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.” 

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.”

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.

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. 

Leo on TV Again

By Dan McGrath

On Monday, March 11, it was ABC-7’s turn to showcase Leo.

The Chicago Bears were here to honor junior Nick Armour as a Community All-Star, in recognition of his accomplishments as a student-athlete and his dedication to community service. Channel 7 was here for coverage and aired a segment on its mid-day newscasts.

An ‘A’ honor-roll student, an all-conference football player and a state-meet qualifier in both wrestling (heavyweight) and track and field (shot/discus), Nick was nominated for the award by his coaches. The Bears’ Community Relations team chose him, based on those accomplishments as well as his activities with the Boy Scouts, where he is closing in on becoming an Eagle Scout.

With Nick in a leadership role, his troop held a coat drive over the Christmas holidays and provided warm winter clothing for more than 80 needy families.

“In the time I’ve been around Nicholas, he has embodied the Leo motto of Facta non Verba–Deeds not Words,” Leo football coach Marques Stevenson said. “This is a tremendous honor, and he’s truly deserving.”

Gustavo Silva and Lenny Smith, Youth Football Initiatives coordinators for the Bears’ Community Relations team, presented Nick with a specially designed football, some Bears Wear and four tickets to next month’s Bears Draft Party, where the No. 1 overall choice will be the center of attention unless the Bears trade the pick beforehand.

Nick’s parents, Gavin and  LeShele Silas-Armour, his grandparents and several other family members were in attendance.

“I’m grateful to the Bears for the award,” Nick said, “and I’m grateful to Leo for the opportunities I’ve been given.”

Leo on TV

By Dan McGrath

If you were watching CBS-2 Chicago on Friday, Feb. 16, you may have seen Leo featured on “School Spotlight.”

Journalism instructor Bill Figel made the original contact with Channel 2. Thanks to input from news anchor Jim Williams, who has reported stories from Leo and MC’d our annual Scholarship Benefit, Leo was selected for the program. Reporters and videographers spent the entire day at Leo and recorded 10 “day in the life” segments that embraced the essence of Black History Month and aired on various newscasts.

Principal Shaka Rawls and Community Engagement Coordinator Yolanda Sandifer-Horton worked with teachers, staff and students to coordinate each segment. They included a walking tour of the facilities with Principal Rawls at dawn, coverage of a live, student-produced podcast under the direction of Journalism instructor James Jackson, and Mrs. LaDonna Hill directing the world-renowned Leo Choir.

Principal Rawls also acknowledged the work of ChiGivesBack, a nonprofit that came to Leo on Martin Luther King Day (Jan. 15) to provide painting services and mural creations.

Nearly 200 volunteers from ChiGivesBack and TLOD–Top Ladies of Distinction–spent the 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.