A New Life Lies Ahead At 62
By Michelle Bearden | Tribune StaffTAMPA - Many who live and work in Tampa know C. Timothy Corcoran III as a top-notch lawyer and award-winning federal bankruptcy judge.
Published: August 23, 2008
Published: August 23, 2008
They may not know that he plays a mean competitive bridge. That his only beer is Budweiser. That he cried when Whaley's Market in South Tampa closed.
And they certainly didn't know that he recently made a life-altering decision.
The man with two degrees is going back to school at age 62. When he graduates in four years, he will be eligible for ordination - when Judge Corcoran will become the Reverend Corcoran.
It's the vocation, he says, that has always called.
It was just the sort of party Bette Lou Corcoran would have loved.
Glasses tinkling, voices buzzing, the occasional eruption of laughter. Although weather forecasters delivered ominous warnings about a possible hurricane named Fay, the panoramic sunset view of Tampa Bay from the 38th-floor University Club was positively sublime.
Truth is, all that was missing from this soiree was Bette Lou herself, gone from this Earth almost three years. But surely she was watching as her only child and favorite duet partner, Clement Timothy Corcoran III, was feted. And given the cause for celebration, surely she was smiling.
More than 100 friends - he didn't know he had so many - had come to send Corcoran off to college. With each person who stood to say a few words, the convivial crowd raised glasses in toast and shouted out a collective "Hear ye, hear ye!"
"You know I've got the weepy gene," he admitted in a cracking voice when his turn came. "I'm overwhelmed by all of this. I feel so incredibly blessed."
He's a top-rated lawyer and respected mediator, a former federal bankruptcy judge, a past president of the Hillsborough Bar Association, a decorated U.S. Navy veteran, and a rabid fan of the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays.
Now the 62-year-old is embarking on yet another vocation, one he believes he has been preparing for all of his life.
Last week, he left Tampa for a dorm room at Blessed John XXIII National Seminary outside Boston. He plans to become a Roman Catholic priest for the Diocese of St. Petersburg.
If all goes according to plan - "the Holy Spirit's plan," Corcoran emphasizes - he will be ordained to full priestly orders at age 66.
"Cats have nine lives," he says, flashing an impish Irish grin. "Guess I'm entitled to a few."
A Higher Authority
The choice to go to seminary is not a singular one, nor is it impetuous.
Corcoran says his walk in grace began at birth. He showed up two months late during the biggest blizzard Kansas City, Mo., had seen in years. It was the height of World War II, and his dad, for whom he was named, was off flying combat missions in the Pacific.
He weighed 12 pounds - a number that got bigger each time the tale was told.
Bette Lou, a 19-year-old bride who became a mother 16 months later, would be the chief influence in young Cork's life. His father's 30-year career with the Marines took him all over the world. Once Corcoran got to seventh grade, Bette Lou put the skids on moving. We'll stay put, she told her husband, and you come back to us.
She was mischievous, loved to dress snazzy and was totally committed to Catholicism, the faith she adopted as a child. She always thought, deep down, her son had the makings of a fine priest. She wasn't disappointed, but she was surprised, when he chose law instead.
"I think most Catholic boys growing up in that era had the sense of going into seminary and becoming a priest," he says. "But most of us repressed it. It was only later in life, with more maturity and experience behind me, that I saw it was important."
After graduating from the University of North Carolina in 1967 - during the Vietnam War - Corcoran enlisted in the Navy to fulfill his ROTC obligations. Serving in the military during a time of such national turmoil came naturally. His parents had instilled in him a fierce love of country, a commitment to sacrifice and a need to be of service to something larger than self. That would carry him through three years of active duty and two tours in Vietnam.
Even after enrolling in the University of Virginia School of Law, he continued with the Navy in its reserve, devoting 28 years to the military altogether and retiring a few years ago as a lieutenant commander.
All the while, Corcoran ignored that tiny voice calling him to the priesthood. In hindsight, he understands the symmetry of God's plan. All those skills he would hone as a lawyer - listening, empathy, discourse, reasoning and compassion - transition into ministry.
"Lawyers need to answer to a higher authority," he reasons. "Just like priests need to answer to a higher authority."
In 2002, the Young Lawyers Division of the Hillsborough County Bar Association bestowed Corcoran, a federal bankruptcy judge in Florida's Middle Court, with its highest honor: The Robert W. Patton Outstanding Jurist Award.
In the group's opinion, he was the best judge of the year.
The recognition was the crowning achievement of a distinguished and varied career in the courtroom, which included 14 years on the federal bench for the Middle District of Florida and a commercial and business litigation practice.
K. Rodney May, the judge who replaced Corcoran on the bench, also argued cases before him as an attorney. He was impressed with Corcoran's precise and analytical mind, and May sees that as an advantage in his new path.
"He was forward-thinking on issues that lawyers didn't always see, and he saw solutions not everyone could see," May notes. "He's dealt with people under stress and in trouble. All of those will go a long way for him in pastoral ministry."
