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The softer-rock side of Jack O’Connell

It’s Friday afternoon at 4:45 p.m. but Jack O’Connell wants to talk. Most
state workers already have gone home. It’s late July–the doldrums of the
political calendar–but O’Connell, California’s top education official, still
wants set up a weekend-postponing interview.

And he doesn’t even want to talk about education.

“The day started out in a spectacular fashion this morning,” O’Connell beams
over the phone. “The rock group that has sold more albums than other
American group in the history of the planet was on the Today show.”

Jack O’Connell isn’t just a fan of Chicago, the 1960s rock band: He’s a
groupie.

On this particular Friday, Chicago had made an appearance on NBC’s Today
show. O’Connell was watching, of course, because, as a charter member of the
band’s fan club, he is the first to be alerted to any and all of Chicago
happenings. He sent a message to his staff so they could catch of glimpse of
the Chicago segment, as well.

“I am friends with each of the members,” boasts O’Connell, the state
superintendent of public instruction.

Since 1975 (his first Chicago concert in Anaheim), O’Connell has attended an
astounding 92 different Chicago concerts. This weekend he’ll tally up
numbers 93 and 94, as the band performs on back-to-back nights in Saratoga.
O’Connell has tickets to both concerts. In fact, the last Chicago concert in
California that he missed was in 1998, even though the band often plays on
back-to-back nights.

“I was wrapped up in re-election for the Senate and couldn’t go,” says an
almost apologetic O’Connell. “I got a phone call from the fan-club president
the next day to say a couple of the band members had called to just make
sure I was in good health.”

Spotting O’Connell at a Chicago event isn’t a Herculean task. He’ll be the
one sporting the white silk Chicago-emblazoned jacket draped over his
custom-made Chicago jersey.

“The band gave me the Chicago jersey with the number nine on the back. They
have eight members in the band; therefore, they call me the ninth member,”
says O’Connell, who, in 2002, was featured in the band’s newsletter. The
piece called him a “special friend” and urged all fan-club members “in
California to vote for Jack” in his first race for superintendent.

O’Connell even has found a way to merge his Chicago obsession (his friends
call it a “very strong appreciation”) with his political career. On his Web
page, he lists the endorsement of Stephen Brumback, the band’s manager. And
for the last six years, he has hosted an annual Chicago concert fund-raiser
at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.

“I thought Jack was nuts the first time he proposed it,” says O’Connell’s
fund-raiser Mollie Culver. “But it has been so successful it is an
institution now. It is the best fund-raiser we do all year.”

The band gives O’Connell approximately 100 tickets, which he divvies out to
his supporters. There’s a pre-concert reception followed by front-row seats
for the show.

Last year, O’Connell’s concert attendees included former Gov. Gray Davis and
his wife, Sharon Davis; Attorney General Bill Lockyer; former Dodger
shortstop Maury Wills and Priscilla Presley.

“We’ve got people in the area so trained that when they get invitations for
other events, they say, ‘No, no, no, we’re waiting for Chicago,'” says
Culver, who stopped counting how many concerts she’s been to with O’Connell
once she hit double-digits.

“He’s the biggest fan I’ve ever seen,” she said.

Christopher Cabaldon, president of EdVoice, an education-advocacy group, has
been to two concerts with O’Connell.

“He’s such a groupie,” says Cabaldon, whose organization is working with
O’Connell on Proposition 88, a November measure that would levy a $50 parcel
tax to fund smaller classes and new textbooks in the state’s schools.
“He watches concerts with about as much head-banging as you would desire
from your state superintendent of schools,” says Cabaldon.

O’Connell’s fascination with Chicago has permeated his personal life, as
well. On his office desk sits a family portrait with the superintendent
flanked by his wife and daughter–and the eight members of the band. And for
O’Connell, family vacations often center on Chicago concerts.

“My wife always says what do you want to do for vacation. I say let’s find
a couple of tour dates when they’re in California and off we go,” says
O’Connell.

O’Connell says his wife, Doree, is not quite the fan he is, though she has
now been to almost 50 concerts in their 25-year marriage.

“She’s a class AAA fan. I’m a Major League fan–so’s our daughter, though she
won’t admit it to you,” he says.

With O’Connell winning a second four-year term as superintendent this June,
there looks to be at least four more years of Chicago fund-raisers in the
works.

“They play a great show, a spectacular show,” says O’Connell.

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