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58 Conventions and Counting: Who Said You Can’t Go Home Again?

On Feb. 26, as AASA begins to celebrate the 150th anniversary of its founding as an organization committed to the interests of school district leaders, I will be attending my 58th consecutive annual conference, having first come to this event as a 29-year-old in 1958. And fittingly, I’ll be able to do so in my hometown of San Diego, Calif.

 Soviet Union
Peter Corona (front, third from right) with fellow superintendents ready to take off from New York City on a month-long education study mission sponsored by AASA to the Soviet Union, East and West Germany, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia in 1966.

Less than two miles north of the San Diego Convention Center, where the 2015 AASA conference is being held, I was born and raised in the fishing community of San Diego’s Little Italy. (My book, Little Italy: The Way It Was, describes the mores, values and culture of the people who resided there.)

I received my basic education in San Diego. Later, AASA expanded my knowledge as an education leader, and I’ve given back in turn. I have spoken at 39 national AASA conferences and have interacted with local, regional and national leaders in education, business, politics, military and religion. I was recognized as one of the early AASA leaders to represent the United States in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in 1966 and later went to China on an education mission.

During the 47 years I served as a superintendent of various school districts in California, AASA gave me opportunities to meet students, educators and education leaders at home and abroad stretching across all levels, from preschool to university. And even in the eight years since I retired, I’ve found AASA conferences keep me informed about the latest strategies and innovations for addressing many of the issues and challenges that sound so familiar from my years in leadership.

Broad Exposure

My first AASA conference was in 1958. That year, for the fourth time since World War II, AASA held regional conventions in three cities. My doctoral adviser, Theodore Reller, encouraged me to attend the conference being held across the bay in San Francisco. The next year, in 1959, the annual conference returned to its familiar site in Atlantic City, N.J. This was my first cross-country trip and I was in awe, seeing and meeting the education giants I had read and heard about. There were 21,000 in attendance.

Atlantic City became an education for me. While I shivered in winter while walking along the Boardwalk, I could warm up in the large lobbies of the famous historical hotels.

When the conference venue moved from Atlantic City to other cities beginning in the 1970s, it broadened my exposure, offering chances to meet educators from school communities quite different from my own and to learn about their education programs. I participated in AASA’s first programs dealing with racial integration and desegregation and chaired programs on magnet schools and evaluating community concerns.

I can recall General Session addresses by Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter, another by roving newscaster Lowell Thomas, who spoke about Lawrence of Arabia, and another by Lynne Cheney. As moderator of the Outstanding Lecture Series in 1988, I introduced her as the keynote speaker. At the time, she served as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Then there was astronaut John Glenn and aquanaut Robert Ballard, who dove deep to find the Titanic’s remains. After his speech in Houston, I chatted with Ballard about his work. He was raised in Pacific Beach in San Diego, so we had familiar territory to discuss.

I can honestly say that AASA enhanced my mental and physical health, too. At one national conference in 1998, I was introduced, as part of AASA’s wellness initiative for superintendents, to competitive race walking, an activity I continued with considerable satisfaction and accomplishment into my 80s.

Interacting With Staff

I absorb as much of the conventions as possible. Wherever the city, I arrive early and leave late, attending large and small sessions that cover instruction, personnel, school law, finance, buildings and grounds, transportation and pupil services. I became well-versed in collective bargaining years before it came to California. In the exhibit hall, I always found it easy to talk with vendors and sales representatives, learning details about the array of their services and products.

The high mark of the AASA annual conference is the association’s staff. I make it a point to meet each staff member from the executive director to the registration clerk, getting to know them on a personal basis. Throughout the years, the faces have changed, but their continuous dedication to serve the members has not. That is why I arrive at the conference a day early, so I can have that opportunity to say, “Thank you.”

Yes, I am home again, and I am going to enjoy my AASA family and maximize my time at our 150th year celebration.

Peter Corona is a life member of AASA in Walnut Creek, Calif. E-mail: petercorona@hotmail.com

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