Visitors from St. Augustine School

By Dan McGrath

There are five Catholic high schools serving an all-minority population in the United States.

Leo is one of them, and it has partnerships with two others: St. Benedict’s Prep, in Newark, N.J., and St. Augustine School in New Orleans, La.

A three-person contingent from St. Augustine’s, including President Aulston Taylor, visited Leo on Thursday, Sept. 15. Principal Shaka Rawls and a Leo group will make a return visit to New Orleans next month.

Accompanied by Administrative Aide Aliska Mercadal and attorney Derek Mercadal, President Taylor, a former two-sport athlete at St. Augustine, shared his personal story with a Leo student assembly.

After graduating from Texas Southern University, where he played varsity baseball, President Taylor landed a job in sales and marketing with ESPN. That led to an opportunity with the BET Network and a move to New York, where he earned a master’s degree in integrated marketing from New York University. That led in turn to a job with Viacom.

“I was making good money and by most measures I was successful, but I came to realize that what I was doing was not my passion,” he said.

The opportunity to come “home” to St. Augustine was one he couldn’t pass up, even though it entailed a substantial pay cut.

After two-plus years as the school’s chief development officer, President Taylor moved into his current role in 2021. Like Leo, St. Augustine is primarily dependent on outside funding for its operational budget. Like Leo, it boasts a 100 percent college acceptance rate among its seniors.

“And, like Principal Rawls, I realized that my passion is helping young men realize their full potential, often in the face of adversity,” he told an assembly of Leo students.

“And that’s my advice to the young men in this room: Identify what it is that you’re passionate about in life and pursue it. It’s very hard to be denied if you’re passionate.”

Rally Held for the Invest in Kids Act

By Dan McGrath

It wasn’t their intention, but the Leo Lions stole the show at a recent pep rally. 

The rally in question was held at St. Sabina on Wednesday, Sept. 13. Its purpose was to call attention to the danger of the Invest in Kids Act being legislated out of existence. The Invest in Kids Act is responsible for tax credit scholarships, which afford Illinois youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity to attend private schools, including Leo, on full or partial scholarships.

More than 30 Leo students receive tax credit scholarship assistance.

Funding for the program comes from donations to various scholarship-granting organizations, including the Big Shoulders Fund and Empower Illinois. Donors receive a credit of up to 75 percent on their State of Illinois income tax. Enacted in 2017, the Invest in Kids act is due to expire on Jan. 1, 2024 unless the legislature extends it.

Opponents of the measure say it favors private schools by funneling money away from public schools that are in desperate need of consistent funding. 

 About a dozen schools that are recipients of tax credit scholarship dollars took part in the rally, which was sponsored by Big Shoulders, the Archdiocese of Chicago Office of Catholic Schools and Empower Illinois. It bore a distinct Leo imprint.

The world-renowned Leo Choir, now 20-plus voices strong, opened by singing the Star Spangled Banner and two additional songs.

Leo Principal Shaka Rawls served as MC and delivered opening remarks, noting that the opportunity to attend the high school of his choice–Leo–started him on his path toward a career as an educator.   

Seniors Zion Cornell-Strickland and Theauntae Jones and freshman Ian White-Holmes offered personal accounts of how the tax-credit scholarship has made it possible for them to attend Leo and receive the benefits of a Leo education in the safe, nurturing learning environment Leo offers. “I never saw my mother happier than when she was notified we got the scholarship,” Jones said. “It meant that I could continue at Leo. It’s the best place for me.”

Father Michael Pfleger, St. Sabina’s senior pastor, delivered the keynote speech and said allowing the scholarship program to expire would be another slap at the poor and the disadvantaged.

“Especially people of color,” Father Pfleger said. “They’re entitled to a quality education at the school that best fits their needs.

“The legislators need to take the politics out of it and do the right thing.”

Leo Opening Day 2023

By Dan McGrath

The largest freshman class to enroll at Leo High School in more than 20 years got a sense of what a special place Leo is when they showed up for Opening Day on Thursday, August 10.

