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Making a Difference: Sam Corbett

A Formal Education

“KET is one of the few vehicles, from a statewide perspective, where you can hear viewpoints and ideas related to education.”
— Sam Corbett, Jefferson County Public Education Foundation

Sam Corbett

Louisville’s Sam Corbett is a problem solver. When he was an executive in the formalwear business, Corbett had to find creative solutions for a business that revolved around immovable deadlines like wedding dates and proms.

When he decided to leave his family business, Sam Meyers Formalwear, he followed a yen that had been building in him for years: to continue his involvement in education. He’d served on the Jefferson County Public Schools board, on the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, and with the University of Louisville.

“I left the business at the end of 2011. It was the only thing I’d done since I was 15 years old,” said Corbett, whose defining feature is the energy he brings to whatever task is at hand.

“I spent 21 years in the tuxedo business and there was something that was just pulling on me,” said Corbett, whose grandfather founded Sam Meyers in 1905.

“There was a part of me that said, ‘I want to try something else.’ And I knew that I would end up doing something that was related to education, because I had spent a lot of time as a volunteer.”

His first taste was through a school/business partnership Sam Meyers had with the Youth Performing Arts School Orchestra in Louisville—a natural fit, he said, given the formal nature of orchestra attire.

“That’s how I became exposed to leadership in education,” he remembered—and it lit a fire. Next, he threw his hat into the ring to be considered for an unexpired school board seat in Jefferson County in the early 1990s. He went on to run and sat on the board for eight years.

“It was the best experience I ever had—and it’s the hardest job in the United States,” he laughed. “You don’t get paid, it’s a full-time job, and someone is always upset.”

That experience, which he calls “the purest form of public service,” galvanized him to make a difference to public schools, where he is particularly gripped by its mission to serve all students.

“Two of my three children went to public school, and I think the great part about public education is that your child is sitting in the classroom with kids where some are like them and some are totally unlike them,” he said. “And the city today has become so diverse! Something like 100-plus languages are spoken, and it’s really become a kind of melting pot.”

Today, Corbett is executive director of the Jefferson County Public Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization that exists to create, strengthen, and connect the dots between needs in the public schools and the businesses and individuals who want to help them.

“There are a lot of caring, concerned people who are willing to help,” he said. “So the challenge is, how do we find ways to get them engaged—through their businesses, their churches, their clubs. There is a lot of expertise we could tap into.”

That idea man, forged in formalwear, now comes to the fore in his new ventures.

“I think I’m very creative in solving problems. I try to take the skill set that I used for many years and try to do the same thing as it relates to public education. You can’t run schools like you run a business, but there are principles that are applicable.”

Corbett’s ideas, and his deep understanding of the issues, are enhanced by his attentive viewing of KET’s public affairs and educational issue programs—such as Kentucky Tonight and Education Matters.

“KET is one of the few vehicles, from a statewide perspective, where you can hear viewpoints and ideas related to education,” he said.

“Just this week [on Kentucky Tonight], the panel included the co-chairs of the House Education Committee, the new executive director for the Prichard Committee, and an education analyst for the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions. So there’s a great opportunity right there.”

“What other opportunity is there,” he added, “other than KET, to get that kind of statewide perspective of what’s happening related to education?”

KET’s education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.