Leo High School Graduation – A Ceremony Unlike Any Other

By Dan McGrath

The ceremony was as enjoyable as the Mother’s Day weather, and that’s saying something. 

Clear, sunny skies and warm, gentle breezes made for a perfect setting for Leo High School’s 95th commencement exercise, held at St. Margaret of Scotland Church on Sunday, May 12 – Mother’s Day, in keeping with a longstanding Leo tradition.

Mothers are always part of the show at a Leo graduation, and this year’s – recognizing the Class of 2024 – was no exception. Mr. Titus Redmond had his Senior English classes prepare Mother’s Day-themed poems, framed copies of which the graduates presented to their moms during the ceremony. 

Kendall Alexander lost his mother to a sudden illness earlier in the school year, so the poems presentation was emotionally taxing for him. Credit the Leo Family, represented by the Dr. Shaka Rawls Family, with a gracious intervention.

Principal Rawls took the microphone to announce he was “adopting” Kendall as his brother and would share his mother with him. Whereupon Shaka’s mom, Dr. Andre Rawls, joined Kendall at the front of the church and happily accepted the assignment with a heartfelt embrace.

“We pride ourselves on being a family at Leo, and families support each other and look out for each other in good times and bad,” Principal Rawls said.


If it was their last official function as Leo students, Everardo Santana and Theauntae Jones worked overtime.

Santana, who is headed for UIC, delivered the valedictorian address as the top-ranked student in the graduating class. Redmond selected Santana and Jones to read their Mother’s Day poems to the packed-church audience. Jones, who will attend Knox College in Galesburg, led the world-renowned Leo Choir in an emotional tribute song to mothers, and each walked off with two of the 10 “outstanding achievement” medals awarded to the class: Santana for English and science; Jones for music and leadership.

Santana and salutatorian Garry Brown, who is headed for Culver-Stockton College, used their remarks to extend gratitude to their parents, and to the teachers, coaches and administrators who helped make their four years at Leo a meaningful, enjoyable experience.

Principal Rawls praised the class for its perseverance in overcoming pandemic challenges that included spending much of freshman year doing remote learning.   

President Dan McGrath urged the graduates to go out into the world “and make us proud.”

“I know you can, and I know you will,” McGrath said. 

As is the case with all Leo events, the ceremony ended with a rousing edition of the Leo Fight Song, with the newest Leo alums joined by dozens of others in the house.

Leo High School graduation – a ceremony unlike any other.   

And a special day for a special place.

The Outstanding Achievement Awards for the Class of 2024:

* The William J. Koloseike gold medal for athletics: Joshua Burke

* The Bishop John R. Gorman gold medal for religion: Justin Thompson

* The Michael L. Thompson gold medal for music: Theauntae Jones

* The Donald F. Flynn gold medal for history: Jaylen Hopewell

* The Dr. James A. Ahern gold medal for science: Everardo Santana

* The Thomas and Mary Owens gold medal for mathematics: Joshua Ball

* The Stafford L. Hood gold medal for English: Everardo Santana

* The Br. James Glos gold medal for foreign language: Isaac Hall

* The Frank W. Considine gold medal for social justice: Kam’ron Colbert

* The Andrew J. McKenna gold medal for leadership: Theauntae Jones

Dr. Rawls, Keynote Speaker at UIC’s Black Excellence Ceremony

By Dan McGrath

It was a UIC production, but Leo High School stole the show.

More specifically, Dr. Shaka Rawls stole the show.

Leo’s Principal not only received his doctorate in Urban Educational Policy from the University of Illinois-Chicago on Saturday, May 4, he was the keynote speaker at the university’s Black Excellence ceremony recognizing African-American graduates of distinction from close to a dozen degree-granting UIC schools.  

The world-renowned Leo Choir performed flawlessly, drawing standing ovations after each of its three songs from the Leo-dominated audience at the UIC Forum. 