More than 50 Leo alums ranging from the Class of 1963 to the Class of 2023 were on hand to salute 86 newcomers, as well as some 150 “returning veterans,” greeting them in the courtyard with “Welcome to the Leo Brotherhood” as they arrived for the first day of class as Lee begins its 98th year of service at the corner of 79th and Sangamon.

Office of Catholic Schools Superintendent Greg Richmond, Sixth Ward Alderman William Hall and a large contingent of our friends from the Big Shoulders Fund and the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corp. also joined the welcoming party. A drumline from GADC provided energetic background music. TV crews from NBC-5 and CBS-2 Chicago filed stories for their afternoon news programs.

The weather cooperated—it was a cool, clear morning, almost too nice a day to be in school, but an ideal day to be outside celebrating Leo.

“There’s no better way to kick off a school year,” Principal Shaka Rawls said amidst the festivities.

The Opening Day celebration arrived one year after Principal Rawls, so this was our seventh. Mr. Rawls conceived it as a means of connecting the generations of Leo Men, as well as reminding the young Lions that by enrolling at Leo, they’re becoming part of something special.

“Alumni support and involvement is a big reason why we’re so special,” Mr. Rawls added, thanking the alums for their participation. “It’s important for the young guys to see that the day they arrive.”

After the ceremony the students assembled in the auditorium, where Superintendent Richmond spoke to them about upholding Leo’s traditions and Principal Rawls outlined expectations. Admissions Director Kevin McNair was cited for the energy and effort he put into assembling such a robust freshman class.

As the Young Lions headed off to class, the alums and other guests moved to the cafeteria for coffee, juice and pastries served by the Leo Parents Club.

“This is the largest group of kids we’ve had in the building since I’ve been here, by a lot,” said Leo President Dan McGrath, who is beginning his 14th year. “What it means is we’re set up to have another great year.”    

Our Back to School Jam Keeps Getting Bigger and Bigger

By Dan McGrath

The sixth edition of the annual, unofficial “end of summer” party was held at Leo on Saturday, August 5. Persistent rain showers might have held the crowd down some, but an estimated 2,500 people were on hand at various portions of the afternoon.

Five thousand backpacks stuffed with school supplies were distributed to youngsters from Auburn Gresham and adjoining neighborhoods at the event itself and in the weeks leading up to it. Tables bearing toys, games, sports equipment and back-to-school clothing were available to the kids as well, along with horseback rides and food trucks offering a free lunch. Our community partners from the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corp. manned a booth outlining the services available at the Healthy Lifestyles Hub, Leo’s new neighbor to the immediate east on 79th Street.

“A great day for Leo and a great day for Auburn Gresham—events like this underscore our commitment to the community,” Leo Principal Shaka Rawls said. “As we begin our 98th year at 79th and Sangamon, it’s important that we remain good citizens and good neighbors.”

Leo would like to thank the following sponsors for their participation and support: the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corp., Alderman David Moore (17th), Jewel Osco, BMO Harris Bank, Farmer’s Insurance, Pyramid Amount Corp., Brown Sugar Bakery, Just a Touch Massage, LIT Living in Truth, Marcia’s Family Daycare, Olive Harvey College, the Chicago Blitz, the Chicago Hellcats, St. Sabina Academy, the Academy of St. Benedict the African, St. John De La Salle Academy, Holy Angels School, Betty Shabazz International Charter School and Kipp School.

Leo and the Bears: A Strong Relationship

By Dan McGrath

Leo High School’s relationship with the Chicago Bears remains as strong as ever.

Coach Matt Eberflus visited the school in March, addressing a student assembly and stressing the importance of resilience and resolve in the face of hardship.

Each December, Leo is the site of the Bears’ annual holiday party for needy families from the Auburn Gresham community. And in January 2022, the world-renowned Leo Choir was invited to perform at halftime of the Bears-New York Giants game at Soldier Field.

On Thursday, July 27, 10 Leo students and three chaperones traveled to Bears training camp in Lake Forest for “Scout School,” a program Bears General Manager Ryan Poles has instituted to expose inner-city youngsters to the inner workings of a pro football team.

