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Sun-Times chairman recognizes savior of Chicago’s Catholic schools

Jim O’Connor Cardinal Bernardvisiting St. Stanislaus KostkSchool 1990.

Jim O’Connor and Cardinal Bernardin visiting St. Stanislaus Kostka School in 1990.

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Updated: October 16, 2012 3:50PM

Whenever I hear the expression “lead by example,” one name that always comes to mind is Jim O’Connor Sr., the retired Unicom and ComEd chairman who introduced me to the Big Shoulders Fund several years ago. Of the many causes friends have asked me to support over the years, this one is particularly special because it offers the greatest return on investment. And it’s the best possible return: the high-quality education of a multitude of students.

A little background: The fund is dedicated to preserving and supporting 93 Catholic schools that serve inner-city students. Two-thirds of these schools are supported by patrons who pledge to donate a major sum of money to a particular school over the course of three years. The money can be used for scholarships, to maintain the school property or for academic programs the principal deems critical. And students don’t have to be Catholic to attend (in many of the schools, 90 percent of the student body is not Catholic).

The results are nothing short of miraculous: Ninety-seven percent of the students enrolled graduate. Of that number, almost 90 percent go on to college.

While Jim is far too humble to take credit for the work he’s done, he is a philanthropic force in Chicago. Just a few months ago, he was part of a leadership group for a Big Shoulders dinner that raised $6.3 million — more than any single non-profit event in Chicago’s history — bringing the total he’s helped raise for the Big Shoulders Fund over the last 25 years to $225 million.

Jim has chaired the fund since its inception, when he co-founded it at the urging of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin with three other local business leaders: Andy McKenna Sr., Barry Sullivan and the late Edmund Stephan. When they started, there were 140 Catholic schools in the program, and many of them were at risk of closing. While not every school has been saved, in other cities the losses have been much steeper (in New York, last year alone 27 Catholic schools closed).

On average, more than 60 percent of the kids enrolled in these schools come from families living beneath the poverty line. Parents are expected to fund a portion of the students’ tuition, but most receive significant scholarships and support. “They really need to have somebody give them a hand up,” Jim said. “That’s what this is all about.”

Supporters include many of Chicago’s civic leaders: John Canning (who is currently co-chairman of the fund along with Jim), Lester Crown, Ron Gidwitz, Art Velasquez and many more. The patrons’ generosity knows no bounds; fifteen years ago, one donor pledged $10 million to help subsidize families struggling to put two or more children through Catholic schools. And like the recipients, not all of the donors are Catholic — in fact, about half aren’t.

When I told Jim he’d be the subject of this article, his response was classic: “You could put my name as a footnote,” he said. “This is really about a group effort.” He wanted to make sure we acknowledged Canning (“my co-chair for 15 years who personally sponsors scholarships for more than 100 students”), Monsignor Ken Velo (the popular and deeply respected president of the fund) and Josh Hale (the fund’s executive director of seven years “who is as good as any non-profit executive I’ve ever worked with”).

Everything Jim has done for the city of Chicago’s children is incredible, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how he has also inspired all of his own children — Fred, Jim and Elizabeth Cole — to participate and give their time and money to this cause in a large fashion.

He’s an inspiration to his family, an inspiration to the community and an inspiration to me.

Michael Ferro has made a donation in Jim O’Connor Sr.’s name to the Sun-Times Foundation at the Chicago Community Trust.

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