UIC’s Chancellor, Dr. Marie Lynn Miranda, said the soul-stirring music reminded her of the cultural anthropology research she did on southern churches and their role in the communities they served while she was an undergrad at Duke and a graduate student at Harvard.  

Dr. Rawls acknowledged that his doctorate was several years in the making; the demands of the job he holds at Leo no doubt prevented him from finishing sooner. As he has since completing his doctoral dissertation, Dr. Rawls cited the Leo student body as his inspiration for attaining this lofty academic goal.

“I want our boys to see that someone who looks like them, someone who comes from where they come from, is capable of achieving  at this level no matter the obstacles society places in front of them,” Dr. Rawls said.

“Gentlemen, this is for you.”

Dozens of friends, family members and supporters from Leo, UIC, the Big Shoulders Fund and other phases of Dr. Rawls’ life feted him at a university-sponsored reception following the ceremony. The celebration continued into the next day with a reception at Leo that drew 200 well-wishers.

Samira Rawls, Shaka’s 14-year-old daughter, MC’d the party. Leo President Dan McGrath was among the speakers.

“Shaka might tell you that not everything Coach Holmes and I told him when we were recruiting him to Leo was the gospel truth,” McGrath said. “In fact, we might have embellished a bit. Well, desperate times call for desperate measures. 

“Today our enrollment is at a 20-year high. We’re current on our bills, with a couple of dollars left over. Leo enjoys a remarkably high profile for a school its size, and Shaka’s role in all this cannot be overstated. 

“We could not have asked for a better principal. We are tremendously proud of Dr. Rawls, and we congratulate him on this monumental achievement. It’s a great day for Shaka Rawls and a great day for Leo.” 

The Academy of St. Benedict the African: Flag Football Champs

by Dan McGrath

The Academy of St. Benedict the African is the Alabama of Leo’s Jr. Flag Football program. 

Just as the Crimson Tide has dominated college football for the better part of the last decade, St. Ben’s has dominated Leo’s flag football league for elementary schools, taking the title in each of the last three sessions after finishing as runner-up to S. Sabina in the first session.

St. Ben’s downed HIATT of Merrillville, IN., 24-14 in the Spring ’24 title game at Leo’s Alumni Field on Saturday, May 4. St. Ben’s (4-2) finished second to Barbara Sizemore (5-1) during the regular season, but rolled through the playoffs while Sizemore was losing to HIATT (2-4) in the playoff semifinals.

St. John De La Salle (3-3) and Burke Elementary (0-6) were this session’s other entries.

Just as Alabama lost Hall of Fame Coach Nick Saban after last season, St. Ben’s is losing its Principal at the conclusion of the school year. Jennifer Farrand is relocating to Pittsburgh, where her husband Mike has accepted a job transfer. Mrs. Farrand has been both a great principal and a good friend to Leo, and we wish her well in her new adventure. 

104 Students on the Honor Roll is, We Think, a School Record

Our records are too imprecise to prove otherwise, so we’re declaring 104 Leo students on the honor roll for the 2023-24 third quarter a school record.

At an honors assembly on Friday, April 5, 54 students were recognized as “B” honor-roll scholars and 50 as “A” scholars. Senior Everardo Santana was honored as a Principal’s Scholar for earning straight A’s on his third-quarter report card.

“I knew we were going to be close to 100, so I was prepared to tell the boys that if we hit 100 at the next assembly we’d buy lunch,” Leo President Dan McGrath said. “We hit 100 for the third quarter, so we’ll have to do something nice before the end of the  school year.”

Santana also received “outstanding in math” recognition, along with fellow senior and “A” honor-roll colleague Aiden Lott. Junior Shane Shambley made the “A” honor roll and was singled out as a Spanish Superstar. Junior Daniel Gamble was a Vocabulary Word Master, a Spanish Superstar and Most Improved in English III.  Sophomores Stephan and Steven Jackson were “A” honor-roll students, Future Chemists and Young Scientists in the Making.

