Dr. Shaka Rawls

By Dan McGrath

That’s Doctor Rawls, if you please.

On Wednesday, March 6, Leo Principal Shaka Rawls defended “Watching the Asphalt Grow,” the dissertation he prepared to complete his doctoral degree in Urban Educational Policy from the University of Illinois-Chicago.

The topic covered the effect school closings and consolidation during Mayor  Rahm Emanuel’s administration had on the Woodlawn neighborhood of Mr. Rawls’ youth. A panel of doctorate-level UIC educators reviewed the manuscript, then questioned Mr. Rawls about the project rather pointedly while viewing a slide-show presentation he prepared to highlight his findings.

After roughly a half-hour of deliberations, the panelists summoned him back to the room and gave him a bell to ring, acknowledging their acceptance of the dissertation and his elevation to Dr. Shaka Rawks, Ed.D.

“Finally,” he said as family, friends and Leo colleagues congratulated him. And after the party adjourned to a conference room, the world-renowned Leo Choir performed a celebratory three-song set.

“We are incredibly proud of Dr. Rawls,” Leo President Dan McGrath said. “For as much time and energy and effort as he puts into our young men at Leo, it’s remarkable that he could rise to the highest level an educator can reach by completing a very demanding degree. It speaks to his commitment.”

As Dr. Rawls made his rounds at Leo on Friday morning, each classroom he entered greeted him with a standing ovation.

“This for you guys,” he told his Leo students. “I come from where you come from, I’m one of you. And if I can do something like this, so can you. Aim high and stick with it.”

UIC wasted no time putting its latest honoree to work. Dr. Rawls has accepted an invitation to be the keynote speaker at UIC’s Black Excellence Graduation Celebration on Saturday, May 4.

“You are an ideal choice to send our graduates into the world with words of celebration, encouragement and wisdom,” UIC Administrator Cynthia Blair said in extending the invitation. “You will give our seniors much-needed perspective and inspiration as they look ahead to life after graduation.”

Lions Baseball Hits a Rough Patch

By Dan McGrath

By Dan McGrath

That five-game winning streak that got the Leo baseball season off to such a promising start seems like a distant memory.

The streak ended with a 13-5 loss at Lindblom, a Class 3-A regional champion last season. A two-game trip to Central Illinois resulted in losses to Brimfield (7-4) and Bushnell-Prairie City (6-4).

The onset of Catholic League play was a disaster: Brother Rice pushed across 17 runs in the first inning of a 21-0 wipeout in the CCL opener that was halted by the slaughter rule after 3 ½ innings at Rice on Monday, April 8. A day later, Providence Catholic almost duplicated the feat, burying the Lions 20-0 in a four-inning mercy killing at the Kroc Center.

A trip to Kerry Wood Field on the North Side offered no relief; DePaul Prep erupted for 13 runs in the first inning and pounded out an 18-3 victory on Thursday, April 11. Aiden Lott’s three-run double was the lone Leo highlight.

“As the competition gets better, our lack of pitching depth really gets exposed,” Coach Mike Anderson said.

So does a lack of consistent offense. After exploding for 79 runs during the winning streak, the Lions managed just 16 runs in their six losses, none in the first two Catholic League games, though it’s worth noting that Rice and Providence are perennially top-tier CCL teams.

It’s back to the CCL grind on Saturday, April 13 and a visit to St. Francis in Wheaton. St. Francis returns the favor with a visit to the Kroc Center on Monday, April 15, followed by a home-and-home with Marmion and a trip to Aurora Central Catholic to close out the week.

“I’m hopeful we’ll hit better when we get consistently better weather,” Anderson said.

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.

A Hot Start for Our Baseball Team

By Dan McGrath

Coach Mike Anderson viewed the opener on March 13 as indicative of how the 2024 baseball season might go for the Leo Lions. 

Playing “small ball” throughout, the Lions pushed across four runs in the top of the seventh inning and beat Public League campaigner Kennedy 6-2 at Kennedy’s Wentworth Park field. 

“That’s got to be our formula – pitching and defense and scratch out runs,” Anderson said. “We don’t have a lot of big hitters, so we’ll have to create scoring opportunities and take advantage.”

