Moment of truth at Leo Dan McGrath ’68

Moment of truth at LeoDan McGrath, Trust newspaper veteran McGrath to do his best to revitalize alma mater

The last time I truly trusted Dan McGrath was when I turned to him during Game 3
of the 2003 NL Championship Game and asked what the chemical name was for truth serum.

”Phenobarbital,” he said without so much as a missed beat. Such confidence! Such ironclad certainty! When you’re about to break one of the basic rules of journalism — check every fact yourself — it’s comforting to know that your boss, whose wife is a nurse, surely wouldn’t steer you wrong, especially on deadline.

Leo High School needs to raise its profile, enrollment and money, and Dan McGrath says signing on as president “felt like a calling.”
(Brian Jackson/Sun-Times)

So I wrote of that Cubs-Marlins showdown, ”There were so many moments of truth in this game that it must have been injected with Phenobarbital.”

I can still see myself sitting back, satisfied. Hemingway must have had moments like this.

As a doctor so kindly pointed out in an e-mail the next day, Phenobarbital is used for the treatment of seizures, and if I meant that the game had been wracked by convulsions, I would have been dead-on with my choice of drug, but if I was indeed referring to truth serum, I probably meant sodium pentothal.

A few months ago, McGrath, the former sports editor of the Tribune, told me he was considering a job as president of Leo High School on the South Side. I laughed. He was kidding, right? Or perhaps misinformed again? His entire professional life had been devoted to journalism, either as a writer or an editor. How could this be?

And then I thought, of course. Some things are true and right, and this is one of them. He’s a 1968 Leo graduate, and he has given time and effort to the school. He has served on the school’s advisory board. He loves the place, as much as a man can love bricks and mortar and ideas.

And that’s the truth.

The new president of Leo will start work next month, proving there is life after a newspaper career and that the concept of giving back is still alive and well.

”I don’t want to sound all ‘Field of Dreams,’ but it felt like a calling,” he said. “It felt like at this time of my life, this is something I could do and maybe I should do.”

Leo is a struggling, all-boys Catholic high school at 79th and Sangamon streets in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood. Even though its enrollment is below 200, it has been very successful in basketball and track. Ninety-four percent of the students continue their education after high school, yet a challenging economy has Leo fighting for its life.

It’s a comeback story McGrath would love to write.

”These kids need Leo, they need a place like Leo,” he said. ”There’s so much craziness going on in the city and on the South Side.

”A place like Leo can be a safe haven for these kids. They know they’re going to be looked after. They know there’s an opportunity for them to better themselves. I think Leo’s really needed.”

Inspired in Sacramento

Years ago, when McGrath was a newspaper columnist in Sacramento, Calif., he wrote several pieces about a volunteer social services agency called Loaves & Fishes. He was taken with its generosity and non-judgmental approach to the homeless. He was so impressed he told himself that if he were ever in position to help people after his two kids were grown, he would.

Here he is.

In October, McGrath decided to move on after 13 years at the Tribune, eight running the sports department. He had helped oversee the coverage of the Bulls during the latter part of the Jordan years. He had been at the helm when the Sox won a World Series in 2005. He had witnessed that monumental collapse by the Cubs in 2003.

For the last eight months, he has been writing sports for the Chicago News Cooperative, a news site that produces public-service journalism. When Leo called asking if he’d be interested in taking over for its longtime president, Bob Foster, who was retiring, McGrath, 60, didn’t have to think long.

“I loved the newspaper business,” he said. “I loved every day of it. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I had a great run. There’s success, and then there’s satisfaction. As a journalist, I think I had a pretty fair amount of success. Now I’m looking for something that I’ll get a lot of satisfaction from.

”I did have satisfaction in the newspaper business. But where I am now, this might be more important work because I really think I can help these kids.”

Full agenda from start

It will be his job to raise the school’s profile, to raise the enrollment and to raise money. That’s a lot of lifting. He plans to reach out to the Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor of nearby St.Sabina, who has been cool to Leo in recent years.

It’s a far different Leo than the thriving high school McGrath entered in the mid-1960s, when there were 1,100 students, most white. Now the enrollment is all black. Where the Irish Christian Brothers used to rule the place, no religious personnel teach at Leo. Three-quarters of the students aren’t Catholic.

And the Chicago Catholic League’s 5-9-and-under basketball league, in which McGrath played as a student, is long gone.

But one thing hasn’t changed: People care.

A month after McGrath took Leo’s entrance exam in the winter of 1964, his father died. During the summer, a man from the school’s father’s club showed at the family’s South Side home.

”He said, ‘We know you want to come to Leo. You’re the type of young man we need at Leo, so the father’s club is going to take care of your tuition,”’ said McGrath, who was one of seven kids.

”That was huge. I could have gone anyway, but it was one less thing for my mother to worry about. That really made an impression on me. The kids I’ve mentored at Leo, I see how important it is to them to be there.”

Among the Leo success stories, he said, is a student who became sports editor of his college’s newspaper. It figures McGrath would say that. There’s still ink in his veins.

But now it’s time to make a difference in another arena. The school’s motto is Facta Non Verba. Deeds Not Words.

He believes in that. And I believe him, this time.

July 16, 2010 BY RICK MORRISSEY, Sun-Times Columnist

Speak Your Mind

*