Sometime in 2005, Carl Occhipinti, then artistic director at Village Players Performing Arts Center, invited me along for breakfast with a local business man at the old Thyme & Honey Restaurant. I was the board chair at Village Players at the time, and Carl was looking to build bridges between the theater and local businesses. Carl’s passion for the theater was infectious, and before long he was asking the businessman to be a corporate sponsor for the theater’s season. Carl had no shame when it came to asking for money. He asked for $10,000 while I kicked him under the table because I thought the number was too high.

He got his commitment. Then he went to the next step and asked the businessman to join the theater board as it engaged in strategic planning. Mike Kelly, president and CEO of FBOP Corp., said yes, but he would only serve for one year until the plan was complete. Many meals later, Mike would joke that every time Carl offered to buy breakfast, Mike knew it was going to cost him.

Carl’s goals accomplished, I started talking about my experience helping to start Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Pilsen, where the poorest students in Chicago share entry-level jobs at downtown companies and earn most of the tuition for their college-prep education. All students had to speak Spanish at Cristo Rey because classes were taught interchangeably in Spanish and English. This meant that low-income, African-American students who lived a few blocks away in Lawndale were not part of the school.

I explained to Mike that after Cristo Rey opened in 1996, I began quietly working – without much success – to rally support for opening another Cristo Rey school in the Austin neighborhood of the West Side. Opening a school should have been easy. The Cristo Rey Network has opened more than 20 schools across the country based on the same model as Cristo Rey.

I told Mike what he already knew. Chicago Public Schools had effectively integrated a high dropout rate into its master plan. Austin has 14,000 high school age students, but only 7,000 seats in its high schools. Only 3 percent of African-American public high school freshman boys in Austin would graduate from college.

Gang activity had become a more attractive option than going to school. Opening a Cristo Rey-type school could literally save lives in Austin. Based on his experiences in helping provide low-income housing, Mike had come to the conclusion that housing alone was not the answer. Education was the ticket out of poverty, and nobody knew how to run high schools better than the Jesuits. Mike asked me what the Jesuit objections were to opening a new school. I ticked them off. The Jesuits wanted a thorough feasibility study, assurances on finances and commitments for student jobs. There was also the issue of opening a new Jesuit mission in the face of a shortage of Jesuit priests.

To Mike the solution was simple. Park National Bank would underwrite the costs of the feasibility study. The bank would provide the necessary loans to cover operating losses during the startup period. The bank would guarantee the necessary number of student jobs that were not met by other companies. But although he is Jesuit-educated, he could not help much on the Jesuit priest shortage.

After this breakfast, Mike and I went on to perform a kind of road show to drum up support for the school. We met with the Jesuit Provincial, the Cristo Rey board’s executive committee and anyone else who would listen. With Mike’s support, ever so slowly, minds began to change. When the hesitant suggested that we put off opening a school until 2010, we insisted on 2008. By our calculations, opening two years earlier would save 250 kids from the Chicago Public School morass. And the school did open in fall 2008.

There were other problems. We could not find an existing facility that could house a 600-student high school. Our temporary quarters in an old grade school at St. Martin De Porres parish could not accommodate our ultimate goal of 600 students. Our only option was to build a new high school campus from scratch, but that would cost $27 million. How could we open a school that would bleed red ink through a five-year startup period before it started to break even?

Mike had a solution. Park National would provide a $22 million, zero-interest loan to give the school the time it needed to complete a large capital fundraising campaign. And that school building on Jackson just east of Laramie will have its grand opening this January, as Christ the King’s growing student body moves out of its cramped quarters at St. Martin De Porres.

After that breakfast years ago, Carl presented Mike with a bright orange dress shirt, which Mike has never worn. Maybe now he will. Seeing that Mike knew how to get things done, I left my job at a big law firm downtown and went to work with him. To this day, including the days that lead up to the FBOP bank closings, I have never regretted that decision.

Jack Crowe is a third-generation Oak Parker. He cycles with the Lake and Harlem group, volunteers at Christ the King Jesuit College Prep in Austin and sometimes performs at the Village Players Performing Arts Center.

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