“Having 104 students on the honor roll … that’s nearly half the building,” McGrath said. “Dr. Rawls, Ms. Fleck and I are very proud of the boys.”

Leo Alumni and Varsity Basketball Players Entertain

By Dan McGrath

On Final Four Sunday, the first Alumni Game between the current Leo varsity and alums from as far back as 2009 resulted in a highly entertaining 72-65 victory for the old guys. They led by as many as 18, and watching Malcolm Bell ’18 and Chris Lockhart ’09 shoot the lights out while Darius Branch ’16 conducted a ball-handling clinic was a fun reminder of how much good basketball I’ve been fortunate to watch over 14 years at Leo.

But as Emanuel Walker, Brian Kizer and Karon Shavers brought the young Lions back in the second half, I got a sense that Leo’s basketball future just might be as bright as its past.

Most of the alums stuck around for a barbecue lunch afterwards. They know they’re always welcome at Leo. 

John Gardner ’75, Leo Alumni Association Man of the Year for 2024

By Dan McGrath

John Gardner ’75 has been named Leo Alumni Association Man of the Year for 2024. 

Along with the Doc Driscoll and Community Service award recipients and a five-member Hall of Fame Class, John will be honored at the Alumni Banquet on Friday, April 26. Tickets are still available on-line for the event, which will be held at Casa del Mar in Hickory Hills.

A past president and current vice-president of the Alumni Association, John has been involved with the organization since 1999, overseeing such events as the banquet, the golf outing and the Alumni basketball night that have generated thousands of dollars in revenue for Leo High School. He believes he owes the school a debt of gratitude.

“Without the friends I met at Leo, I’m not sure how my life would have turned out,” he said. “We learned how to be men, husbands and fathers together … We all credit Leo for our success.”

John attended Western Illinois University after Leo, graduating in 1979. He and wife Susan have four children and are active at Most Holy Redeemer Parish. John is a member of the Leo Hall of Fame and was the Doc Driscoll Award recipient for exemplary service to Leo in 2018.

This year’s other honorees: 

Doc Driscoll Award – Bob Cheval ’74 is this year’s Doc Driscoll Award recipient. Bob is the longtime treasurer of the Alumni Association, and his ability to “keep the books straight” surely fits the award’s criteria for above-and-beyond service to Leo.

“Bob’s job as treasurer requires many hours of behind-the-scenes work making sure we’re in proper financial shape as an organization,” Leo Hall-of-Famer Brian Earner said in nominating Bob, who was a four-year football player and the student-council president after arriving at Leo from St. Walter.

“I always thought my time at Leo prepared me for life,” Bob said, “I took the school motto, Facta non Verba, to heart.”

Bob and Debra, his wife of 47 years, have two children and eight grandchildren. 

Community Service Award – Thomas “Tommy” Russell ’78 “has devoted his life to the veterans,” Terry Earner said in nominating his classmate. A veteran himself, Tommy enlisted in the Marine Corps a year after graduating from Leo. 

“I got my ass kicked by the nuns at St. Gabe’s, by the Irish Christian Brothers and by a nutty Irish mother, so when I got to the Marines it was like, ‘This ain’t bad at all,’” Tommy said.

A motorcycle enthusiast, Tommy serves as President of the Canaryville Veteran Riders Association and organizes coat drives for veterans each Thanksgiving. He’s a regular participant in the riders’ Toys for Tots drives that try to brighten Christmas for needy children. 

And, as a retired carpenter, he helped make Darkhorse Lodge at Kentucky Lake a reality as a no-cost, outdoors-oriented retreat for combat veterans from all branches of the service.  

Hall of Fame Inductees

Terrance L. Bates ’86 – The Oriole newspaper, the Lion yearbook and student government occupied Terrance at Leo. He still finds time to be an Alumni Association stalwart while working as a counselor for School District 130, coaching youth basketball and raising two daughters. “Whatever Leo needs, I’m there if I can be,” he said. “I live our motto every day.”

