Oak Parkers follow 'deeper voice' to nonprofits

Former high-powered lawyers now serve those in need

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

'When God calls -- at the office" was the headline in a December 2017 article in Crain's Chicago Business, which featured John Gallo and Jack Crowe, two longtime Oak Parkers, who both had left successful and lucrative careers in prestigious Chicago law firms to lead nonprofits where they would be compensated at a fraction of what they had formerly been making. 

Crowe, who 10 years ago left the law firm of Winston and Strawn, is the executive director at Year Up, a one-year training program for low-income adults. Gallo left Sidley Austin last October to become the chief executive officer/director of LAF (Legal Assistance Foundation) of Chicago, the largest legal aid organization in the Midwest representing the poor and vulnerable.

The two lawyers, both of whom were born in 1960, described how they made their life-changing decisions as an evolving process of discernment with significant epiphanies or "pivot times," as Gallo refers to them, along the way.

Gallo described growing up in a family that was conservative both religiously and politically. His first pivot point came during a seminar at Notre Dame where he read Karl Marx for the first time and concluded that what Marx said about private property was consistent with the Catholicism in which he had grown up. 

And that caused him to do a lot of soul searching.

"That," he recalled, "was a moment when I let go of where I had come from."

After graduating from Notre Dame he studied law at Harvard, where he moved further to the left on the political/religious spectrum, but not so far left that he uncritically abandoned everything he had grown up with. He still refers to himself as being pro-life, for example.

Like his fellow member of St. Giles Parish, Jack Crowe grew up in what might be called a traditionally Catholic bubble. Baptized at Divine Infant Parish in Westchester, he was a boy soprano in the parish choir, wearing a red cassock and white surplice and singing Mozart's "Ave Verum." He attended a seminary in Boston for two years with the Society of African Missionaries.

He left the seminary after two years but continued his studies at Boston College, a Jesuit University where the seminarians in his order were allowed to study. Pivotal for him was a trip to Haiti during his senior year where he worked for a week with Mother Teresa's nuns caring for the destitute and dying. 

"Talk about a transformative experience," he said. 

His experience in Haiti led to two years of teaching at St. George's High School in Kingston, Jamaica, from 1982 to 1984. 

"I always say that Jamaica ruined me from ever being content in a traditional money making setting," Crowe said, "because in Jamaica I saw how the poor accompanied the poor."

Despite his antipathy to getting stuck in a "traditional money-making setting," after graduating from law school and clerking for a federal judge, he ended up working for a big law firm. 

"They say that law is a jealous mistress," he said. "It's beguiling, intriguing and so intellectually stimulating. You sort of get pulled along." 

On top of that he stopped going to Mass for 10 years.

"But always," he added, "I had this gnawing at the back of my mind that this isn't it." 

What brought Crowe back to the trajectory begun in Haiti and Jamaica was what Gallo referred to as a fork in life's road. 

The fork he chose began with him at 37 years old, choosing to work with and for poor people at Park National Bank on Austin Boulevard and Cristo Rey High School on the southwest side of Chicago. Taking that fork, he said, brought him back to the church. 

"I tell my wife my goal in life is to progressively do more impactful things while making progressively less money," said Crowe, "so my expectation is to ultimately be absolutely penniless but doing really good stuff. That's my reverse Darwinism."

Crowe moved from Cristo Rey to become the executive director of the nonprofit Year Up. According to its website, Year Up "is a one-year, intensive training program that provides low-income young adults, ages 18-24, with a combination of hands-on skills development, coursework eligible for college credit, corporate internships, and wraparound support."

LAF Chicago (formerly the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago), where Gallo is the chief executive officer, provides free legal services in non-criminal matters to those in poverty.

Both Gallo and Crowe are fans of Richard Rohr who in his book "Falling Upward" contends that something happens in the second half of life which can open people to making the big life changes which Gallo and Crowe made. 

"There is a deeper voice of God," wrote Rohr, "which you must learn to hear and obey in the second half of life. It will sound an awful lot like the voices of risk, of trust, of surrender, of soul."

Gallo described that "deeper voice" as a gentle breeze or a tug. 

"It was authentic," he said. "If you listened to it, it felt real, solid."

Crowe referred to it as a "gnawing at the back of my mind." 

"It did not hit me like a frying pan on the head," Crowe said." It wasn't one emotional experience. It was tested over time."

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Jim Frenkel  

Posted: March 14th, 2018 1:27 PM

Such a great story of 2 individuals who live, in addition to speaking, their ideals. I suspect that there are many, many more great examples of folks like these in OP!

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