Thomas Sobol, 83, a railway worker’s son who became a leading educator and fervent advocate for imposing broad academic standards, subsidizing poor urban districts, empowering parents and teachers to make policy, and promoting a multicultural curriculum, died last Thursday at his home in Scarsdale, New York.

His wife, Harriet Sobol, a teacher and author, said the cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease.

Sobol, who was born in Minneapolis and was a former schools superintendent in Scarsdale, was the New York state education commissioner for eight years, appointed by Gov. Mario Cuomo, a Democrat, in 1987. During Sobol’s tenure, the percentage of high school graduates going to college increased, as did the number of students passing advanced placement exams.

Despite that success, Sobol resigned in frustration in 1995, accusing Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, and lawmakers from both parties of making his department and the policymaking Board of Regents scapegoats for the grinding bureaucracy, violence, family dysfunction, poverty, poorly trained teachers, deficient buildings and inferior learning materials that had plagued public schools.

“We’re an inviting target — nobody loves a regulatory agency,” he said at the time. “So let’s dump on them. Then we don’t even have to talk about the realities. And meanwhile the realities go unaddressed.”

As commissioner, Sobol had pressed for what he called A New Compact for Learning, a broad manifesto aimed at transferring policymaking from sluggish bureaucracies to educators and parents, and at creating grade-specific curriculum standards that local school districts could implement on their own.

“In leading one of the first efforts by any state to set K-12 learning standards, he established a rationale — ultimately applied nationwide — for holding the state accountable for adequately funding all schools,” said Susan Fuhrman, president of Teachers College at Columbia University. “He cared so deeply about the rights of students to a sound education that when, on his watch as commissioner, the state was sued by New York City for more school funding, he sided with the plaintiffs.”

Diane Ravitch, an education historian, wrote in an e-mail: “Tom Sobol was the last state commissioner who understood that education means something more than test-taking and high scores.”

“Except for three years in the U.S. Army,” Sobol wrote in his 2013 memoir, “My Life in School,” “I have been either a student, a teacher, a school superintendent, a state education commissioner, or a college professor every day since September 1936, when I first walked into my neighborhood kindergarten and let go of my mother’s hand.” Confined to bed with Parkinson’s and vascular malformation, he typed the manuscript for his memoir with one finger.

Sobol was born on Jan. 11, 1932. His father, Damasus, loaded freight cars for the Railway Express Agency. His mother was the former Margaret Moran. The family moved to Massachusetts when he was a boy.


Leon A. Gorman, 80, who transformed L.L. Bean from his grandfather’s folksy store and catalog business into a billion-dollar global outdoor-gear retailer, died last week at his home in Yarmouth, Maine.

The cause was cancer, the company said.

Gorman joined Bean as an $80-a-week treasurer in 1961 and became its president in 1967 after the death of his grandfather, Leon Leonwood Bean, the founder. He held that post for 34 years, then served as chairman for 12 years before retiring in 2013.

One of Maine’s richest residents, Gorman still lived in the same house in which he was raised. He was an ardent conservationist, donating more than $6 million to the National Park Foundation, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and other environmental groups and thousands of acres to state parks.

New York Times