News & Politics » Feature

Hales Angel

Tim King, president of Hales Franciscan High School, wants his kids to have all the advantages he had. And that's a lot of advantages



By Cheryl Ross

On the chilly April Monday following spring break, young black men in baseball caps and winter jackets are streaming into the cafeteria of Hales Franciscan High School, where they are greeted by a good-looking young man in a button-down shirt and tie, good slacks, and black loafers. He's Tim King, the school's president and chief fund-raiser, and he's passing out "doughnut holes" from a cardboard box. The students know he can be found here every Monday morning. Monday is doughnut day.

As they file past King, taking their doughnuts and exchanging good mornings, most of the kids remove their hats. When one kid fails to, King is on him. "Oh, ho ho ho. I see that. Take your hat off." The kid does. King's got the same corrective streak when it comes to the students' language. If a kid tells him "Don't lose no sleep," King will quickly offer "Don't lose any sleep."

This morning some of the seniors have news. One has been admitted to Notre Dame, another to Georgetown. King reacts with pleasure, but not surprise. He boasts that 100 percent of Hales's 1996 graduates were admitted to college. A donor once expressed shock at this statistic, exclaiming, "That's better than New Trier and Lake Forest!" Replied King, who spent 15-hour days in December helping seniors with their college essays, "We have to be better, because where else are they going to go?" At Hales, an all-black school at 49th and Cottage Grove, about 70 percent of students are at or below the poverty line, King says. All students receive at least half of their $6,700 tuition from donors. About 20 percent are able to supply the other half; the rest rely on scholarships.

As the crowd in the cafeteria disperses for class, King nabs a student he saw featured in the newspaper and congratulates him on his 15 minutes of fame.

"I've been in the newspaper since I was a freshman," the kid replies.

"Now let me get this straight," King says sternly, launching into reprimand mode. "When someone congratulates you..."

The kid cuts him off. "I shook your hand," he says rather quickly. "You ain't even..."

Now King interrupts. The article has been posted on the bulletin board, he tells the student.

"All right, all right," the kid says. He leaves looking agitated.

Most of the students seem to love King, who at 30 could easily be their older brother. Kids drop by his office every hour on the hour, often just to joke around. But there are those who don't "get" him. Once a student spotted King's laptop computer in a classroom and asked if he could borrow it. When King said no, the kid, who was already holding the computer in his hand, practically dropped it on the floor, then said loud enough for everyone in the classroom and the hallway outside to hear, "Mr. King is filthy rich!" Another student who is frequently seen around the president says he's had to defend King's honor in arguments: "See, a lot of people from this school, they aren't like upper class and as financially well off as Mr. King. They think Mr. King isn't like us, that Mr. King can't relate to us." King's father, Paul King Jr., is the owner of UBM Inc., which he claims is Chicago's largest black-owned construction firm.

When the class bell rings, King repairs to his office, where the carpet is rusty brown and the walls are completely bare. Juan Alvarez, the custodian, comes in with two old chairs he's varnished, and King gets visibly enthused and thanks him for a job well done. Then George Maher, the vice president of finance and facilities, drops in. "I think even after the million dollars, I'm going to keep these chairs as a reminder of the old days," King tells him. He says he'll decorate his office when he raises a million dollars. It costs about two million annually to keep the school running: half of that comes from tuitions and auxiliary enterprises such as basketball, football, concessions, and bookstore sales; the rest has to be raised.

King picks up the phone and calls the Social Security Administration, inquiring about a student's benefits check. The student, Keith Robbins, has been living with his grandmother since his mother died. King is about to become his legal guardian, and the two will share a rented town house in Hyde Park. Legally, King says, his guardianship won't extend past Keith's 18th birthday, but practically it will. "He'll go off to college and he'll need a place to stay." Keith goes everywhere King goes. When King and his family saw Sunset Boulevard at the Civic Opera House, Keith went along, wearing one of King's old suits and a pair of dress shoes King had bought him. King considers all of the students his "babies." Last year a donor gave him Miss Saigon tickets and he took about 15 kids to see the show. When Hales's board chairman landed some Bulls tickets, King gave them to an administrator and asked him to take a couple of students to the game. Hales is like a second family for many of its students. Other staff members have also taken kids into their homes, on a short-term basis. They readily give out their home phone numbers and, if a kid needs it, money for food or the bus.

