ChiGivesBack Gives to Leo and Leo Gives Back to the Community

By Dan McGrath

Twelve months a year, Leo High School is a service provider, assisting students, parents, families and the Auburn Gresham community as a whole.

On Martin Luther King Day—Monday, January 15—Leo was a service recipient. Nearly 200 volunteers from the ChiGivesBack non-profit and TLOD–Top Ladies of Distinction–spent a full day at Leo, cleaning, scraping, painting and enhancing our efforts to make a 98-year-old building look good for its age while adhering to Dr. King’s directive to be of service to others.

ChiGivesBack works with various community groups “inspiring, empowering and influencing” people to give back within their communities. Principal Shaka Rawls  and Community Engagement Coordinator Yolanda Sandifer-Horton had worked with co-founder John Boddie and volunteer coordinator Sandi Robinson on previous events, which sparked the group’s interest in Leo.

“They did a spectacular job,” Principal Rawls said. “The cafeteria already looked good with the new furniture. The paint job really brightens up the room, and the Lion mural—what a beautiful addition.”

Sherwin Williams supplied the paint for the project. Mariano’s, Panera Bread and Dimo’s Pizza fed the workers, who accomplished a lot in a day, painting the gym as well as the cafeteria and adding breathtaking murals to the second-floor teachers’ lounge, the walls outside the gym, various hallways and the first-floor study area between the cafeteria and the auditorium. 

And it wouldn’t be a Leo event without an appearance by the world-renowned Leo Choir. Mrs. Hill and about eight singers performed a four-song set while the volunteers ate lunch. They were greeted by a standing ovation, and afterwards, some of the moms in the crowd asked Mrs. Hill her secret to getting such undivided attention and cooperation from teenage boys.

“My eyes teared up as I walked the halls and entered certain areas and saw all this beauty,” Mrs. Horton said. “The transformation is breathtaking.”

Aurora Latifi, Math Department chair, senior faculty member and den mother to two generations of Leo students, agreed.

“I’ve been at Leo 20 years,” Mrs. Latifi said, “and it has never looked better.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you.” 

******

But we wouldn’t be Leo if we weren’t also providing service, especially on MLK Day. So five members of the track team, under Coach Adams and Coach Mills, traveled to St. Margaret of Scotland to assist with a clothing drive.

Roosevelt Nelson, Lordan Black, Elijah Nowden, Jordan Watkins and Clarence Rhames helped sort winter clothes donations and prepare them for distribution to needy families in the area, as well as to migrant families staying in shelters and in desperate need of warm clothing as they await more permanent placements.

“What a nice group of young men,” said Pete Doyle, Pastoral Associate at St. Margaret and a former longtime Leo teacher who still helps coach track. “The drive was very successful in that we collected a lot of clothes. It would have taken us most of the day to sort them all, but with the Leo boys’ help we got it done in a couple of hours and started making deliveries to people who really need warm clothing in this weather.

“Plus they were a pleasure to work with. They really understand that service is a big part of being a Leo Man.”

The World Renowned Leo Choir’s Christmas Concert was a HUGE Success

“The 2023 concert was the best in my 8 years at Leo! So many people came out to support our boys, friends, supporters, alumni and families were on hand to hear the absolute best choir in the city. Congratulations Kings, you shined last night!!!!”
Principal Rawls

Leo’s enrollment increase has given Choir Director LaDonna Hill more voices to work with—20 has been the number for most performances this year. Under Mrs. Hill’s expert tutelage, that many singers are capable of producing some exquisite harmonies, thus it’s fair to say the Choir has never sounded better.

Some of the highlights:

• A September performance at Holy Name Cathedral for the Catholic Lawyers Guild Installation Mass.

• Participation in a “Save Our Scholarships” rally for the tax-credit scholarship program at St. Sabina in October.

• A four-song set at the eighth annual Leo Scholarship Benefit at the Four Seasons Hotel on Nov. 29.

• A performance for the Chicago Realtors Association at the same venue one week later.

• A Christmas-carol set for the Chicago Bears Holiday Party at Leo on Dec. 11.

• Headline billing as the entertainment for the Alpha Gamma Alpha Sorority gala on Dec. 16.

• A Christmas music lunchtime concert for downtown workers, shoppers and visitors at the 203 N. La Salle Building on Dec. 19.

The Choir acquired a new fan in Barbara McCaskey, wife of Bears Chairman George McCaskey, who chatted with Mrs. Hill for several minutes following the Holiday Party performance. Mrs. McCaskey explained that she directed her school’s choral group during her teaching days. She understands how difficult it is to arrange and coordinate a performance with the charm and skill Mrs. Hill displays, and she made it a point to express her admiration.

