Will the Real Joe Banner Please Stand Up?

When he first came to town to run the Eagles, Joe Banner was known as a smart guy and a generous, sensitive soul. Then Eagles Nation got ahold of him — and made him the most hated man in Philadelphia

“I’ve never gotten another phone call like Joe’s,” one of the City Year founders, Alan Khazei, says. Here was a successful businessman who approached them with no agenda other than to see how a nonprofit operated so he could start his own. But Banner realized he wanted, instead, to volunteer for City Year, and asked Khazei a question: What do you guys need?

What they really needed, it turned out, was a bigger space. Banner spent more than a year securing new digs for the start-up, which Bill Clinton would visit in 1992 as he planned AmeriCorps.

One other thing Banner did for close to two years: One day a week, from morning to night, he read to seriously ill patients at Children’s Hospital Boston. There were kids with AIDS and cerebral palsy, and Banner got down on the floor to play checkers and other board games with them. When he was eight years old, Banner had had a tumor removed from his shoulder. It turned out to be benign, but he’d never forgotten being hospitalized with other kids whose outcomes were different.

“I could always tell by his voice,” his mother Micki says now — that he’d spent the day at the hospital, if he happened to call her that night. “There was a real sadness, after he went to read to the kids.”

Banner was soon at another crossroads, ready for something different. In the early ’90s, he decided to head to Hawaii, his favorite place in the world. A small problem: Just as he was securing a job teaching eighth-grade math at a private school on Maui, he met Helaine, recently divorced with a little girl. There was soon another complication: His old friend Jeff Lurie had been calling, leaving messages on his answering machine in Boston while Banner was job-hunting in Hawaii: Remember how I always wanted to buy a sports team? Well, I’m ready. Did Banner want to help him?

Lurie admits now it was “a leap of faith” to tap Banner as the hands-on guy to run his team. Clearly, believing in Joe was a feel thing, as if he understood that Banner, so smart and independent-minded and committed — “When Joe loves something, he cares about it intensely” — really was waiting all along for just this opportunity.

Before leaving Boston, Banner went to City Year with a plan: He wanted to expand the organization into Philadelphia. It’s been hugely successful here — rivaling New York’s as the biggest in the country — with more than a thousand volunteers. Banner won’t divulge how much time he now devotes to the organization, but when City Year people talk about him, they say things like “Joe Banner is a national treasure.”

“I guess I drank the Kool-Aid,” Banner explains. He really believes giving a year to national service post-college can become as commonplace as joining Facebook.
As for the way Banner is viewed in Philadelphia, as the cold, bottom-line-obsessed suit who really cares only about making Jeff Lurie richer, a mystified Alan Khazei shakes his head: “It breaks my heart.”