Permission to publish by Eugene Register Guard and Author
September 26, 1998
We’ve lost a peacemaker. Not the headline-making, Nobel Prize-winning type. Kathleen O’Connell Corcoran was no jet-setting diplomat settling hostilities of global proportions.
Her turf was the smaller but no less scorched earth of child custody battles between divorcing parents.
I heard about her death even before the obituary appeared. Several family law attorneys called to laud her gift for mediating the most personal of wars and to lament the hole created by her death at age 50 from the cancer found in her liver just six months ago.
“Kathleen was more able than anybody to get parents to think about their kids instead of getting even with each other,” said Wayne Allen, a local family law attorney for 30 years and a municipal judge for 25 years.
“She settled many, many difficult cases – some I thought had no chance of settling,” said Allen, who called to eulogize Corcoran even though he was vacationing out of state. “She was able to get people to fashion good agreements that worked for them and their children. And noticeably, these cases didn’t come back in two or three years. Somehow, whatever she did stuck.”
Attorney Cyndee Haines has specialized in child custody work for more than 20 years. She never had a case referred to Corcoran where a parenting agreement didn’t result.
“The feedback I got from my clients was that she was positive, that she never thought a case could not be resolved, and that she never gave up – never,” Haines said.
“She had a gift for helping parents understand that even though their marriage is over, their parenting relationship never will be. I’ve had clients say they (and their ex-spouses) have gone from total enemies, hating each other to, `Wow! We’re actually working together!’ ”
NOT ONLY did she devote long hours to her mediation work – sometimes 70 hours a week or more, according to husband Jim Corcoran – but she worked on a sliding fee scale to accommodate low-income clients.
On top of that, she pushed tirelessly to better educate parents about the impact of divorce on their children.
“I had one client come back and tell me about this tremendous class she’d taken at LCC,” Haines said. “Who do you think was teaching it? Kathleen!”
“She was very, very good at what she did,” agreed another longtime family law attorney, Chuck Spinner.
He contended that everyone involved with family law in Lane County, “to a lawyer and to a judge,” probably had at least one experience where Corcoran was able to get warring parents to reach agreement when they didn’t think that was possible.
“I don’t believe all children of divorce are necessarily down a peg,” Spinner said. “If people keep fighting, that’s what does the damage. You can almost judge the difficulty a child will have as an adult – from mental health problems to brushes with the law to troubled future relationships – by the thickness of that divorce file down at the courthouse.”
Corcoran kept many of them thin.
Jim Melamed, who worked with her for more than a decade at The Mediation Center, estimated that Corcoran had 2,000 “intense, intimate relationships with divorcing parents” in which she used “a golden heart but also an iron will” to keep the focus on the children.
She also pressed Lane County to join other courts across the country in mandating parenting classes for all divorcing couples involved in custody disputes. She developed and taught the pilot classes that persuaded local judges to make the training mandatory early next year.
Barry Nobel, who worked with Corcoran in the Lane County Family Mediation Program, plans to complete her dream by teaching the classes. Likewise, Haines plans to continue Corcoran’s work at Lane Community College by teaching courses on divorce there.
Though best known for mediating child custody cases, Corcoran also worked her magic in other disputes. Victoria Spayd, a former Florence resident, credits Corcoran with helping avert a “horrendous divorce” when her 20-year marriage ended in 1993.
“It was still very difficult,” Spayd said. “But thanks to Kathleen, we never experienced the tremendous venom that can take place.”
In fact, Corcoran inspired Spayd to become a marriage and family counselor. Now studying at a California university, she will be in Eugene today to attend a celebration of life for her mediator and mentor. The vegetarian potluck is scheduled from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the craftsman-style bungalow Corcoran and her husband restored together.
“Kathleen was a real peacemaker and a champion of children,” said attorney John Gartland. “Her death is a great loss, but she left a legacy that will be built upon. Her work will live on.”
Karen McCowan can be reached at 338-2422 or via e-mail at email@example.com.
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