Richard Green, the chancellor of the nation's largest school system, collapsed and died Wednesday from cardiac arrest after suffering a severe asthma attack.
The suddenness of his death stunned teachers and students alike, and led former U.S. Atty. Rudolph W. Giuliani to postpone his formal declaration for mayor, turning the press conference instead into a tribute to Green.
Mayor Edward I. Koch, who sped to the hospital with school board President Robert Wagner Jr., was obviously shaken. "Earlier in the evening, his wife, Gwen was awake," the mayor, with tears in his eyes, told reporters. "And he woke up and said to her, 'I'm not going to make it.' "
"He loved the kids and they loved him," Wagner added.
The 53-year-old chancellor, the first black chief of the city's schools, was rushed to the hospital at 2:30 a.m. after awakening with the asthma attack. Physicians said his heart was not beating when he arrived and they were unable to resuscitate him.
Friends said that Green had been under strain as he presided over the huge and long-troubled school system. Some local school boards were the subjects of investigations for financial irregularities, and guns in the classrooms were a constant problem, as were drugs.
Hours before his fatal asthma attack, Green had suspended a 41-year-old special education teacher who was arrested Tuesday after being accused of smuggling heroin from Thailand and selling cocaine to undercover detectives.
The word of Green's death at 3:09 a.m. at Manhattan's St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital came too late for Giuliani to notify his supporters who were gathered inside the same Republican Club where Fiorello La Guardia launched his first mayoral campaign in 1933.
"I think it would be inappropriate to be engaging in heavy partisan politics," Giuliani told the audience. "Chancellor Green was a very decent man. He was a person who dedicated most of his life to public service, in particular to serving children. New York owes him a debt."
'Heart Gave Out'
Dr. Arthur Englard, attending physician at the hospital's institute of allergies, said Green "wasn't getting enough oxygen and his heart gave out. Had he come to the emergency room earlier in the day or evening, he probably could have been saved," the physician added.
Englard said Green had a long history of asthma, and while stress or anxiety can bring on some asthma attacks, the massive attack that struck the chancellor did not appear to be stress-related.
"It's hard to blame stress on something like this," Englard said, noting that New York is in the midst of the allergy season with a high pollen count. "Stress would not cause something so severe."
Green became head of the school system with its almost 1 million students in March, 1988. He was appointed after a bitter selection process. He had served seven years as the head of the Minneapolis schools, where he received credit for improving that city's education.
But in New York he found problems much larger and more intractable. Some studies show one-third of New York's students never finish high school, guidance counselors are overburdened with cases and half the school buildings are more than 50 years old.