The students watched practice with scouts who’d been assigned to each position group. Over lunch they sat in as the scouts discussed what they’d seen from various hopefuls trying to make the 53-man roster or the practice squad. After lunch, representatives from such departments as media relations, marketing, ticketing, legal, athletic training, equipment supervision and data analysis met with students to describe the paths they’d followed to land jobs in pro football.

Poles is a rarity as an African-American chief football executive for an NFL team. Experience has shown him that minorities are underrepresented in the front offices of most pro sports teams and leagues. The purpose of “Scout School,” he explained, is to expose minority youngsters to the idea that it’s possible to land a job or even have a career in sports without being an elite athlete.

The message got through to the Leo party. The bus was abuzz with discussions of what the kids had seen and heard from Lake Forest to Leo. Nobody slept, which was surprising in that they’d been asked to be at Leo by 7:30 a.m. and we hit the road before 8.

One day earlier, a 35-member Leo party was invited to Lake Forest to watch a Bears training-camp practice. Unfortunately, smoke from the Canadian wildfires and a lack of any type of wind made for a very poor air-quality day in the Chicago area. As a precaution, the Bears elected to move practice indoors, but the indoor facility isn’t large enough to accommodate spectators, so the visit had to be postponed.

Instead, the Leo party was invited to Family Fest on Sunday, August 5 at Soldier Field, where the workout simulated game conditions. Quarterback Justin Fields, the object of all Bears fans’ curiosity as he begins his third year, had an outstanding day throwing the ball, connecting several times with D.J. Moore, an accomplished but still young veteran whom the Bears brought in to be Fields’ big-play receiver.

Afterwards, several of the players hung around to pose for pictures and sign autographs, including Fields and Moore.

Graduation Day 2023

By Dan McGrath

The weather was cool, damp and threatening, but it couldn’t dim the spirit in and around the church as Leo High School held its 94th commencement celebration for the Class of 2023 at St. Margaret of Scotland on Sunday, May 14 – Mother’s Day.

Forty-two seniors received diplomas before a packed house of family, friends and relatives. The sheer joy and exultation that greeted the announcement of each graduate’s name was a reminder of what a truly special occasion this was.

Mrs. Tiffany Harston, Leo’s guidance counselor, did a splendid job as MC for the program. President Dan McGrath and Principal Shaka Rawls commended the class for dealing with COVID’s many challenges as effectively as they did in making it through to graduation. The world-renowned Leo Choir performed. Each senior presented his mother with a Mother’s Day poem he had composed as a Senior English writing project for Mr. Redmond’s class.

But, in an unusual twist,  the highlight of the day was the speeches.

Matthew Hernandez displayed the poise and confidence he said he was grateful for acquiring during his Leo journey, one that saw him become an honor student, class Salutatorian, National Honor Society member and all-conference baseball player.

Esai Jacinto said he never would have had the nerve to deliver a speech to a packed house when he entered Leo as a nervous little freshman, not knowing anyone and not sure he belonged. But he not only was accepted, he was challenged to become all he could be at Leo: Valedictorian, honor roll, National Honor Society, varsity wrestler, four-year baseball starter. 

Esai grew emotional as he thanked his family, his friends, his teachers, his classmates and his coaches—especially Coach Mike Anderson—for helping him find the path to success at Leo. Several people were seen dabbing at their eyes as he went down the list.

In an amazing display of personal connection, Principal Rawls used his speech to recall an interaction or an anecdote about each senior in the graduating class. Nothing pro forma; every message was personalized to let the young man know he’d been recognized and appreciated as a Leo student.

“And now you’re going out into the world as a Leo Man,” Mr. Rawls said. “Make us proud.”

Jacinto and Tim Durr took home two gold medals apiece as Senior Award recipients. The complete list:

• William J. Koloseike Gold Medal for Athletics: Kevin Jackson
• Bishop John R. Gorman Gold Medal for Religion: Jonathan Agee
• Michael L. Thompson Gold Medal for Music: Timothy Durr
• Donald F. Flynn Gold Medal for History: Matthew Hernandez
• Dr. James J. Ahern Gold Medal for Science: Timothy Durr
• Thomas and Mary Owens Gold Medal for Mathematics: Thomas Sims
• Stafford L. Hood Gold Medal for English: Esai Jacinto
• Br. James Glos Gold Medal for Foreign Language: Dorion Woods
• Frank W. Considine Gold Medal for Social Justice: Christopher Robinson
• Andrew J. McKenna Gold Medal for Leadership: Esai Jacinto 

Congratulations to all the members of the Class of 2023 and their families.