Jim Earner – Jim would rank near the top of any list of MVP’s who have contributed to Leo’s success in recent years. And he didn’t even go to Leo – he went to Brother Rice, which was within walking distance of the family home. But that’s not to say he isn’t a Leo Man as a product of a truly distinguished Leo Family: Jim’s dad is Gene Earner ‘50, a Hall of Famer known to many as “Mr. Leo.” Six of Jim’s brothers are Leo grads, including Hall of Famers Dan ‘82 and Brian ‘93. After a long career with Pepsi, Jim hired on at the Archdiocese of Chicago, and it was Leo’s good fortune that he was assigned to help out after bookkeeper Tanya Townsend retired. “Helping out” gradually evolved into a total overhaul of Leo’s business operations, which run so smoothly and efficiently these days that they’ve landed Jim in the Leo Hall of Fame. “His contributions are immeasurable,” school President Dan McGrath said. “I’d be lost without him.” 

John “Jack” Hannigan ’63 – Known as “The Quiet Man” to his classmates, Jack is anything but quiet when it comes to publicizing Leo’s sports teams – moments after a game, alums can expect a score and highlights to hit their devices “quicker than an SOS,” says Bill Figel, a recipient. “I believe communication is a vital need, so I get the word out to the alumni … It has been a constant effort to support our school through communication,” Jack said. After 40-plus years as procurement specialist, Jack and wife Judy, a special ed teacher, retired to Lockport, where their three kids and three grandkids are close by.    

Robert “Bob” Marks ’63 – The oldest of 11 children, Bob chose to work and help pay the family bills as a teenager, which ruled out playing sports at Leo. But his impact on the school was profound nonetheless as his eight younger brothers followed him to Leo and became Hall of Famers. “Leo High School was a foundational moment in Bob’s life,” the Marks family said in nominating Bob for the Hall. “It not only provided him an excellent education, it instilled the values of hard work, integrity and giving back.” Bob gave back plenty as a volunteer with several social service organizations in the Detroit area while working as CFO for McCann-Erickson Detroit. 

David K. Mutter ’70 – “I thought he was already in,” was a common reaction to the announcement that Dave Mutter was joining the Leo Hall of Fame Class of 2024. Indeed, he probably should have been after a standout football career as a two-way lineman for the Lions, on the field for nearly every play “except kickoffs, because I was too slow,” Dave said. After playing at the University of Hawaii, he returned to Leo for two separate coaching tours, including five years as head coach and four as an assistant for his mentor and role model, Bob Foster. Retired from a successful career in the insurance industry, Dave and wife Connie have four grown children and seven grandchildren. 

Lions on Parade

By Dan McGrath

It never gets old.

For the 10th year, Leo participated in the South Side Irish Parade down Western Avenue in the Beverly neighborhood, reconnecting with the dozens of Leo alums and Leo families who call the area home.

This year’s event was held on March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day. Cold, blustery weather may have held the crowd down some, but shouts of, “My dad went to Leo!” or, “My grandfather went to Leo!” still greeted the Leo party as they traveled the parade route from 103rd to 115th Street. Including students, parents, faculty, staff and alumni, the Leo party numbered close to 50.

“We appreciate being invited, and we’re always honored to participate in the parade,” Leo President Dan McGrath said. “The kids always enjoy the experience, and it’s a great opportunity to demonstrate that Leo is alive and thriving.”  

Saluting The Ladies

By Dan McGrath

A breakfast saluting the honorees was the highlight of Leo’s celebration of March as Women’s History Month. 

Thirty-one women (one per day) were recognized for their professional accomplishments and their commitment to community service. Amid festive decorations and with delicious food on the menu, the breakfast was held in the Leo Auditorium on Friday, March 22. 

Early, perhaps, but Leo would be on spring break as the month officially ended, and, along with Ms. Sandifer-Horton’s exquisite preparation, student participation was vital to the breakfast’s message.

