Del Cross did in Tacoma what nobody had done before, or has done since: He grew up in and graduated from Tacoma schools, spent his whole career as an educator here and finally led the district as its superintendent.
Cross worked 32 years in Tacoma Public Schools and held the top post for nearly a decade, from 1979-88. He was one of the longest-serving superintendents of the last 60 years, behind only Angelo Giaudrone and Jim Shoemake.
In today’s era of national superintendent searches and executive headhunter firms, some say homegrown leaders like Cross may not emerge again soon.
Cross died Nov. 9 at age 83 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He will be honored at a memorial service today at 11 a.m.
“He was kind of a self-made man, really attuned to the culture of the community – and we haven’t had one like him since he left,” said Marv Shain, who was Stadium High School principal under Cross.
“He worked up through the ranks,” said longtime School Board member Debbie Winskill. “It’s really hard to work your way up. People know your flaws, and it’s hard to advance. But he was so well-liked and easy to get along with. And he put together a good team.”
Friends and family will remember Cross today at the University of Puget Sound, where he earned degrees in 1953 and 1960.
Former associate superintendent Dan Barkley will give fond remarks about the man who was his boss for eight years – the man known for “a smile and encouraging word, a barely legible handwritten thank-you note, or his booming laughter that could light up a room.”
As a student, Cross attended Whitman and Franklin elementaries and Jason Lee Junior High and graduated from Lincoln High School. As a teacher, he worked at Baker, Hunt and McIlvaigh junior high schools before moving through the administrative ranks.
As a superintendent, Cross was unusual because he didn’t seek “the next promotion to a larger stage,” Barkley said. Instead, he retired from the district that had seen his worst and cultivated his best when he was a student.
Cross took a bold stand on issues of diversity and equity, Barkley said, by assigning minorities and women to key jobs and believing in “the moral imperative of a desegregated school district.”
Greg Paus, who was superintendent of the neighboring University Place School District at the same time, said he viewed Cross as a mentor – especially in regard to diversity issues.
“I learned a lot from him because we were growing in the same way, but we were a very nondiverse district,” Paus said.
Winskill’s time on the Tacoma School Board never coincided with Cross – she joined the board in 1989 – but she found him to be a responsive superintendent while she was still an average citizen.
“I’d call him, and I’d get to talk to him,” she said.
Winskill recalled Cross leading a top-to-bottom review of district buildings, including his closure of Stanley Elementary due to earthquake risks and the emergency relocation of dozens of students in May 1983.
Cross was a driving force behind what became a quarter-century of school renovation and construction, marked by voter approval of 13 consecutive levies and four bond measures while he was an administrator.
When he retired, the board replaced him with Lillian Barna, a budget hawk and self-proclaimed “agent of change” hired from Albuquerque, N.M. She shook up the central administration that had taken root under Cross, which some perceived as a “good ol’ boy” club.
Barkley said Cross didn’t bristle at that label; in fact, he inspired a generation of educators to pledge their careers to Tacoma Public Schools, as both Cross and Barkley did.
“When he was once characterized by a board member as a Tacoma ‘good ol’ boy,’ he took it not as criticism but as a badge of honor,” Barkley said.Matt Misterek: 253-597-8472 matt.misterek@ thenewstribune.com