And many thanks to the faculty, staff and parent volunteers who put together a spectacular day for Leo.

We’ll do it again next year … and for many years to come.  

Stankiewicz ’66, Malec ’46, Spivy ’92 to be Honored at the Alumni Banquet

Jim Stankiewicz, Man of the Year 

Dr. Jim Stankiewicz ’66 has been selected as Leo Alumni Association Man of the Year and will be recognized at Leo’s annual Alumni Banquet on Friday, April 28 at Chateau Del Mar in Hickory Hills.

Ron Malec ’46 (Doc Driscoll Award) and Antwayne “Tony” Spivy ’92 (Community Service) are this year’s other award recipients. The six-member Hall of Fame class includes Renardo “Rick” Hall ’72, the late Bill Holland ’73, Fred Nelson III ’77 and three of the eight Marks Brothers to attend Leo: Albert ’64, William ’66 and Daniel ’67.

Jim Stankiewicz was an honor-roll student, a class officer and a starter on the Lions’ 1966 Catholic League lightweight basketball champions at Leo. He earned undergrad and medical degrees from the University of Chicago. An ear, nose and throat specialist, he is renowned in the medical community not only as an accomplished surgeon but as a professor at the Loyola University School of Medicine, where he helps train the next generation of physicians and surgeons.

Jim is also a generous and engaged supporter of Leo, a regular at Alumni events and the primary underwriter of the Class of ’66 Scholarship, which provides full tuition assistant to a deserving student-athlete in memory of Coe Francis, a standout football player from the Class of ’66 who died in a drowning accident the summer after graduation.

“Terrific honor for a terrific guy,” Leo President Dan McGrath said. “Jim Stankiewicz is the embodiment of a Leo Man.”

Doc Driscoll Award to Ron Malec 

Ron Malec was one of the lead developers of the Maple Park Subdivision, which featured affordable, single-family homes on the city’s Southwest Side. Ron later became a full-time Florida resident, but he never forgot his Leo roots. In conjunction with Maple Park’s 60th anniversary, Ron has started a scholarship program to make it possible for students from Whistler and Higgins, the two elementary schools serving Maple Park, to attend Leo.

So far, six graduating eighth-graders from the two schools are enrolled and registered to attend Leo as Malec Scholars beginning this fall. The principals and counselors at Whistler and Higgins have endorsed the program, embracing Leo as a better option for their students than their district public schools.

“Mr. Malec’s support means a great deal to Leo,” Principal Shaka Rawls said, “and it will mean even more going forward as more Maple Park kids take advantage of this great opportunity.”

Community Service 

If Leo were to present an MVP Award to its staff, Tony Spivy would have been a candidate in each of the three years he has worked at the school.  

Mr. Spivy is a jack of all trades as an on-line class monitor, assistant dean, lunch-room supervisor, bus driver, field-trip chaperone, etc. And he’s a master of all of them, engaging the students with a firm but cheerful demeanor that lets them know he’s looking out for them, but he expects them to be their best selves in return.

“Mr. Spivy has been a great addition to the staff and a big help to me,” Principal Rawls said of his former Leo football teammate. “I appreciate the Alumni Association recognizing him for the great work he has done.”

2023 Leo Hall of Fame Inductees

Renardo “Rick” Anthony Hall ’72 was the first Black student to serve as Leo’s student body president. In keeping with his penchant for bringing people together, he was heavily involved with the planning of his class of ’72 50-year reunion last year, but he suffered a sudden, fatal heart attack mere weeks before the event. Rick had a positive impact on thousands of lives throughout his career in higher education. His widow Alisha and family have been invited to this year’s banquet to accept Rick’s Hall of Fame plaque.

