RIP George Schmidt, co-founder of Substance

[This piece originally appeared on Second City Teachers on Sept. 18 at]

George Schmidt, a co-founder of Substance, died on Sept. 17 at age 71. He was a giant. Giants are not easy to replace.

George Schmidt poses before an interview with CNN in 2001. Substance photo by Sharon SchmidtHe was a giant because he went to battle against the forces of evil and fought for the people. His newspaper Substance started publishing in 1975 on behalf of the substitute teachers who were, and still are, heavily discriminated against.

He published numerous stories exposing the lies and corruption of the Chicago Board of Education. He published numerous stories from whistle blowers who exposed the shady deals being made behind closed doors. He published the CASE exam questions - which proved how silly and wasteful another standardized test was, and he paid the price.

He was fired by the board of education after becoming one of the top enemies of Mayor Richard M. Daley. He was fired for printing the truth - something every true journalist and activist should aspire to.

His accomplishments over almost a half a century should be enough to put him at the top of the list of heroes for the people and public education - the students, the teachers and even the administrators who ran the schools looked up to him.

My first principal Dr. Barbara Martin at Holmes Elementary School in Englewood was a subscriber to his gritty paper that would make Upton Sinclair and Ida Tarbell proud.

He was an amazing story teller. The essence of an educator is the ability to tell stories, and George told stories. He told stories at our newspaper meetings about his mother serving as a nurse at Okinawa during World War II, about his days publishing an anti-Vietnam War newspaper and how former Chicago Teachers Union president Debbie Lynch helped launch the career of future President Barack Obama.

He told quite amusing tales - such as how his paper helped expose former Chicago Public School teacher Marva Collins who the mainstream media and ruling class were infatuated with after she started a private school. The narrative was she took poor black children on the West Side and had them reciting Shakespeare using the Socratic method - proving anyone can do it, to hell with the public schools who were failing the kids. Ronald Reagan wanted to nominate her for secretary of education and Hollywood made a movie called The Marva Collins Story starring Morgan Freeman.

George said he told the Sun-Times reporter - who was covering the Marva Collins story - that when he goes to hear her children reciting Shakespeare in her classroom, to ask the child in the next desk if he too can recite the sonnet. The myth burst, the little woman behind the curtain was exposed.

The other breathtaking story he told us was about James Moffat and how Substance took down one of the most powerful pedophiles in the city. The Kelvyn Park High School principal, who was friends of the Daley family and a former deputy superintendent, was raping children in his office - boys and girls. If it wasn't for George's tenacious reporting - including interviews with the students and their parents, this dark secret would have never been exposed. Moffat was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison thanks to Substance's reporting.

George was a prolific writer - who took on the corporate sponsored district299 blog and others, writing volumes. He was tireless!

It's not easy to lose a giant among the people because the fight against power seems impossible. When one of your captains goes down in battle, it's not easy.

I compare George Schmidt to Ho Chi Minh, the president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. He fought against all odds going up against the world's greatest military power. But his fight never ends. The US left Vietnam, but corporate globalism came later. The enemy never sleeps. George fought privatization to save public education against one of the most powerful city mayors. His paper embarrassed King Daley. But alas, the enemy never sleeps.

George Schmidt was first and foremost a tireless union activist. He was a delegate who almost beat one of the city's most popular union leaders - CTU President Jackie Vaughn. He was a delegate who did his job so well that he was fired at almost every school he went to. He never backed down to anyone, which made him the scourge of many.

George Schmidt was my mentor. I was a journalist in Russia, and when I returned to Chicago I became a teacher on the Southwest Side. I then joined Substance News staff after meeting his beautiful wife Sharon when I was subbing at Senn High School in the late 1990's. I met his cynical sidekicks when I subbed at Wells High School, who showed me the Substance print tabloid, like they were showing me something subversive hidden in their briefcases. I was hooked.

I reported on the early charter school corruption stories. And I learned from George how power really works. How the budget and money work in the city. How the mayor and the board lies and what the mainstream media write goes against us. I didn't learn this in school, but I was prepared having covered the bloody yet fascinating transition to capitalism in Russia.

George Schmidt knew how to follow the money. He started a group that analyzed the CPS budget. The group studied CAFR or Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports, which drew union and city leaders crazy because he was hitting them all where it hurt. He knew a lot to challenge the board of education's story line about deficits. Union activist and retired city college steward Earl Silbar told me the story of when he worked at a factory and asked to see the company's budget. He was fired the next day. Money = Power!

George was a mentor to our current union leaders. Many CTU officials like Core founder Jackson Potter attended Substance meetings and learned a lot from a man with an amazing encyclopedic mind about the history of public education in our Windy City.

George hit them where it hurt. His unwavering lust for the truth made him an enemy.

George Schmidt was a brilliant giant. He was a leader. He founded a paper for we the people, the only one that screamed loud and clear to save public education.

And I mourn this great man - a complex hero as all great men are, no less controversial, and indefatigable.

George Schmidt - R.I.P!


October 20, 2018 at 1:31 AM

By: Terry Daniels

One of the best Substance writers

Jim, you have been one of THE BEST writers Substance has ever had. You've written here as comprehensive a piece as could be written about George. I look forward to reading more of your works and hope to see some in Substance again.


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