“They’re great wherever they perform, but being on their ‘home floor’ really brings out the best in them,” said Principal Shaka Rawls, who has witnessed every Choir performance this year and often stops by the music room on his morning rounds to hear the singers practice.

Ray Siegel Receives the Andy McKenna Leo Legacy Award

By Dan McGrath

The eighth annual Leo Scholarship Benefit was one of our school’s most festive … and successful.

A capacity crowd of 300 packed the Grand Ballroom of the Four Seasons Downtown on Wednesday, Nov. 29 to honor Ray Siegel ’65 and to beef up the Leo Scholarship Fund, on which there is more demand than ever as a result of this year’s substantial enrollment increase.

In terms of star power, the world-renowned Leo Choir, under the direction of Mrs. LaDonna Hill, performed three songs. Lourdes Duarte, from WGN-TV, did such a masterful job as MC that there was talk of offering her the permanent position. Father Tom Hurley, a good friend to the Siegel family as well as to Leo, offered the invocation.

Ray Siegel is the eighth Leo Scholarship Benefit honoree, but the first to receive the Andy McKenna Leo Legacy Award. The name change was made to honor Andy McKenna ’47, the first recipient, who died in February 2023 after a lifetime of service to others, including decades of strong support for Leo.

“Ray is ideal for this award because he truly emulates Andy in his selfless commitment to Leo and the Leo Mission,” School President Dan McGrath said. “It is our honor to honor him.”

Several McKenna grandchildren filled a table as Andy’s spirit permeated the room. Bobby Sullivan wore the Leo sweater Andy had been presented as the 2016 honoree. He joined Bill Conlon ’63 (2017) Bob Sheehy ’71 (2019) Mike Holmes ’76 (2020) and Joe Power ’70 (2022) in the sweater presentation to Ray Siegel, after the five former Lion football stars reminisced about their days at Leo and recounted what the school has meant to them over the years.

Mr. Siegel explained his commitment to Leo in a video, stating that he was inspired to do more by a speech he heard Principal Shaka Rawls give in his first year at Leo. Another video featured senior Theauntae Jones and the two-hour daily commute he endures from the West Side so he can attend Leo, “where I belong.”

Principal Rawls gave a typically high-spirited speech about the enrollment increase being symbolic of Leo’s upward trajectory.

“We’re the fastest growing school in the city,” he proclaimed, “and we’re only getting started.”

Mr. Rawls then brought seniors Zion Cornell and Roosevelt Nelson and juniors Lordan Black and Ian Dunn to the stage for a wide-ranging discussion of Leo today. Dunn got a laugh when he acknowledged Mr. Rawls as his favorite teacher/administrator, then added, “He told me to say that.”

With all proceeds earmarked for the Leo Scholarship Fund, the event was expected to clear $500,000 after expenses.

“Just a great night for Leo,” Mr. Rawls said.

Leo Honors Congressional Medal of Honor Winner, Corporal John Fardy ’40

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By Dan McGrath

For an “ordinary guy,” Corporal John Fardy exhibited extraordinary courage at the Battle for Okinawa during World War II. 

Corporal Fardy, a 1940 Leo High School graduate, absorbed the full impact of an enemy grenade he dived on, sparing members of his platoon certain injury and possible death during fierce, close-in fighting on Okinawa in May 1945. He died of his wounds the next day. The next year, he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor, for uncommon valor. 

In the belief that Corporal Fardy’s heroism has gone largely unrecognized, alums Jim Furlong and Ray Siegel, both members of Leo’s Class of 1965, spearheaded an effort to honor him. The unveiling of a Fardy memorial was the centerpiece of of Leo’s annual Veterans Observance, which took place in the Leo courtyard on Friday, Nov. 3 and drew more than 50 alums, many of them Veterans. The courtyard that’s home to the Fardy Memorial and Leo’s existing memorial to its 75 war dead will henceforth be known as the Corporal John P. Fardy Memorial Courtyard. 

Furlong, a decorated Vietnam vet who received the Distinguished Service Cross for his own heroism, gave a stirring speech noting how Corporal Fardy’s selfless act was a manifestation of Leo’s Facta non Verba motto: Deeds Not Words. 

“In researching these heroes, I was struck by the fact that nearly off of them would be considered ordinary people who did extraordinary things for the sake of others,” Furlong said. “That surely describes Corporal Fardy.” 

