November 03, 1975 12:00 PM

When illness cost Albert Shanker a lung in 1951, he might have been expected to take normal precautions. Instead, the truculent 47-year-old teachers’ union chief kept smoking. “I’d start with strong Balkan-type pipe tobacco,” he recalls. “When my throat got raw I’d switch to cigars, and in the evening I’d go through a pack of cigarettes.” Shanker did not stop smoking until 1961. “Anything I get into,” he says, “I do with great fervor.”

His fellow New Yorkers would agree. Once an underpaid math teacher in a Queens junior high school, Shanker has become one of his city’s most visible power brokers. Since 1964 he has been head of New York’s 81,000-member United Federation of Teachers (the nation’s largest local), and he proved his formidable clout again this month. Only 53 scary minutes before New York City would have had to default on its debts, he agreed to rescue it—temporarily—with a $150 million transfusion from the teachers’ huge pension fund.

While events swirled about him, the lanky (6’3″) Shanker unwound on the weekend at his suburban Putnam Valley, N.Y. split level, and wryly considered his image as labor’s arrogant showboat. Although UFT strikes led by Shanker have shut down New York City schools three times in the past eight years, he brusquely claims that arguing contracts and settling strikes is a minor part of his job. “I’m only in the news when there is a crisis,” he says. “In 11 years as UFT president I haven’t spent even five percent of my time in negotiations.” He lectures, travels, ponders new ways to teach the retarded, he says. Shanker also dismisses speculation that as the youngest member of the AFL-CIO executive council (since 1974 he has been national president of the American Federation of Teachers) he is a likely successor to AFL-CIO boss George Meany. “A nasty rumor,” he insists, “or a silly one.”

Born on New York’s teeming Lower East Side, he was the son of a newspaper deliverer and a sewing-machine operator, both union members. He learned to negotiate from the thrifty Mrs. Shanker. “I’d have to wait half an hour while she bought three tomatoes.” Young Shanker shot up to his full height in sixth grade. “In those days things seemed to be lower, and the awnings on stores would always hit me,” he recalls. “As the biggest kid, I was supposed to be the strongest, and the name of the game was to prove you could bring down the Big Monster. The other kids proved it frequently.” Introspective and intellectual, Shanker graduated with honors in philosophy from the University of Illinois. Afterward, teaching in New York for $42 a week, he gravitated toward the Teachers Guild (a UFT forerunner) and went to work as a union organizer in 1959. His combined union offices now pay him $70,000 a year.

Absorbed in his work—”If I spend one night a week at home, that’s a lot”—he worries that his three young children (Adam, 14, Michael, 10, and Jennie, 11) may feel as remote from him as he once did from his own father. “There are periods in children’s lives when they don’t seem to miss you, when they don’t ask when you’re coming home,” he says. “Now I feel the tug when I’m away.” He has no apologies about not sending his children to New York City schools. “It would be a totalitarian system that compelled you to live and work in a certain place,” Shanker says.

A prodigious dieter who once lost 60 pounds in eight weeks, Shanker is nonetheless an enthusiastic gourmet—”It’s the battle of the bulge.” He likes to make wine, bake bread and whip up exotic dishes. A recent rainy Saturday found the graying union leader preparing a Moroccan dinner of lamb with blanched almonds.

Shanker’s first marriage ended in divorce in 1958, and since 1960 he has been married to Edith Gerber, a former Queens schoolteacher and amateur horticulturist. A jealous guardian of the little time she has alone with him, she resists publicity, refusing even to be photographed with a Mother of the Year award her family gave her.

Besides holding the fort during her husband’s prolonged absences, Mrs. Shanker has one other responsibility. She’s the parent who goes to school to meet with the children’s teachers. “It would create problems if I talked with them,” Shanker cops out. “It would be like the mayor or governor showing up. The teachers would not be at ease.”

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