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A Sad Farewell to Ed and Steve, Two Giants

The world lost two giants of labor and labor’s capital this past month: Steve Coyle, CEO of the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust (HIT), on December 18, and Ed Smith, CEO and Chairman of ULLICO, on January 3rd. They were the Adams and Jefferson of our world, and the number of working families and communities that they helped are nearly immeasurable.


They were also dear friends as well as champions of the Heartland Network. Many of you, the Governing Board members of the Heartland Network, were also in their hearts. Steve was a co-founder of Heartland, along with Leo Gerard of the Steelworkers and Rich Trumka, AFL-CIO. Ed helped our Governing Board launch the Labor-Capital Fellowship, along with Michael Psaros of KPS and Allan Emkin of PCA (now Meketa).


Our country is immensely poorer due to their passing, but the people of our country will never forget them. In their 50-year careers, they built hundreds of thousands of homes, provided help to millions of working families, invested billions of dollars in affordable and workforce housing and critical infrastructure, and, indeed, rebuilt entire parts of cities.


Steve spent years in the trenches leading the efforts of local Boston housing groups, the Carter HUD, and Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) before coming to HIT. Ed joined LIUNA member at 13, as had his dad, and went on to run his local and region, join the national executive board, and sit atop union and the Illinois pension boards before taking the helm of ULLICO.


The obituary writers will struggle to capture the deep humanity, worker solidarity, and side-splitting humor of these two men. Steve, with his Boston Irish brogue, was quick to realize obligation and seize opportunity when crisis struck cities, harming working families and residents. At the end of each day, according to ULLICO, Ed, with his Cairo, Southern Illinois small town roots, asked himself, “Who have I helped today?” It was a habit he learned from his father, but it also spoke to his generous spirit, moral conviction, fierce loyalty, and infectious optimism.


For me, it was always a challenge during Heartland’s innumerable events and road shows across the country as to who to put first on the agenda. During the 2013 Los Angeles Rebuilding America RoadShow, which piggy-backed on the AFL-CIO Convention, Steve spoke first due to scheduling conflicts. As Ed stood to speak next on the agenda, Steve began packing his briefcase and started to leave with an associate. As Steve was walking out, Ed said, lovingly, “We’ll have to excuse Steve, he’s got to get to his room for his afternoon nap,” cracking up the fifty participants in the room.


We will be compiling a series of remembrances from friends and long-time colleagues in an upcoming Thursday Expresso. We invite you to share your memories.


I can’t tell you how much it hurts to see these kind gentlemen and colleagues-in -arms leave the scene. For now, let’s just say that I was blessed to have worked in the shadows of two giants.


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