Imagine his surprise, then, when the Lions ran their winning streak to five with victories over Christ the King, Bogan, Corliss and Hillcrest by such non-small-ball scores as 16-0, 16-1, 22-1 and 19-0.

Of course, none of those teams ranks anywhere near the top echelon of high school baseball in the Chicago area. And Lindblom, a Class 3-A Regional champion last season, put an end to the winning streak and brought the Lions back to reality with a 13-5 victory at Lindblom on March 27.

But a 5-1 start was an encouraging sign for a young, rebuilding team that knows what it will be up against in the ever-competitive Chicago Catholic League. 

Leo’s 2023 squad that claimed a Class 2-A regional title and a win over Catholic League champion Brother Rice featured seven seniors: shortstop Joaquin Huerta, center fielder Mitchell Hall,  three-year starters Matthew Hernandez and Esai Jacinto and two-year mainstays Nate Sims, Kyrent Cole and Amare Hall.

This year’s team has one senior, first baseman Clyde Akins. But most of the sophomores and juniors who are filling out the roster have grown up playing baseball, unlike in past seasons, when Anderson and his staff were trying to teach the basics of the game at the high-school level while competing in the Catholic League.

“We’ll go as far as our pitching takes us,” Anderson said.

Sophomore Derrick Davis threw eight innings of one-run ball with 15 strikeouts in beating Kennedy and Hillcrest. He had two of the Lions’ 16 hits with two RBIs in the Hillcrest game. Juniors Aiden Lott, Ian Dunn and Marshawn Durr also drove in two runs apiece, with Dunn scoring three times.

Sophomore Michael Lewis got the start against Corliss and went the distance in a game that was halted after four innings by the mercy rule. Durr, Eddie Hernandez and Derrion Anderson had two hits apiece. 

Hernandez’s bases-clearing triple was the big blow for Leo in the Christ the King game. Dunn was 2-for-2 with four RBIs and sophomore Devin Vassel went  2-for-3 with three RBIs.

The Lions managed 10 hits against Lindblom, two each by Vassel and sophomore Fred Chandler. Lott had a two-run single.

A trip to the Peoria area for games with Bushnell and Prairie City on April 6 will be Leo’s final tuneup for Catholic League play, which begins with a game at defending league champion Brother Rice on Monday, April 8.

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. 

Jim Earner: Leo MVP

By Dan McGrath

A list of “MVP’s” who have contributed to Leo High School’s transformative  success in recent years would be a lengthy one.

Jim Earner, Vice President for Business Operations, would be near the top.

And he didn’t even go to Leo.

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, known to many as “Mr. Leo” as a Hall of Famer, Man of the Year and recipient of both the Doc Driscoll and Community Service awards.

Six of Jim’s brothers are Leo grads, including Hall of Famers Dan ’82 and Brian ’93.

Jim went to Brother Rice. Hold your hisses: It was within walking distance of the family home in St. Catherine of Alexandria Parish. He was a competitive wrestler at Rice and remains involved with the sport as an official, having worked the IHSA state finals at the University of Illinois this year. He also helps oversee the Leo wrestling program. 

Jim earned an accounting degree from Northern Illinois and an MBA from St. Xavier. He and wife Cathy have three grown children and three grandchildren. 

After a long career with Pepsi, Jim hired on at the Archdiocese of Chicago, and it was our good fortune that he was assigned to help out at Leo 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 the ever-vigilant Archdiocese trusts us enough to leave us alone. 

In his rare “non-Leo time” Jim performs similar magic for Our Lady of Tepeyac High School and a number of Big Shoulders-affiliated grammar schools, including St. Sabina.

“Jim Earner … I’d be lost without him,” Leo President Dan McGrath said of a 12-year partnership. “In my newspaper days, I never met a budget I couldn’t shatter. But Jim has a way of making sure we live within our means, while at the same time providing us with the resources we need to operate a first-rate school.

“And he does it all with a pleasant, engaging, down-to-earth manner… He’s the antithesis of the cold-hearted, bottom-line-driven accountant. He’s a genuinely good guy. His contributions are immeasurable.”

And Hall of Fame-worthy.

Congratulations, Jim. And from your Leo Family, thanks for everything.