a Democrat. "I've become sort of apolitical in the sense that I'm looking for answers," he says.

He's become an activist who takes charity seriously. He scoffs at those who dabble in charitable endeavors for their own benefit - because "it's the thing to do. The rich and the famous are supposed to go to charity balls ... and act charitable. I don't want to be cynical about it, but I think a lot of it is for appearances." @BODYTEXT =

oldyke doesn't have much time for vacationing at any of his three homes across the country. But he's opened his house on Lake Michigan to youngsters participating in the foundation's teacher-recruitment program.

One weekend, Koldyke invited community leaders from the Chicago school system, the housing authority, and other groups. He had a vision of these agencies working together for better education and safer communities.

After laying the groundwork, he invited Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to his New Mexico ranch and won the mayor's support for the idea.

Koldyke's diplomacy led to the Cluster Initiative, which participants say has created an unprecedented level of dialogue and interaction among city groups.

"Mike's truly a mover and shaker," says Lula Ford, principal of Beethoven Elementary School on Chicago's South Side. "He sees a job and says, 'How can I get this done?' "

At the same time, "he listens to the little people," says Ms. Ford, who has worked with Koldyke on the Cluster Initiative.

Recently, Gov. Jim Edgar of Illinois and Mayor Daley asked Koldyke to chair the School Finance Authority. "We're the fiscal watchdog for the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago," Koldyke explains. "We're going to have to take a careful look at how we ought to change here in the city of Chicago to use the money more wisely."

But better management isn't the only answer, Koldyke says. "I'm confident that along with that work, we could use some more dough. There's no doubt in my mind; we're still paying our teachers like dirt." He never misses an opportunity to put in a plug for teachers.

Chairing the finance authority will take a great deal of time and commitment. "It's a balancing act," Koldyke says of his responsibilities as chairman of Frontenac and his interest in serving education.

"If anybody can get that school finance authority sorted out, Mike Koldyke will be that person," says Ford, the school principal.

Koldyke himself has never considered the possibility of failing to make a difference.

"It goes back to the venture capital mentality," he says. "It's like an entrepreneur, and I've known a lot of them. When they start a new company, they don't think about failure. They're putting out so much energy every day, and there's so much hope, and they're wrestling with new and different problems every day. They don't allow themselves the luxury of second-guessing themselves very much. The marketplace does that for them.

"With Golden Apple, it was that same syndrome that exerted itself. I really couldn't afford to think about failure because it was so important to my psyche. I wanted to make this statement, I wanted to be able to do something that was affirmative and positive for teachers."

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