Later in the morning, after teaching his class in social justice, King is on the phone again, this time inquiring about an absent student. "No answer at his home," he says. "That's very suspicious. He must be at someone else's house. I get very worried when students don't come to school, 'cause all you have to do is be in the wrong place here and it's all over." The next call is to a potential Hales donor. As King makes his pitch, Rex Davis, the likely valedictorian of the class of '97, walks in with another star student, and with a smile King whispers to them, "Have a seat." Rex sits in one of the refurbished chairs, stretches out his legs, and leans his head against the wall. King takes another call but tells the caller he can't talk now because he has some important people in his office. "I'm not important," Rex says when King hangs up, "Harvard turned me down." Yale did too.

Did he get a letter from Dartmouth? King asks. Not yet. Well, King says, looking through some papers, Rex is scheduled to visit Dartmouth on April 17; they're sending him a plane ticket. Rex's face lights up.

"I didn't know they were sending me a ticket. Did you do this?"

King looks at him and says, "Rex, you don't know everything that happens in your life."

"I don't know half the stuff that happens."

"Keep your chin up," King encourages him, "because one way or the other you'll be Ivy bound, I'm sure."

For a while it looked like Rex wouldn't be able to graduate from Hales. His mother moved to Georgia in the summer of 1996, while Rex was studying in Paris and London in a Hales summer program that King developed. When King learned that Rex might come back to the States only to finish his senior year in Georgia, he asked his mother if she would let him stay in Chicago with a sponsor family. Earlier an article had appeared in the Tribune about Keith Robbins. Dr. Chris Sullivan, a surgeon and teacher at the University of Chicago's Pritzker School of Medicine, noticed the article because he had attended Loyola Academy in Wilmette nearly 25 years before and had played a football game against Hales. He and his wife called King to offer their home to Keith, but he was still living with his grandmother at the time. Would the Sullivans take Rex instead? They said yes, and Rex moved in. Last winter his mother moved back to Chicago, within blocks of Hales, but Rex continued to live with the Sullivans, visiting his mother and brother regularly.

After Rex and his friend leave King's office and are safely out of earshot, King whispers that he knows Rex got into Dartmouth, he just can't tell him yet. He pleaded Rex's case with the Dartmouth admission officers.

King went to Georgetown and Georgetown law school, and he served on the university's admissions committee for a year. "I remember I always tried to give the benefit of the doubt to somebody who didn't have all the advantages," he says. "It's one thing if you had a black kid who had all the luxuries in the world and went to the best schools, and that student's scores are 1450 on the SATs. Then you've got another black student, from the inner city, first generation going to college, has worked incredibly hard to prove himself, is the number-one student in his class, and doesn't score that well on the SAT. I always said let's pick the other one. Because Rex has gone through more in his life than most students, and that counts for something. I think it counts for more than a test score. Anyway, it's all right because he's in Dartmouth. And he knows it, he's smart. He was smart enough not to ask me." A lot of Hales students have trouble with the SATs. In his first year as president, King hired the Princeton Review test-preparation company, which agreed to provide its services at a drastically reduced price to help students boost their scores.

About 1:30 PM, King dons a suit jacket with a lapel button that says "Hales Franciscan High School--More Than Just a School." (He wears a Hales button just about everywhere he goes; "I'm always on Hales business," he insists.) He drapes a calf-length wool coat over his lean six-foot-one frame, sprinkles good-byes around the office, and heads out the door to his Toyota 4Runner. He's going downtown to raise money, which is something he does nearly every day. He used to make these trips in his BMW, but it was stolen last year from the school parking lot.

