Susan Corbett Stands Up for Art
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Corbett grew up in the hamlet of Pine Grove in Schuylkill County, about 45 minutes from the governor’s mansion. Her parents, now 91 and 90, and two of her three sisters live nearby. She majored in music at Lebanon Valley College, with dreams of becoming a pianist. But she soon met her future husband, “and he was more interesting than practicing in the basement of the music building,” she recalls. Corbett switched her major to English, intending to teach, which she did for a year before heading off with Tom to Texas, where he went to law school, and then back to his native Pittsburgh, where he practiced law.
They started a family early: The couple’s eldest, Tom Jr., is now 34 and working in entertainment technology for AT&T in New York; Kate, 32, is an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia. It was around this time their father became interested in politics, his long road to the governorship starting with a local township commissioner post.
Corbett’s love of the arts in general (“We may have lived in a small town, but we went to museums, took music lessons and saw the symphony,” says Corbett) took her to various Carnegie arts and literary groups when she went back to work, which included a role as special projects manager at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. “It was a dream for an English major. David McCullough. John Updike. Arthur Miller. You name them, I got to do events with them, work with them, see them behind the scenes,” she says.
Lady of the House
By the time Corbett arrived in Harrisburg when Tom became Attorney General, her former boss at Carnegie was president of the Gettysburg Foundation, which works with the National Park Service to enhance the experience of the Gettysburg battlefield site, and she eventually became programming and development czarina. She left that post last year during Tom’s campaign, realizing that either he would win and she would have to become a full-time First Lady, or he would lose and they would retire to Pittsburgh.
While retirement sounds like a pretty nice gig, she was pleased with the election result, not just because her husband is now the governor, but because it gives her a bully pulpit for the arts and a new interest: cutting the dropout rate for the state’s high-school students.
“It was shocking as we went around on the campaign, hearing how so many districts—especially urban districts—have such high dropout rates, some as high as 50 percent,” says Corbett, admitting that she was used to seeing small-town and suburban districts. “Either they are struggling financially the rest of their lives, or they end up in prison or on welfare. But there are many case studies of kids [who defy the negative result], whether it was their interaction with the arts or that they got the right mentor at the right time or someone made sure they got to school every day. It is not a one-size-fits-all problem, but there are a lot of examples where kids are turned around and saved, so I will be looking at that issue.”
Corbett chuckled again remembering what she called “Baby Governor School” and “Baby First Lady School,” where the National Governors Association instructs newcomers in the ways of being in the big chair: how to work with security, what it is like having staff in your house while you wear pajamas, what kinds of issues to take on and plenty more. “Being First Lady, people will come to you with their issues. Most do good work, but you have to do what you are passionate about. I am that way with the arts and feel I will be on the dropout issue,” she says.
“And my gardening, of course,” she adds. The Corbetts know they will be heading back to Pittsburgh when the governor’s term is over, but they want to live relatively normal lives in Harrisburg in the meantime.
“We go to the farmers’ market on Saturdays and just go to the movies downtown. All right, we do have to have troopers with us, but otherwise, we do not want to sit at home and just have fancy dinners,” says Corbett. “We always felt we were regular folks, and while it is fun to go to the big events, life is about doing regular things, and that is what Tom and our kids and I have always been about.”