Katherine Craven’s credo: ‘Let’s make things work’

If you drop the name “Katherine Craven” into any discussion with key players in academic and public service circles in Massachusetts, the air is quickly filled with words like “model public servant; sound judgment; unquestioned expertise; tireless work style; advances the public interest; impeccable credentials; boundless energy; impressive creativity.” And while “saintly” doesn’t make the list, one admiring associate calls her “a Joan of Arc” for her “intellect, forcefulness, and ethical approach to her goals in life and at work.”

Taking note of those qualities in her announcement last February that Ms. Craven, at the time executive director of the University of Massachusetts Building Authority, would be leaving public service for academia, Kerry Healey, the president of Babson College, said that her “20-year track record in government and higher education, and her highly regarded approach to team building and community engagement, makes her an exceptional fit to lead our administrative and business operations during this critical time.”

The title of chief administrative officer (CAO) of Babson College is the latest in a string of high-level Katherine P. Craven appointments fetching back to her days as a manager with the men’s hockey team at Harvard. In the early years of the new century, she was, at age 23, a budget analyst for the Ways and Means Committee of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and later the director of policy for the House where she counseled then-Speaker Thomas Finneran and the membership on the financing of significant legislative initiatives born out of the state’s $23 billion operating budget. She moved on in 2004 to serve as executive director of the Massachusetts School Building Authority, where she oversaw an outlay of $3 billion spending on K-12 schools and accepted a specific challenge:

“We had to revamp the entire state school building program. With a 90 percent state reimbursement, some school districts were getting six to eight lavish schools. There was a lot of waste and huge debt. No real budgets or planning were at play. Schools were built that never should have been built. There was no consistency. You leave things open for fraud when things happen like that. So we instituted checks and controls. We changed the culture.”

In 2010, Ms. Craven added the title of deputy state treasurer to her resume while remaining at the authority. The next year, she was named to head the UMass Building Authority, in which post she and her associates took up oversight of a $3.8 billion plan to modernize the University of Massachusetts campuses in Amherst, Boston (Dorchester), Dartmouth, Lowell, and Worcester for the benefit of some 70,000 students, 5,700 faculty, and 12,000 professional and classified staff.

And the beat goes on. Late last year, the newly elected mayor of Boston, Martin Walsh, managed to persuade her to join his transition team. And in August of this year, Gov. Deval Patrick named Ms. Craven to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, citing her experience as evidence that she and her associates “will continue to be great partners in our efforts to close the achievement gap and ensure that all of our students are prepared for future success.”

Given all the above, it seems reasonable to ask: Who is this 41-year-old wonder woman, and where did she come from?

William Shakespeare once wrote, “It is a wise father that knows his own child.” The late Boston Juvenile Court Judge John J. Craven, a member of the Boston School Committee and Governor’s Council in the late 1960s and early 1970s, knew his daughter Katherine the way a literary genius knows the denouement of a great work. Through the collective wisdom of an extended family marinated in Boston politics and public service, Judge Craven passed down to his daughter the essence of the Irish: wit, a sturdy work ethic, and perseverance.

My father was the center of my universe,” Ms. Craven said in an interview with the Boston Irish Reporter in November 2011, mere hours after his passing on Thanksgiving eve. “He taught me all the things a boy should know.” The loss of her father, she said, was paralyzing. He had struggled long and hard against Lewy Body Dementia, a rapid-onset Alzheimer’s variant that robs a person of memory, thinking, language, and, finally, life itself.
 Symptoms of the disease, a precursor to its final stages, were apparent after her father’s retirement in 2005, she said, but he had the will to fight on with the loving care of family members. She often took her father on trips to familiar places to jog his memory and his spirit –a father/daughter connection that has had staying power for her, she says today.

In many ways, Ms. Craven is a mirror image of her father, a Gov. Edward J. King appointee to the Boston Municipal Court bench, and a composite of her mother, Patricia: humble, resolute, and a person of great vision. 
Raised in West Roxbury, which is something of an Irish waiting room to Heaven, Ms. Craven belonged to a faith-centered family with a younger brother, John Robert, now an attorney with the Boston Water & Sewer Commission, and a younger sister, Patty, who has Down Syndrome. Katherine’s son, Joe, a precious ten year old, also is a Down child. 
For all that and more, faith and perseverance are family currency.

“Someone once described my father as relentless,” she said in the 2011 interview. “I think that’s true. Relentless in the pursuit that his children got the best education possible, and used their God-given gifts to the fullest. My dad was a life coach.”