Hales Franciscan was opened in 1962 by the Franciscan Province of the Sacred Heart and the archdiocese of Chicago. Its chief mission was to serve African-American boys, who had a tough time gaining admittance to mainstream Catholic schools; but Father Phil Hogan, who began teaching music and religion at the school in 1964 and is now director of student activities and programs, recalls a Polish student in his music class, a Lebanese kid who played for the basketball team, and some Chinese students and "a few white kids from Hyde Park." Indeed, though Hales's student body is entirely black today, in principle the school will accept students of any race.

In good years Hales served about 500 students; it averaged a 90 percent college admission rate and sent some of its graduates to the Ivys and other nationally prestigious schools. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan praised Hales to the nation as a model inner-city school. But by then enrollment had begun to decline seriously, and so had the availability of low-paid Franciscan staff. The same forces were affecting Catholic high schools all over the Chicago area: birth rates were declining, the middle class was moving to the suburbs, and the supply of priests and religious teachers was drying up; by the end of the decade 37 of the archdiocese's 89 high schools in Cook and Lake counties would close or merge. At Hales the problems were exacerbated, Father Hogan says, by middle class flight to other private schools. In 1989, the Franciscans and the archdiocese announced that Hales would have to close.

Almost immediately a committee of students, faculty, parents, alumni, and concerned community people formed to save the school. Among them was attorney Donald Hubert, an alumnus of Hales's first graduating class who now serves on the board of trustees. Hubert recalls that with a substantial check from him and some fervent lobbying of the Franciscans and Cardinal Bernardin (the latter via then-mayor Eugene Sawyer), the committee secured a reprieve until an independent board of trustees could form and develop the resources to take over the school. In 1990 the new board named one of its members, Father Charles Payne, a Franciscan who had lived in the friary atop the school for 13 years, as Hales's first African-American president. By 1993 they had raised about $1.5 million and increased the school's enrollment by about 20 percent. The Franciscans, sufficiently impressed, paid off the school's remaining debts, which were substantial, and as agreed handed the school over to the board, along with all the responsibility for paying the bills and keeping it afloat.

Before too long, the trustees knew, they'd have to find a president with the savvy and drive to drum up a lot of outside support.

Tuesday morning, King is headed for the offices of Ronald McDonald House Charities, where he'll ask for support of ongoing after-school programs in mentoring and technology, among other subjects. These programs are academically beneficial in themselves, King says, but there's another reason for offering them: many students "aren't too excited about going home" in the late afternoon. "The home life is not always the greatest thing in the world," King says, and the streets are downright dangerous. "It's just unsafe, the neighborhoods where a lot of these kids come from. You know, they get robbed, they get harassed, they get intimidated by gang members..."

When King gets to the Ronald McDonald offices at Grand and State, he joins a group of other supplicants in the lobby. After a short wait a woman tells him it's his turn, and it can't be more than five minutes before he's back in the lobby.

What happened in there?

"Either they already had made their decision before I was in there," he says, his face beginning to glow, "or they were just completely impressed by the program or whatever. I went in and they said, 'Tell us a little bit about the school and the program.' I said this is Hales, this is the program that you need to support. And [one of them] said, 'Are there any questions?' and someone said, 'I just want to tell you how wonderfully you put together this proposal. It's outstanding.' Then someone else said, 'I just want to be clear on the amount that you're asking for. What's the total amount for the project?' I told them. Then they said, 'OK, great. Any more questions? You did a great job. Thanks. Bye.' Everyone was smiling and nodding."

Before heading back to the south side, King swings by Foodlife at Water Tower Place, where over the course of the week he'll buy soup for lunch no fewer than three times. Pulling into the parking garage he comments that it's an expensive bowl of soup: it costs him $5.50 to park the car, and (though he doesn't mention this expense) he buys extra stuff that he takes back to school for students and staff.