Corporal Fardy’s niece, Marcie Dillon, and her husband Mike Dillon, a former Army Captain, were special guests at the ceremony. Mike Dillon read the Defense Department citation describing Corporal Fardy’s actions as Medal-of-Honor worthy. Fardy is the only Leo graduate to receive the nation’s highest military honor. 

A Marine Corps unit from the Marines’ Chicago recruiting station presented colors. The world-renowned Leo Choir led the crowd in the singing of the National Anthem, God Bless America and, of course, the Leo Fight Song at the conclusion of the ceremony. 

The laying of a wreath at the foot of the Veterans Memorial took on added significance with the addition of two names. Leo alums Leonard Roberts ’65 and William T. Walsh Jr. ’66 were killed in action in Vietnam, but school officials were unaware of that fact when the Memorial was installed. That oversight has been corrected. 

“Recognizing our veterans is one of the most important things we do at Leo,” school President Dan McGrath said. “It’s our honor to honor them.” 

Ray Siegel ’65: Recipient of the Andy McKenna Legacy Award

Ray Siegel, who graduated from Leo with the Class of 1965, has been named the eighth recipient of the Andy McKenna Legacy Award. Ray will be honored at Leo’s eighth annual Scholarship Benefit on Wednesday, Nov. 29 at the Four Seasons Chicago Hotel.

The Legacy Award’s first recipient, in 2016, was Andy McKenna ’47, who died in February 2023. Mr. McKenna established himself as one of Leo’s most distinguished graduates during a lifetime of service to others. He was especially proud of his ties to Leo.

We chose to honor Andy at the first Scholarship Benefit, held in conjunction with Leo’s 90th anniversary, and a who’s-who of Chicago business and civic leaders turned out to help Leo say thank you. The inaugural event was so successful that it has become an annual affair, raising nearly $7 million for scholarship assistance to deserving young Leo Men.

“Ray joins seven other recipients of our highest honor, and he’s an ideal choice to receive the Legacy Award in a year when we’ll surely be remembering Andy McKenna,” Leo President Dan McGrath said. “Across the board, Ray has been one of our most loyal and generous supporters, in ways that extend beyond financial. Ray is a true role model and a true exemplar of Facta non Verba—Deeds not Words.”

A graduate of St. Margaret of Scotland elementary school, Ray transferred into Leo as a junior to extend his football career after St. Ignatius dropped the sport. He wanted to keep playing because he believed he’d need a scholarship to continue on to college. Over two years he became an All-Catholic League and All-City defensive lineman for the Lions.

An ankle injury sustained late in his senior year curtailed his recruiting, but Ray received a scholarship to St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana, where he enjoyed a standout career under former Leo coaching legend Jim Arenberg.  

After earning graduate degrees from Northern Illinois and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Ray embarked on a successful business career. Today he heads RJS Associates LTD, a corporate financial consulting firm. 

Ray has spoken to Leo students about financial literacy, emphasizing careful spending and saving money as necessities. With COVID disrupting so many lives in 2020, he contributed seed money for Leo to establish an emergency fund that served more than 20,000 meals and provided medical supplies, groceries and household goods to Leo families and our Auburn Gresham neighbors who’d lost jobs or had their work hours cut by the pandemic. He also helps underwrite the Back to School Jam each year.

When Ray and his wife Lynn downsized from their Winnetka home to a Northbrook condo, they donated a mint-condition Steinway baby grand piano to the world-renowned Leo Choir. Ray provided funding for the Corporal John P. Fardy memorial plaque that will be unveiled at this year’s Veterans Observance on Nov. 3; Corporal Fardy, a U.S. Marine who graduated from Leo in 1940, was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for actions that cost him his life but saved his platoon at the battle for Okinawa during World War II.

In 2022, Ray received the Doc Driscoll Award for above-and-beyond service to Leo from the Leo Alumni Association.  

“There is no greater mission than to assist in the education of young men,” Ray said. “Being a small part of the Leo Mission is an important part of my life, but my contributions are nothing compared with what the staff at Leo does.

“I am stunned by this honor and I humbly accept.”  

Previous Leo Lions Legacy Award recipients:

2106—Andy McKenna ’47
2017–Bill Conlon ’63
2018–Tom Owens ’54
2019–Bob Sheehy ’71
2020–Michael Holmes ’76
2021–Maj. Gen. William Walker (USA-ret.) ’75
2022–Joseph A. Power Jr. ’70
2023–Raymond J. Siegel ’65 

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.