‘Corky’ lived his way. That was never easy, but it made us better.
By Kevin Corcoran
Raised by Irish Catholic alcoholics, including a father who died on “skid row” when he was 12, my dad finally quit drinking when he was 36, a commitment that defined his life. Earlier today, after a spectacular run that included surviving pancreatic cancer nearly two decades ago, Michael Joseph Corcoran died at 83 in Hooverwood Living in Indianapolis, his body riddled with cancer.
My father was the kind of guy who could turn a traffic accident that was his fault into a friendship. He was an energetic teacher who hosted Ethel and Ted Kennedy at his high school and inspired people to politics and public service, a dream he never fulfilled for himself. He spent his retirement years driving religious women from the Missionaries of Charity around on various errands, and it was clear they saw Jesus in him where I sometimes failed.
Like all of us, my dad was full of contradictions. The Congregation of Holy Cross, which then ran Cathedral High School, once compiled a list of the top five troublemakers from the view of each of the Catholic brothers, and my dad made 11 of 15 lists as a student, according to a registered letter they sent his mother. He returned to the school when his granddaughter was a student there and had lovely exchanges with those same brothers, who had come back for a celebration. When his drinking grew worse, his friend and mentor, Bill Kuntz, fired him from the only job he ever loved — teaching — and they remained lifelong friends to my father’s credit. When my dad desperately needed a job and driving a city bus seemed like an option, he asked a friend who owned a trucking company to write a phony letter that qualified him for the position. I was in disbelief when the city hired him. He drove an articulated Metro bus, an extended bus with an accordion-like connector, when I wouldn’t be caught in a car with him behind the wheel. He wasn’t their worst driver, I’m told.
Like some of us, my dad struggled with mental illness. His demons were manic episodes mixed with anger and depression. (He once took the neighbor’s dog on an unapproved road trip to Terre Haute that had me scouring the city for him. He consumed news voraciously, often sending me online to verify strange stories that turned out to be true. I never knew whether I was going to get relaxed “Dad” or “Michael J.,” as I referred to his alter ego, which viewed me competitively even though he was also proud of me, especially my work in journalism.) My dad had been wrongly diagnosed as schizophrenic for many years, even doing “shock therapy” in the 1960s that likely damaged his brain. When a doctor finally halted the incorrect meds, my dad felt free to be himself, shunning even the correct medication without apology because he disliked drug side effects. (Imagine a U-Haul with no speed governor, except it’s a parent.)
If I needed to dial back tension, I’d often joke, “You’re not ready for the truth,” a variation of Jack Nicholson’s ad-libbed line from “A Few Good Men.” When that worked, he’d chuckle and give me a high-five or a fist bump. When it didn’t, I’d excuse myself and let his calls go to voicemail for a while.
He did things his way. No question.
After a chaotic childhood near Irish Hill, my dad graduated from Cathedral High School and Marian College, taught business law and U.S. history and government at Scecina Memorial and Crispus Attucks high schools from the early 1960s through the mid-1970s, and coached high school football, basketball, and golf. He relished those days.
He ran as a Democrat for Indianapolis City-County Council in 1971 on the far northeast side, the first such election after the creation of Unigov. Scores of Scecina students worked on the unsuccessful campaign as fundraisers, canvassers, and poll workers; some later went on to careers in politics or public service. In 1990, he ran an unsuccessful Democratic campaign for the Washington Township Advisory Board. Among his friends, he counted congressman Andy Jacobs Jr., Jerome “Jerry” Forestal, and “Mr. Democrat,” Larry A. Conrad.
He worked for the Bureau of Motor Vehicles in the central office and as a branch manager, the Center Township Assessor’s Office, the Salvation Army, and IndyGo, then known as Metro. He counseled students at Arsenal Technical High School through a federal job training program. Many of his former students stayed in contact, and he recently attended a 50th class reunion at Scecina. That Saturday was the last time I saw him at Mass.
To me, “Corky” bequeathed a pride in our Irish heritage, a commitment to social justice, and a gene for stubbornness. He gave me two great sisters, and (as we discovered in recent years), two great half-sisters.
Never one to let an opportunity to rage against the machine pass quietly, my dad spent his final hospital stay — after injuring himself in a fall — railing against the Catholic embrace of corporate healthcare to any doctor, nurse, or social worker who might listen. During care conferences, they would concede that, yes, healthcare in this country is screwed up.
Two weeks ago, we spent four or five hours at the hospital making sense of his life’s journey. We both knew he wasn’t likely to walk out. He told me a story about his father, Ned Corcoran, who’d been an assistant U.S. attorney. Despite his success, Ned admonished his son not to be like him before succumbing to cirrhosis. His death by bottle came years after a bullet had lodged in his liver during a shooting in an after-hours joint.
Wrapping up the story, my dad offered this summary of his own life:
It was never easy. My son was surprised when his grandfather confided over lunch in a restaurant that he began cheating his way through life when Ned Corcoran’s sudden death plunged the family into crisis and poverty, separating my father and his three siblings.
Among his proudest accomplishments was achieving more than 47 years of sobriety through his involvement in Alcoholics Anonymous. He often gave “leads,” the talks at open meetings about his life and recovery. He also participated in Narcotics Anonymous. Whenever someone told me they knew my dad, how they knew him was usually left unspoken. In the early years of his sobriety, I’d listen to his talks to glean insights into what he was thinking and work through how it had affected me, my mom, and my sisters. He taught me to see through bullshit, and I learned empathy — two valuable human capacities.
The last time we talked, he credited my mom with doubling his lifespan. After years of abuse, she kicked him out of our ranch-style home when I was in the first grade. Divorce was a newish thing in the early 1970s, and people felt sorry for me. I remember being relieved. It was like being released from the set of Netflix’s “Maid,” a limited series portraying emotional abuse. A failed marriage with three kids was followed by losing a string of jobs, run-ins with the police, another failed marriage. Finally, the mayhem landed him at the bottom.
Then, he began the 12 Steps.
One of his Alcoholics Anonymous anniversary celebrations, arranged by his wife Lucia, who deserves a medal (and a special place in Heaven) for putting up with his cantankerousness, drew Catholics, Jews, and Muslims — all people he’d encountered from across the city. They were Black, brown, and white. I took note of how easily he befriended people not at all like himself. That’s a part of him that I hope lies within.
All my experiences with racial differences when I was a kid involved being around my dad. Teaching at Crispus Attucks High School, which educated mostly Black students, changed him, I believe. He would tell me stories about what it was like to be Black growing up in Indianapolis. He identified with people who were told they were less than. After he no longer taught, he often took us to weddings and other events involving former students, and we were the only whites, a feeling I’ve never forgotten. A few years ago, I went to watch Crispus Attucks play for a state basketball title with one of my dad’s former players, Darryl, an O.G. with the Ten Point Coalition, who said of my father, “he’s the genuine article.”
My dad pitched a big tent. He would spend Saturday mornings with a group of Jewish friends at Panera Bread, stop in at local mosques from time to time, and attend Mass regularly. He had many lawyer and priest friends even though he had given up on both paths after attending Indiana University School of Law and St. Meinrad Seminary.
Once I dropped by his and Lucia’s home on North Pennsylvania Street for a visit, and an older Black woman with a military bearing and three pre-teens stopped in. The children respectfully entered the home, single file, and called my Dad “Uncle Mike.” I can’t recall his explanation, but I knew then his funeral really would be something.
Kevin Corcoran is the son of Michael Joseph Corcoran, an alcoholic who went more than 47 years without a drink and went out of his way to help people.