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Spilled Milk

An angry e-mail and a history of butting heads with the pastor. How Susie Corbett finally got the boot as director of Second Presbyterian Child Care Center.

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She taught our children love, respect and dignity. She also wiped thousands of noses, butts and spilled milks. She soothed sadness, tamed tantrums and healed hearts on a daily basis. Susie Corbett's appreciation Web site, http://lavie.ws/susie.

Back in the '70s, when women were entering the professional and executive work force for the first time in big numbers, the challenge of finding child care became a national provocation almost overnight. This was before nannies became a middle-class necessity, before flextime and telecommuting. For parents who worked or lived near downtown, a spot on the list for Second Presbyterian Child Care Center was a hot ticket.

Not only was it convenient, it was forward-thinking. Although it was a church-affiliated center, its mission embraced religions of all kinds. For three generations of Richmonders, the center was the answer to many a prayer.

For nearly three decades, from 1978 to 2007, Susie Corbett ran the Second Presbyterian day-care center as its executive director. Now she sits in her Jackson Ward home wondering what she'll do next.

Since the church terminated Corbett, people at all levels of the organization, from administrators to parents of current and former students, have speculated about the real reason for her departure. While theories continue to float, some of those involved with the center and its board suspect that her firing is the result of more than 20 years of head-butting and simmering angst between Corbett and the Rev. O. Ben Sparks, pastor of Second Presbyterian Church.

After firing Corbett in February, church and center officials alluded to "retirement" as the basis for Corbett's departure. And in a March 3 Times-Dispatch story, Sparks publicly related her departure to retirement.

Corbett continues to deny that claim.

In an interview last week, Sparks at first attempted to distance himself from the issue, stating twice that "a committee met and acted to terminate Susie." Later in the interview, however, he admitted that the church's governing board, known as the Session, started the ball rolling toward Corbett's termination. "The Session did fire her," he said emphatically. "Yes, we voted to fire her."

Sparks moderates the Session and is a voting member. Corbett's termination letter was signed by the clerk of the Session.

Then the Session left it to the center's board, which oversees Second Presbyterian Child Care Center, to, in Sparks' words, "effectuate her termination," working out terms and provisions surrounding the end of Corbett's 29-year tenure as executive director. The church and the day-care center are legally separate entities, governed by two separate boards. But members of the church sit on both boards, as does Sparks, according to IRS filings.

Delve further, and things get a little fuzzy. "[Corbett's termination] was due to very egregious behavior," Sparks says, declining to elaborate. "The Session does not ordinarily involve ourselves in the operation of the center. In this case, we did because Susie had done some things we felt were unacceptable."

To anyone familiar with the center, it's no secret that Corbett is an iconoclast. The sheer number of bumper stickers on her car is one collective statement of what she refers to as her "Yankee" frankness. When she came on as executive director in1978, she seemed a perfect fit with the mission of all-inclusiveness created by the center's founders.

Under Corbett's guidance, the child care facility celebrated religious and cultural holidays of all sorts, including the Day of the Dead, which Corbett says rankled a few members of the church. But Sparks says that wasn't a problem. He says Corbett's controversial choice to take a group of 5-year-olds to a demonstration against a local oil company a couple of years ago was not the reason for Corbett's termination either. Neither was Corbett's middle-finger salute to a man who repeatedly parked in the space for the center's van in front of the facility, Sparks says.

While Sparks declines to provide specifics, others say a private e-mail sent by Corbett is what did her in. Ted Currens, chairman of the day-care center's board, confirmed that Corbett's e-mail was disseminated to the governing bodies of both the church and the day-care facility around the time the decision was made to fire her.

"The e-mail exchange between Susie and governing members of the church was the straw that broke the camel's back," says Marshall Martin, a member of the center's board and the parent of a child at the center. Martin suspects the e-mail message was just a platter to place Corbett's severed head upon. "I think there were other things that led up to it," he says.

According to Currens, the day-care center has no policy, written or oral, involving offending e-mails.

Presented with the Session's directive to terminate Corbett, the day-care facility's board did not at first accept the terms. The center's board countered, asking the Session to extend Corbett's tenure to ensure a smooth transition to a new director. The Session denied the request. About a year ago, the church had formed a study committee to investigate the future of the center after Corbett retired. Corbett is 68.

Neither Corbett nor Sparks will say what was in the e-mail. Corbett says only that it was critical of a high-ranking member of the church.

To many, whatever was in the e-mail shouldn't have outweighed all the good that Corbett is credited with while running the center. In the wake of Corbett's firing, a group of parents established a Web site to show support for her, and it asks supporters to express their opinions to Pastor Sparks.

Meanwhile, Currens has put his church membership "on hiatus" as a result of the brouhaha. "I don't feel like a member of that congregation," he says. He remains chairman of the child-care center's board.

For Corbett's part, she's just trying to find some normalcy. She's clearly still shaken by her abrupt termination and says she's considering a vacation. She sits at home, smoking cigarettes to calm shaky hands.

She still has her dignity, she says. She turned down $4,000 in "transition pay," calling it "hush money."

"It meant I wouldn't be able to talk about what happened," Corbett says. "It's only money." S

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