Back at Hales, after he sets the Foodlife goodies out on a hallway table, he gets on the phone with Oberlin College's financial aid office. Maurice Elrod, one of Hales's top seniors, was admitted to Oberlin but was not given any financial aid because he failed to turn in a form. The deadline has passed, and King's asking how he can push the form through.

Then, only minutes after coming in, it seems, he's back in the car and off on another fund-raising trip. This time he's visiting Daniel Mahru, a local developer. King gives Mahru his spiel about how Hales's enrollment rose last year from 275 to 330 students, and how the school could probably handle about 400. Mahru says he thinks it's just unbelievable what Hales is accomplishing. "There's no answer for what I've seen for inner-city neighborhoods, and nothing comes close to Hales," he says. Mahru, who provides a low-cost apartment for use by Hales faculty, promises he'll send money for a golf fund-raiser and talk to some friends about supporting the school.

King leans heavily on business leaders and corporate donors. "Most people, when they do fund-raising, deal with their alumni, and that's because most schools have wealthier alumni and older alumni than Hales," he says. "Our oldest alum is just basically hitting 50, and people don't get to the giving phase of their lives until they're 60." King tries to compensate by being imaginative. He has extracted support in the form of free tickets from United Airlines and technology-education funding from Ameritech. Last year he called the corporate offices of Ralph Lauren and asked the company to donate student uniforms. Students were wearing red neckties, King says, and they were cheap and ugly. "We thought this would be a great opportunity for Ralph Lauren to link up with a nonprofit or charity in the city. Polo designs great things and our kids, like most adolescents, are label-crazy and would probably enjoy wearing uniforms if they were made by Polo." King's still waiting to hear back on that proposal.

While driving back to school from Mahru's office, he tells me, "It's one thing to be an institution that's mediocre and not doing well and not have some financial resources, but to be a school that is doing such great work and still be in this position is very, very frustrating.

"The thing that becomes so trying about it is that, you know, if I don't get this money from this person today, then this is what the ramifications are going to be at this institution. If I don't get this money from this person, I'm not going to be able to give another student some financial aid. If I don't get this money today, then how am I going to meet my payroll for this month or whatever? Whereas if I were going out and meeting with someone, saying OK, I was wondering if you could make a contribution to our endowment fund, or if you would make a contribution to this campaign we have going on, or this special fund-raising event--knowing that this is going to be money that is going to further strengthen and bolster the school--I think it would be a little bit nicer. But I don't want to sound like I'm complaining. It's a great opportunity, more an opportunity than a challenge, that's for sure." Then he adds with a laugh, "I always feel like I'm giving you a speech."

King grew up in a bilevel brick house with salmon-colored trim in Pill Hill, a south-side enclave of black lawyers, doctors, and business leaders. It's right out of a Brady Bunch episode, King says. When he was growing up, all the neighborhood kids went to the same schools, churches, and summer camps and they all got everything they wanted. It was unusual for anyone to be divorced. King attended Saint Ailbe Catholic Church at 91st and Stony Island, where he worships still.

Despite his privileged upbringing, King's mother and father taught him and his older brother, Paul, that they were no better than the next guy. For Tim, part of that lesson was instilled through his parents' insistence that he get a job as soon as he was old enough. At age ten, he filed items at his maternal grandmother's currency exchange. (She was the first African-American woman in the city to own one, the King family says.) At 15, he stood on the corner of Chicago and Michigan passing out flyers for a tourism company. Next he made sandwiches at a Boudin Bakery. In high school, he and a friend started a balloon delivery company. As an undergrad at Georgetown he took the balloon concept a bit further, packaging a mylar balloon with a poem inside into a big box with tissue paper, confetti, and streamers. "We mailed it anywhere in the country," he says. In the summers he waited tables. He was a senator's aide. For four years he worked at Georgetown's Center for Minority Student Affairs.