Corcoran's professional docket was always full. He mentored young lawyers at lunchtime brown bags, wrote extensively for the Florida and American bars' publications, and served on the state bar grievance committee. He underwent extra training to become certified as a mediator. Several of his decisions have become footnotes in legal history, including his decision on the Toy King case, which involved a retailer that went bankrupt when it tried to expand too fast.
"It's the bible on fraudulent transfers. A nice piece of work. It took a full ream of paper," says Catherine Peek McEwen, also a federal bankruptcy judge in the Tampa division.
She is Corcoran's best female friend. They used to date years ago; now she's the "Fun Captain" on their crazy adventures, whether they're cheering on the Rays, eating "rare cow" at Bern's, playing games of duplicate bridge or visiting Rome.
They still argue over whether Pope Benedict XVI was looking at her or Corcoran when they saw him in St. Peter's Square in 2005. Corcoran is adamant it was he, and that it might have even awakened the small voice within him.
McEwen is willing to concede the argument only if it did spur her friend to pursue his calling. She says he's one of the finest, most decent, loyal and honest human beings she has ever known, even if he eschews good wine for Bud. The church needs leaders like him.
"This investment the diocese is making in Tim, they'll get it back times three," she says.
Heeding The Call
You always knew where to find Tim Corcoran at 12:10 p.m. weekdays.
He attended daily Mass at his church, Sacred Heart Parish, in downtown Tampa. Even when he wasn't there, he wasn't far away. His office window commanded a fine view of the historic building and its green Romanesque roof. That gave him great comfort.
He says he is defined by his Catholic faith, both culturally and intellectually. The rich traditions, the centuries-old rituals, the invitation to think - all suit him well. In recent years, as he wound down his secular career, he began devoting more service to the church. He taught new Catholics in the church's rite of initiation program; he graduated from the diocese's Lay Pastoral Ministry Institute.
When he sought an annulment for a brief marriage he had years earlier, he learned that it was a taboo topic with not enough answers. So he designed a ministry called "Healing After Divorce and Annulment." His next big step was getting in the Deaconate Formation program, which would have led to being ordained a permanent deacon.
Then Bishop Robert Lynch of the St. Petersburg Diocese posed the question: "Why don't you want to become a priest?"
Corcoran realized his answers weren't good enough.
"All the excuses - I have a house, I can't leave my friends, going back to school at this age is crazy, I'm too old - none seemed good enough," he says. Talks with friends and church leaders shifted his thinking. He believed the Holy Spirit was working through those people to nudge him to answer the call. When Lynch said he would sponsor him at Blessed John XXIII Seminary, the bishop's alma mater, it became real.
On Monday, Corcoran joins 21 new candidates in the program for older vocations. Altogether, Blessed John has 65 students, with most older than 30. It's the only U.S. seminary with a program for older clerical candidates, a program that has grown vital as the church copes with a growing shortage of U.S. priests.
The seminary has enrolled only about a half-dozen students Corcoran's age.
"With all his educational experience, he'll have no trouble adjusting to the academic life," says the Rev. Peter Uglietto, the school's rector president. "And he brings such a rich life experience to the table. The church is lucky to have him."
Blessed John, founded in 1964, has about 600 graduates serving in 120 dioceses. The yearly tuition comes to about $40,000, with the sponsoring diocese picking up half and Blessed John funding the rest, mainly from benefactors. The program is a lot like going to college, emphasizing intellectual, spiritual and pastoral formation, with students living in single dorm rooms and getting the summers off.
In the wake of the church's clergy sex-abuse scandals that led to multimillion-dollar settlements and a breakdown in public trust, Uglietto says there is no better time for men such as Corcoran to heed a calling.
"We call them the good, the strong and the brave," the rector president says. "They are turning away from all that is comfortable to take on a difficult challenge. What they bring and what they give is just what the church needs now."
There are sacrifices, to be sure.
Corcoran fretted mightily about the location of the seminary. He's moving right into territory dominated by the Boston Red Sox, a declared enemy.
He will proudly wear his oversized Yankees bathrobe and his Rays cap. But in his heart, he knows this much: "Conversion is not possible with those people."
He'll be closer to Arlington National Cemetery, where he visits his parents' graves from time to time, sneaking in miniature bottles of bourbon for his dad and vodka for Bette Lou. He takes a swig from each one and sprinkles the rest over their headstones. He knows they will be guiding him - "Actually, kicking me in the rear end" - on this uncharted journey.
It's no longer Tim Corcoran setting a goal and devising the plan to reach it. Now, he says, he's the least important person on this path. The attorney who fought for his clients, the judge who presided over court, is now deferring to something much bigger than himself.
He is ready to concede that Mother knew best.
"Coming back home one day to minister to God's people in a way only a priest can do, ... that is inspiring, it is awesome, it is humbling," he says. "I pinch myself every morning and say, 'Am I in heaven or what?'"
Reporter Michelle Bearden can be reached at (813) 259-7613 or firstname.lastname@example.org.