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A schools chief who goes the distance

Contompasis a steady hand

Stern-faced, standing at the end of the hall with his arms crossed, the headmaster in the tailored suit and polished shoes struck fear in generations of Boston Latin School students. Ducking their heads, students scrambled at the sight of Michael G. Contompasis.

Mike the Cop, they called him.

"He was the picture of authority," said Mary Tamer, who graduated from Boston Latin in 1985 during Contompasis' 21-year tenure as the elite exam school's headmaster. "One look could turn you to stone, but you knew you were in good hands with him."

Contompasis, Boston's temporary superintendent as the city begins another search for a new schools chief, has developed a reputation as a straight shooter who has never shied from controversy during his 41-year career in the Boston public schools. Yet, as strict as he was at Boston Latin, he would spend hours on the phone with college admissions directors, pushing to get students off the wait list, and let teachers vent behind closed doors without repercussions.

Contompasis, 67, had planned to retire last summer, but agreed to become interim leader of the 57,000-student school system while the School Committee searched for a replacement for Thomas W. Payzant , long time superintendent. His title no longer includes "interim." He has a 13-month contract that ends July 30, but whether he will have to stay longer is unclear. Manuel J. Rivera , the Rochester, N.Y., superintendent chosen to start as Boston's schools chief in July, abruptly withdrew from the post two months ago.

"He has the confidence of so many people out there," said Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Contompasis. "He doesn't try to give people the shuffle. He doesn't play the politics."

If the mayor could have his way, Contompasis would stay.

But Contompasis is firm: He will remain only until a new leader starts.

A plastic clock next to his computer counts down to his retirement.

"I've had to reset it three times," he said, joking that his wife, who gave him the clock three years ago, has threatened to divorce him if he does not retire.

Still, he is not coasting toward retirement as the clock ticks away.

He battled with the Boston Teachers Union during more than a year of negotiations and, with a strike looming, settled a contract last month that includes a longer school day in underperforming schools. Even though Contompasis helped organize teachers' strikes in the 1970s when he was a Boston Latin science teacher, he recently took the union to court for threatening to strike.

Beneath his impeccable Italian suits and Prada eyeglasses lie humble roots. The son of Greek immigrants who never made it past elementary school, Contompasis grew up on the top floor of a Roslindale triple-decker. The youngest of four children, he began working at his parents' luncheonette and variety store at age 8.

Stellar elementary school grades landed him a spot at Boston Latin, but his grades plummeted in eighth grade, and he was nearly expelled for fighting on the street car.

Boston Latin was notorious for its sink-or-swim environment. "There were some folks at Latin School who were mean cusses. Some of them should never have been in teaching," Contompasis said. "It was an endurance contest."

His headmaster said he wasn't "Latin School material," but, pushed by his father and a couple of caring teachers, Contompasis graduated in 1957, near the bottom of his class, he said. He said his interest in music also helped him stay in school; a percussionist, he was captain of the band in his senior year. But after graduation, he vowed to never set foot again in Latin.

He got into Boston University on the merits of his Boston Latin diploma and struggled academically, earning mostly C's, he said. It took him five years to earn his bachelor's degree in biology. After college, he was drafted by the Army, and was sent to Houston for two years to teach microbiology to medics.

Contompasis returned to BU for graduate school in biology, but quit after he began substituting in Boston schools and decided he wanted to teach. Despite his earlier vow never to return to Boston Latin, he began teaching there in 1968.

Less than a decade later, he became headmaster of the 2,400-student school in the tumultuous 1970s. Boston Latin was under court order to admit girls for the first time, and the Boston school system was ordered to desegregate. Later, in the 1990s, he defended in court the school's use of minority quotas for admission and lost.

He angered the teachers union when he said that elementary teachers' low expectations of black and Hispanic students contributed to their failure on the Boston Latin entrance exam.

"It was a very difficult time in history to convince people that it could be done, that it should be done, and he led that charge," said Cornelia Kelley , Latin's headmaster and a teacher during Contompasis' tenure as headmaster.

Contompasis also made Boston Latin a more humane school, adding music and art classes, and stress management workshops.

He started off his years as headmaster addressing students on the first day of school with a Boston Latin classic: "Look to your left. Look to your right. Two of you aren't going to make it." But two decades later, he would say: "Look to your left. Look to your right. Help each other get through."

"I had mellowed out," Contompasis said. "The school was evolving."

As headmaster, Contompasis frequently spoke of his frustrations with the Boston school system.

He denounced its low academic standards, and lack of accountability and teacher training.

Fed up with school system politics, he took a one-year sabbatical in 1986 to pursue a doctorate at Harvard.

"I've been getting my teeth kicked in for 20 years and I keep doing it," Contompasis told the Globe at the time. "You reach a point where you say, 'Do I participate in this process for 20 more years or do I leave while I still have the option of not compromising what I believe in?"

He never began his doctoral thesis, and returned to his old job as head of Boston Latin. Payzant, after asking twice, named him the system's chief operating officer in 1998.

"I told him, 'Look, you've had a great career at Boston Latin School . . . but you have an opportunity to leave your mark on the whole system rather than just a single school,' " Payzant recalled.

Contompasis often played "bad cop" to the mild-mannered Payzant's "good cop."

As Payzant's second in command, Contompasis was strict with school system leaders -- whether it was insisting that metal detectors be installed in some high schools or disciplining staff for abusing school system cell phones.

"He's got a quick trigger," Payzant said. "Sometimes he doesn't suffer fools very well."

The only commitment Contompasis takes more seriously than the school system is his marriage to his wife, Joan.

The couple, who live in West Roxbury, married 15 years ago, after dating for 25 years.

On Fridays, the superintendent leaves the office at 5:15 p.m. -- at least two hours earlier than usual -- for "date night," a tradition the couple started 40 years ago.

The retirement clock on his desk reminds him to remain faithful to his promise to his wife, Contompasis said.

After a recent public debate with the teachers union president about contract issues, a parent handed him a note asking him to stay as superintendent.

Contompasis smiled, thanked the woman, and slipped the note into his suit pocket.

"My retirement clock says 114 days and 47 minutes, and it's going down every second," he said yesterday. "It's time for the next generation to take over."

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.

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