Kenneth Feinberg has shouldered so many wrenching duties that monitoring the paychecks of the top executives at General Motors, Citigroup and others can seem trivial by comparison.
Feinberg, 63, was appointed Wednesday by the Obama administration to be compensation czar and to stand between big bonuses and the executives running government-rescued firms.
His job will be to make sure fat cats aren't overfed, or so underfed that good leaders abandon companies most in need of leadership. As important as that sounds, it doesn't seem to compare to the emotionally draining mission of meeting with family upon family of the 9/11 attack victims and assigning a monetary value to the lives of those lost. Or, to a similar duty assisting a smaller group of victims after the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech.
"This will not be small potatoes, even in relation to his 9/11 job," says John Coffee, a law professor at Columbia University. "Hell hath no fury like a banker who has lost his bonus."
If Feinberg's new duty comes with a measure of stress, no one may have a better disposition to handle it, says Eric Turkewitz, a lawyer who represented two 9/11 plaintiffs. He says he found it remarkable that Feinberg never delegated. Working pro bono for 33 months, Feinberg listened, by himself, to 1,000 cases, "hour after hour, day after day, month after month," with a box of tissue by his side and boxes of replacement tissue in the closet, Turkewitz says.
Feinberg is the son of a used tire salesman. He still visits his hometown of Brockton, Mass., a community known for producing boxers Rocky Marciano and Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
Feinberg is remembered as a class clown who wanted to be an actor until his father convinced him to use his talents in a courtroom. He academically underachieved until college, first studying history at the University of Massachusetts, then law at New York University. About age 9 he developed a love for classical music, says high school friend Robert Haglund, now a Brockton dentist. "When the rest of us were listening to the Righteous Brothers and Motown, he was listening to opera."
Feinberg made a name for himself resolving high-profile class-action disputes over asbestos, defective contraceptives and Agent Orange.