"You know, I didn't need to do it for the money," he says. His parents footed his college bills. "There was never a period of time when my parents told me no, we're not going to send you any money. It was more, you need to have a job because you need to have a job, because you've got enough time. And I tell you, some of the greatest lessons I learned came from interacting with people while I was working. I definitely want to instill in students that work ethic. You know, that they do have to work hard and that the benefits of working aren't just monetary, but also go way, way beyond that. And also the commitment to the community, which is why we have a day where we all go out and do community service and all the seniors are required to go to the soup kitchen."

In 1990, during his first year of Georgetown law, an undergraduate professor of King's, a Jesuit priest, asked him to teach history part-time at D.C.'s nearly all-black Archbishop Carroll High School. King agreed, though he had some doubts about single-race schools. In Chicago he had attended the highly acclaimed (and well-integrated) Saint Ignatius College Prep, and he thought it was "the greatest thing since sliced bread. Look at all of us, white, black, Asian, Hispanic, all getting along," he would say. When friends of his went off to all-black schools, he didn't understand it. "You know, you don't go to a black school!" he told them. "That's not the real world, what are you doing that for?" At Georgetown, he says, he felt some racism, but "nothing to discombobulate me." But when King worked at Carroll, his eyes opened.

"I saw the difference between their lives and my life and slowly began to realize that the reason I was able to flourish at Ignatius, and the reason I was able to flourish at Georgetown, and the reason I was able to deal with the racism that I did confront was because of the strong family background and support that I had. I had been taught my whole life that I could do whatever I want, and I could have whatever I want, if I worked hard and did the right things. I had a mother and father who were married who I was living with, I had grandparents, two sets that were married, and great-grandparents, and all of that. [King says 80 percent of Hales students come from single-parent homes, 95 percent of those headed by women.] And I was living in this neighborhood of affluent black people. My conversations at my house were: 'So, what graduate school are you going to go to?' It was never, 'Are you going to finish high school? Are you going to go to college?' I slowly began to realize that what Carroll was doing was providing those students with all of those things that my family had provided me with so that I could achieve and succeed in the world. I had an epiphany, you know. I really recognized how important an institution like Carroll was."

A year later, King made the switch to full-time history teacher, part-time law student, and he added college counselor, class moderator, and fund-raising coordinator to his duties. In 1993, Carroll students voted him the school's teacher of the year. Though he had earned his law degree by then, King chose to stay at Carroll to see the class he knew as freshmen graduate to college. The next year he wanted to see the class of '95 graduate too, but he realized this desire would prove never-ending, and he wanted to settle down in Chicago and relink family ties. Leaving Carroll was tough, King says, but in 1994 he came back to his hometown. He moved back into the Pill Hill bilevel with his mom and dad. In a lot of ways, Tim King is a mirror image of them.

Loann King, his mother, is dean of instruction at Olive-Harvey, a south-side city college with a mostly African-American student body. Before her husband's business took off, Mrs. King had to work. Today she works by choice. "I like what I do and I like being involved," she says. "I like the sense of independence." Prior to her current job she was the college's assistant dean, a grant coordinator for the Illinois Community College Board, and deputy executive director of Jobs for Youth. In the 1970s she taught and counseled at Parker High School and stood with students in civil rights protests. Mrs. King makes no bones about it: all of her jobs have focused on helping black youth and the black community. "That's what's important to me," she says, "whatever I can contribute to helping to move the race along as a collective group."

King's father, Paul King Jr., is similarly involved in community issues, particularly in the effort to integrate blacks into the construction industry. In 1969 he helped lead shutdowns of three housing rehab projects on the west side, forcing union leaders to open their organizations to blacks. He is a former vice president of the National Association of Minority Contractors, for which he wrote articles and spoke across the country, and he says he coauthored a provision of the Public Works Act of 1976 guaranteeing that at least 10 percent of federal public works grants go to minority-owned businesses. He founded UBM, his construction management firm, in the 1970s. "I've always felt working for himself was really the only way for a black man to be free and independent and not at the capriciousness of larger society," he says. His father started one of Chicago's first black-owned wholesale produce companies, P. King Produce, a distributor of fresh fruits and vegetables.