Fred Nelson III ’77 got his start in music long before he arrived at Leo—his dad, Fred Nelson Jr., was a popular keyboardist, and Little Fred was first exposed to the instrument while sitting in his dad’s lap. After leaving Leo he embarked on a career as a performer, later branching out into arranging and producing for such legends as Aretha Franklin, Anita Baker, Jennifer Hudson and Celine Dion. On the side, Fred worked for several ad agencies, writing and producing commercials for, among others, McDonald’s, Polaroid, Coca-Cola and United Airlines. The give-back gene is active within Fred; in addition to his musical pursuits, he serves as Artistic Director to the students of School District 162 in Matteson, IL. Like Principal Rawls, he has been recognized as a Chicago Defender Man of Excellence. 

Bill Holland ’73, Leo football standout and student body president, left us last June. He remained a Leo Man long after graduation, engaged and active with the Alumni Association, a regular at Leo events, a member of the school’s advisory board. And his family kept Bill’s Leo Spirit alive after his death, requesting donations to the Leo Scholarship Fund in lieu of flowers. The response was so generous that one sophomore—a former student of Bill’s teacher/daughter Mary Kate—is attending Leo on scholarship. And a second student will be selected for another Bill Holland Scholarship this fall, a life-changing experience for two deserving young men who might have been hard-pressed to attend Leo were it not for the generosity of Bill’s family and his countless friends. Facta non Verba indeed. 

The Marks Brothers Will Be Welcomed into the Hall of Fame

Albert ’64, Bill ’66 and Daniel ’67 Marks

Albert Marks was the first of the eight Marks brothers to attend Leo, and while he took great pride in those who followed, he was an accomplished man in his own right, a combat veteran of the Vietnam war who enjoyed a prosperous career in sales after his military service. Albert’s family was the center of his life; he was married to Kathy for 52 years, he coached son Tom and daughter Michelle in youth sports, and he eagerly found time for his four grandchildren. Al died in January 2022.

Bill Marks was a multi-faceted man at Leo, a Glee Club officer, a Drama Club mainstay and a starting lineman on the ’65 Lions football team, which sent eight players on to Division I colleges and is regarded as one of the best teams in school history despite its loss to Loyola Academy in the Catholic League championship game. Bill served 14 months in Vietnam as a military policeman with the U.S. Army and later graduated from DePaul, which set him up for a long career in sales. He was honored to take part with other Vietnam vets in a 2018 Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., one year before his death.

Daniel Marks served with the U.S. Army in the demilitarized zone in Korea after graduating from Leo. He and Christine, his wife of 36 years, had two children and two grandchildren, and he has good things to say about his time at Leo.“My favorite memories are of the people I met in high school,” he says. “They have become lifelong friends.” Dan believes his Leo experience prepared him to take on the world. “My time at Leo showed me how a solid education can better prepare you for future endeavors. Supporting Leo is important to my brothers and me. The Leo kids deserve an opportunity to succeed in life.”

Leo Honors Women’s History Month

In Praise of Women

March was Women’s History Month, and Leo celebrated it by using its web site and social media platforms to recognize women who are making a difference in their communities. Women from a variety of fields were saluted each day of the month. The  celebration concluded with a breakfast for the honorees at Leo on Friday, March 31.

Five women with close ties to Leo were included: Fajr Al-Nurridin, office manager and executive assistant; Mollie Zajac Clark, English/Social Studies teacher and Student Council moderator; Aurora Latifi, Math Department chair and National Honor Society moderator; Tiffany Harston, Guidance Counselor, and Mary Burke, a graphic artist and Leo Hall of Famer who is the creative force behind all of Leo’s marketing and recruiting materials.

Among the other honorees: Patricia Brown Holmes, retired presiding judge of Cook County Juvenile Court and current managing partner of the Riley Safer Holmes Cancilla law firm; Chicago writer Heidi Stevens, whose popular syndicated column focuses on family dynamics, and Rebecca Lindsay Ryan, an executive with the Big Shoulders Fund and a strong supporter of Leo.

“Of course we’re an all-boys school, but it was important that we do this to remind the boys that women are deserving of an equal place in society, and they’ve had to fight to attain it,” Principal Rawls said. “Every one of the women we’ve recognized is someone the boys should look up to and try to emulate as a contributor to society.”