October 2010 cover SCAN - St. Catherine University St. Catherine University
October 2010
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Urban Adventurer

In life and in work, Francine Corcoran avoids the short cut.


STEP BY STEP. BLOCK BY BLOCK. Through three-and-a-half years of wilting humidity, bone-clacking cold and nearly perfect autumn afternoons, St. Catherine development research officer Francine Corcoran walked every mile — 1,071, to be exact — of Minneapolis, with nothing more than her car keys, driver's license and a water bottle to keep her company.

Corcoran's journey started in January 2002, when newly elected Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak encouraged his fellow citizens to get to know their city. "I told myself if I got bored or scared, I'd quit," she says. "I never did."

Corcoran explored everything from urban forests to industrial sites, stopping to admire yard art or a leaf pattern on a stretch of cement in north Minneapolis.

Corcoran's passion for traveling on foot initially brought her to St. Catherine 19 years ago. "I applied because I could walk to work over the Ford Bridge," she says of her job tracking the accomplishments and life events of alumnae and donors.

Corcoran starts her day by reading both the Star Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press. She also scours local business magazines and Catholic publications for stories mentioning people from the greater St. Catherine community. And she monitors her Google Alerts several times daily for any mention of the University. "It's a fun job," she says. "I get to write stories about people for St. Kate's development staff. It's amazing to see how many kinds of jobs there are in the world."

Advancement research was in its infancy when Corcoran started work at St. Kate's. Today, the field is so integral to the successful operation of universities and other nonprofit organizations that it has its own national professional organization. "We help fundraisers focus their efforts," Corcoran explains. "People who are experienced donors expect you to know about them. The very least we can do is show we've taken the time to do that."

Corcoran worries that many young people today wrongly assume that anything they read on the Internet is true —"Wikipedia's a clue, not a source," she says. Her deep curiosity, sterling memory and commitment to the highest standard of privacy ethics remain her stock in trade. "I know thousands of names and recognize them in print," she says. "It's all about connecting the dots."

Creative by nature

Corcoran's facility with names serves her private life, too. About three times a year, she throws open the doors of her south Minneapolis home to host parties for her extended network of friends and family.

Although it's not unusual for over 80 people to show up for her parties — some from across the country — Corcoran always takes the time to remember each and every guest the next morning by writing his or her name on a list that she saves for posterity.

Those lists could serve as a Who's Who of the local creative community. A nature photographer and longtime board member of Minneapolis-based Theatre in the Round Players, Corcoran has a deep appreciation for the artistic life. She "only reluctantly" considers herself an artist, even though she has mounted some 30 solo exhibitions of her own photography. Still, despite her tendency to downplay her achievements, one look around her home shows that she's a devoted and passionate patron who believes in showcasing the work of her friends.

Corcoran's love of artisanship is perhaps most evident in her brand-new garage, which she proudly proclaims is the most beautiful in south Minneapolis. Painted a dusky slate blue to match her home, the garage's exterior walls are decorated with round windows of red and royal-blue stained glass. It looks almost like a yacht — albeit one moored in a patio studded with perennial gardens.

In typical Corcoran form (she shrugs off the Minneapolis walking achievement as "no big deal," even though it merited a story on National Public Radio), she refuses to take credit for this whimsically lovely creation. "It's David's garage," she says of the friend who built it. "He lets me keep it at my house."

Perhaps that's the literal truth. But judging from the number of people who gather to talk and drink and barbecue in its shade, the garage is probably more of a reflection of Corcoran's dynamic nature than she cares to admit.

Elizabeth Foy Larsen is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.


Behind the Scenes

Fran Corcoran A natural explorer and adventurer, St. Kate's Development Research Officer Francine
walked all 1,071 miles of Minneapolis' streets.