At Harvard, John J. Craven, Roxbury Latin-educated and with roots in Roscommon, was called the “greasy grind,” a moniker for his “persistent studying; he was very much a perfectionist in that way,” she said. His father, John J. Craven, Sr., a second-generation Irish American, grew up in the “Leaky Roof” section of Roxbury, “a place where all the three-deckers leaked,” said Katherine, and was a state representative from the Roxbury district from 1930-38. His mother, Katherine “Kitty” (Kane), who with John Sr. raised 11 children, was the first woman ever elected citywide to the Boston City Council. A vociferous opponent of urban renewal, she once “tossed an ashtray at a fellow councillor who had insulted her, and called another ‘a bald-headed SOB,’ threatening to poke him in the jaw,” according to a Boston Globe story at the time.

Katherine’s mother Patricia (McCarthy), whose family came from Cork, added needed ballast, humor, and balance to a family driven to public service. The McCarthy name continues to resonate alongside the Craven record in public affairs: Ms. Craven’s cousin, Timothy McCarthy, a Hyde Park resident, served Mayor Thomas Menino as a Neighborhood Services coordinator and is now a member of the Boston City Council.

“My grandparents’ mission and focus was the political world,” Katherine said, “a response to the inability of the Irish back then to break into that line of business in Boston.”

That response was a calling passed down to her father, who served on the Governor’s Council from 1968-70, and on the Boston School Committee from 1970-74. He also ran, unsuccessfully, for numerous other elective offices: lieutenant governor, Suffolk County sheriff, the state Senate and the City Council. A man who had routine and discipline down to a Spartan science, he mentored as much as he monitored. “On the Juvenile Court, my dad always sought ways of helping people,” says Katherine. “But he was a disciplinarian if you weren’t doing the best job possible. He inspired me to go into public service, to never give up. He had a way about him.”

Early on, her dad taught Katherine how to keep Red Sox box scores —a skill of precision she has carried into professional life. “I was terrible in sports,” she conceded. “I didn’t have the eye-hand coordination going, but I knew how to keep score.”
 She has been doing that all her life.

Ms. Craven attended elementary school at Mount Alvernia Academy in Newton and high school at Boston Latin en route to Harvard where she majored in history and worked behind the bench as a manager with the men’s hockey team, a position advocated by her father when he realized his daughter was a better manager than player. While at Harvard, Katherine met her husband, Jim Kryzanski, a neurosurgeon at Tufts Medical Center. The couple has four children: Delia, 14; Joe, 10; James Henry, 6; and John Francis Xavier, 4. Katherine and Jim also lost a child, Mary Erin. “She died as a baby from West Nile virus,” said Ms. Craven in 2011 while noting that she, too, almost died of the disease.


Now it’s back to campus for a woman who apparently sees no sense in slowing down to a moderate pace. There’s always much to be done wherever she finds herself. Asked in a recent interview to compare and/or contrast public life with her few months in academia at Babson, CAO Craven went directly to the positive:

“Working with the people in Legislature and at public authorities made for a proving ground for work in a campus culture,” she said in noting that her responsibilities include oversight of facilities management, information technology, human resources, and community relations. “It’s like running a small town where meetings follow meetings with various constituencies in search of a consensus on what to do about important issues.”

Ms. Craven was asked in 2011 how one goes from being a history major to budget analyst in one swift leap, and she replied: “History is the predictor of the future. You fall back on that skill. That’s the trick of it. You don’t have to be an accountant to be a budget analyst – at the state government level, at the intersection of budgets and policy.”

You apparently also have to be a good juggler of priorities: “She’d come in carrying two briefcases and a baby under her arms,” former Speaker Finneran recalled in a 2010 Globe feature story on his erstwhile counselor. Asked recently to appraise Ms. Craven the person, Finneran replied that she is “sui generis,” a Latin phrase that in her case means you really can’t compare her to anyone else.

Robert K. Sheridan, retired head of SBLI and the author of the “Joan of Arc” designation, seconds the Finneran motion, saying, “Having Katherine Craven on the job is, simply, the best form of insurance any institution can have to ensure its success.”

Today, Katherine Craven looks in the rearview mirror with the training of a historian and to the future with the eyes of the community visionary and the relentlessness that defined her father’s approach to life. “I always strive,” she has been quoted as saying, “to keep my priorities straight, as my dad taught me: family first. I hope in the end that I can make a difference. I hope I can help a lot of people, figure things out, and make things work.”