The world-renowned Leo Choir never sounded better in performing a four-song set that featured “Where Is the Love?” an original rap composition that expresses frustration with the violence that confronts young Black and Brown men as they grow up trying not only to achieve, but to survive in cities like Chicago.

Members of the National Honor Society presented the honorees with flowers and read aloud the proclamations honoring them, acknowledging, without prompting, their appreciation for being in the company of so many distinguished women.

“We’re an all-boys school, but respect and appreciation for women is as important as anything else we teach in our curriculum,” Principal Shaka Rawls said. “Today was an opportunity to demonstrate that, and the buy-in from the boys was just terrific.” 

An Image to Be Proud Of

In terms of recognition, it has been a good year for Leo’s Class of ’76. Coach Holmes’ ’76 classmate, Dwayne Johnson-Cochran, recently received an NAACP Image Award for writing the screenplay for “Heist 88,” a Showtime original movie that received widespread critical acclaim. 

The plot, loosely based on true events, centers around a criminal mastermind who decides to pull off a final major caper before going to prison. So he recruits four eager young employees to steal $80 million from the bank where they work.

Courtney B. Vance stars, and his production company produced the film. In addition to his screenwriting credit, Johnson-Cochran has an on-screen role as a Catholic priest.

Dwayne Johnson-Cochran was an honor student and a student-council officer at Leo. He played football and baseball and wrote for the Oriole. After studying geology at UIC, he found his true calling when he was accepted into a Master’s program in filmmaking and film history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

He got his start as a filmmaker writing and producing commercials for Burrell Advertising. At WTTW, Chicago’s public-television outlet, he specialized in documentaries such as “Babies at Risk,” a study of infant mortality in Chicago, and “School Reform – Power to the Parents.”

Since moving to Los Angeles he has worked as writer, producer and director, making his directorial debut with “Love and Action in Chicago” for HBO. He also was co-creator of “Minor Adjustments,” a sitcom that ran on the NBC network. Johnson-Cochran has taught screenwriting at the USC Film School for more than a decade and has worked with film students in Asia, Africa and Europe through UNESCO, the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.  

The Leo Family salutes Dwayne Johnson-Cochran on a milestone achievement in a distinguished career.

Fred Cleveland ’19, Stars in the HBCU All Star Game

Not to take anything away from South Carolina’s win over the Iowa Caitlins in the NCAA women’s championship game, but Sunday, April 7 was a pretty good day for Leo High School basketball as well.

In Phoenix, Fred Cleveland Jr. ’19 started for Team Rick Mahorn in the HBCU All-Star Game and scored 20 points in a 108-97 loss to Team Ben Wallace. Fred’s total included six three-pointers. We heartily concur with TV commentator Avery Johnson’s suggestion that “Fred’s in range when he gets off the bus.”

Fred was one of the most decorated basketball players in Leo history over his two varsity seasons including All-Area, All-City, two-time All-Catholic League for a Lions team that reached the Class 2-A Supersectional. A 5-foot-9 senior guard at North Carolina Central, he continued to distinguish himself as a collegian, winning the Sam Jones Award as HBCU Player of the Year after leading the Central Eagles in scoring (15.3 points per game), minutes (33 per game) and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in assists (5.3 per game).

Fred, a first-team HBCU All-American, was named winner of the Sam Jones Award as HBCU Division I Player of the Year. The Sam Jones Award is named for the late Boston Celtics great who was a five-time NBA All-Star and a 10-time NBA champion, second only to teammate Bill Russell, who won 11 titles. Sam Jones also played at North Carolina Central.

Central was 9-5 in the conference, good for second place, and 18-13 overall. The season ended with an upset loss to Norfolk State in the MEAC tournament.

Fred was a true student-athlete at Leo, graduating as the salutatorian for the Class of 2019. Younger brother Cameron, completing his sophomore year at Morehouse College, was valedictorian for the Class of ’22. The Leo family salutes the Cleveland family as they continue to make us proud.