Building bridges to the future

Bill Masterson is one of the OP-RF residents who helped launch Christ the King High School in Austin

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Retirement" is a relative term in Oak Park. On Aug. 31, Bill Masterson "retired" after five years as a volunteer at Christ the King Jesuit College Preparatory High School (CTK). It was his second retirement.

"I retired in November 2007 as a bread truck driver for Alpha Bakery," Masterson recalled, "and was looking for something to keep me away from a 'honey-do' existence when I remembered a volunteer at PADS saying that Fr. Chris Devron was starting a new Cristo Rey-type school in Austin. Fr. Chris and I met at George's, and he sold me on the school's mission of providing a safe, faith-based school to a community that both wanted and needed one."

Busy retirement

Masterson had done a fair amount of volunteering even before his interview with Fr. Devron. He found out about the school during his weekly shift at PADS. He had volunteered for years at Misericordia in Chicago and was a longtime T-ball coach in Oak Park. He and one of his children even traveled to New York soon after 9/11.

"There were thousands of volunteers there from all over the country," he said. "We went over Christmas break. I did interview work and Matt worked the phones. It was quite a sobering experience but also very rewarding."

When Fr. Devron didn't call back for several weeks, Masterson was ready to try somewhere else. "I didn't think I made a very good impression on him," he said, "because he didn't call back for about a month. After all, driving a bread truck for 35 years doesn't lend itself to working in an academic environment. Eventually, he took a chance on me."

Devron, who is president of CTK, located at 5088 W. Jackson Blvd. in the Austin neighborhood, tells the story differently. "Since Christ the King hadn't yet opened, I wasn't sure how I could use Bill's offer [to volunteer]," he explained, "so I filed it away for a few weeks before reconnecting with him. When I did get around to getting back to Bill, he seemed agitated. Somehow I didn't get it. Bill wanted to volunteer full-time! And he was ready to start.

"Start, Bill did," said Devron, "and he hasn't stopped until now. He is a walking definition of humility. No task is beneath him."

Indeed, Masterson did everything from sending out mailings to setting up a new phone system to doing background checks required by the state of Illinois and the Archdiocese of Chicago for employees and volunteers.

"I know how many radiators there are in the building at 116 S. LeClaire, where we held classes from August 2008 until January of 2010," he said grinning. "I painted all 55 of them."

His resume of responsibilities sounds like he was a jack of all trades and a master of several. The list includes data entry, phone follow-ups, setting up contracts with suppliers, installing bathroom fixtures, distributing and tracking keys and serving as assistant coach of the CTK baseball team.

Jim Heffernan, a fellow Oak Parker who worked with Masterson for three years at CTK, observes that "Bill was a very generous volunteer.

He was often there Monday through Friday and, on a number of occasions, he went with CTK students early on weekday mornings to shelters for the homeless in Chicago where Bill and the students passed out meals."

Mission-minded

What attracted Masterson in the first place and what maintained his commitment was the school's mission. "Basically, the Cristo Rey model is just a really good idea that some smart people came up with about 18 years ago," he said. G.R. Kearney's history of how the Cristo Rey movement, More Than a Dream, How One School's Vision is the Changing the World, describes the vision Masterson picked up on at George's Restaurant that day.

Christ the King's website fills in some of the details of that "good idea":

"Christ the King is now bringing Jesuit education to the West Side of Chicago. Through the Cristo Rey model, Christ the King makes possible the dream of a quality and affordable education for students whose families could not otherwise pay the tuition charged by private schools. Students earn three-quarters of their tuition costs while gaining valuable, life-changing skills and experience through jobs at Chicago-area companies. The Cristo Rey model is based on an innovative partnership between urban education and the business community that started in Chicago in 1996. Since then, the movement has grown to 24 schools nationwide. 97.8% of all graduates attend a college or university. Christ the King was the 20th Cristo Rey-model school to open in the U.S. (for more information, visit www.cristoreynetwork.org)."

Perhaps the best known aspect of the Cristo Rey model is their Corporate Work Study Program (CWSP). In the early 1990s a group of Jesuits in Chicago had a dream of providing quality education to low-income Hispanics in the Pilsen Neighborhood. Jesuits know how to educate. The question was, "How do we pay for it?"

It was a real estate attorney and developer named Rick Murray who pitched the idea of CWSP to the Jesuits who were making plans for a new school to be named Cristo Rey ("Christ the King" in Spanish). Why not have students work more or less one day a week at a bank, hospital, law office or engineering firm? They would not only earn a large portion of their tuition but would absorb a vision of what their life could be like. (G.R. Kearney, More Than A Dream)

Oak Park resident (and Wednesday Journal columnist) Jack Crowe, COO and general counsel of the Cristo Rey Network, acknowledged the significant contribution people like Masterson make.

"The school relies on experienced volunteers like Bill," he said, "who are passionate about our mission of helping low-income students who enter our schools two years below grade level and make it to and through college.

"Because our Cristo Rey schools essentially have a temporary employment agency operating in the middle of the school," Crowe explained, "we need volunteers like Bill with extensive business experience to help with operations."

Masterson deflects such praise. "You have to admire the commitment from our students and families to participate in such a difficult schedule," he said. "Each family must pay $2,500 in tuition, in addition to the money earned in CWSP, although some students do get financial aid."

Not having one-fourth of your students in class each day because of their CWSP jobs is hard on the teachers as well and requires a great deal of commitment on their part to make it all work. On top of that, Masterson said, the faculty and staff are not paid as well as they might be in other schools.

"I've had the opportunity to meet many good people while at CTK," he said, "faculty, staff and volunteers."

A volunteer's 'pay day'

Although commencement for CTK's first graduating class was several months ago, the former bread truck driver still gets emotional talking about it.

"Graduation day at CTK," he said, "was one of the proudest and happiest moments of my life. I knew everyone who walked across the stage, at least by sight. Many of our kids have had a lot more life experiences than I will ever have, and now comes an even harder time in their lives. Many of our kids will be going away to school and from personal experience, that presents many challenges. Playing a small role in the process has been very rewarding.

"Driving a bread truck for Alpha was rewarding," he noted, "because I provided a good life for my family. While at CTK there was a different sense of satisfaction. It's been nice being part of a large group with a single focus that doesn't involve financial gain."

"There is one student I like to recall," Masterson said. "He graduated this year and will be going away to college in Indiana. When he was a freshman, I was doing the mailing for the first marking period and saw that he had a failing grade in every subject. Somehow he made it through freshman year with the help of summer school. By the time he made it to his senior year, he was on the honor roll. I'd like to think that the teachers and staff at CTK have made a difference in his life."

Everyone who knows Bill Masterson seems to think that he has made a difference as well.

When asked what he plans to do now following his second retirement, he replied,

"A trip to Colorado for a while and then my wife Sandy told me to renew my passport which has expired."

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