In the late 1980s Paul King began mentoring a black sixth-grader, continuing all the way until "I got him into FAMU," he says (meaning Florida A & M University). He took the kid to Bulls games and the opera and put him in a homework club. A few years later he hired a black ex-convict who did so well that Peter Jennings profiled King and his employee on the national news. In 1990 Paul King III, King's oldest son, helped UBM establish a minority internship program. Three years later, King and his colleagues at UBM established $1,000 scholarships for black students at Hales, De La Salle High School, and all of the city colleges. (King graduated from De La Salle, where he met Mayor Richard M. Daley.) Also in '93, the year Hales Franciscan went out on its own, he became a member of the Hales board.

King served on the board's development committee and recalls lots of talk about how to publicize the school and raise money. He mentioned to his committee's chairman that his youngest son had worked at a predominantly black Catholic school and successfully raised money for it, so the chairman called the younger King to chat. Tim, who by now had arrived back in Chicago, had never heard of Hales, but soon it would be all he could think about. He recalls his first visit on a September evening in 1994:

"It was six o'clock at night and all the students were here, playing basketball in the gym, in the classrooms talking with teachers, milling about, talking to each other, playing chess....All you hear so frequently in the news are these young black men who are in gangs, who are shooting each other up, who are on drugs, who are getting arrested, and more black men in jail than are in college. And here's an institution that was founded for and continues to serve this specific segment."

That night, King spouted ideas to the board member, so impressing him that he asked on the spot if King would be interested in working for Hales. King next met with Donald Hubert, then chairman of the board, who right away recognized his natural leadership qualities--he was young, engaging, likable, good-looking, and had academic experience and imaginative ideas. In early October, King was named vice president with the intention that he would later become president; Hubert says it was time for Hales, run by an ad hoc group of people thrown together in a crisis, to move toward professional academic leadership. In July 1995, King officially became the school's first lay president and the youngest--at age 28--to hold the post.

King's father says he was not trying to get his son a job when he suggested his committee chairman talk with him. In fact, Tim says, his father used to introduce him to friends as a law student before mentioning his job at Archbishop Carroll, even after he had switched to full-time teaching. King wanted his son to be a lawyer. He had no idea his simple suggestion would lead where it has, but he says, "The commitment to service and helping other people is a contagious thing we have in this family." He is thrilled and very proud that his son wound up at Hales.

On Wednesday King visits the Ransom R. Cable House, the restored mansion at Wabash and Erie where money-management guru Richard Driehaus keeps his offices. Driehaus is hosting a fund-raising reception at the mansion where Mayor Daley will drum up money for Hales and scholarship aid for its students. From there King is off to the East Bank Club for lunch with an old neighborhood friend, Marc Davis, a 29-year-old who owns a janitorial service and dreams of refereeing for the NBA. Davis affectionately calls King a "professional panhandler" and jokes, "He will teach for food."

King is chatting up Davis about an opening in Hales's athletic department. When King arrived at Hales the school hadn't had a football team since the early 70s. He was persuaded to put football back in the budget, and Hales fielded a JV team in 1995 and a varsity team the year after. Now he needs a new athletic director and wants to know if his friend Davis, who coached freshman basketball at Hales four years ago, might be interested.

"I can't do that," says Davis. "It won't fit my finances."

"Well, we'd pay you enough to have an apartment," King tells him, smirking.

(Ask King how much money he makes and he'll tell you he can't disclose it--his contract won't let him, he says. But he is the highest-paid person at the school. Starting teachers there make $21,000 and the highest paid make around $30,000. "A teacher at a Chicago public school who has the same experience as one of our teachers could very well be making $50,000 a year. We hired a guy who was the principal of a [suburban] middle school and he was making $120,000. And although I can't tell you how much I make, I can assure you," King says, "it's nowhere near $120,000.")

King tells Davis that when he gets a list of finalists for the athletic director job, he'll call him for his input. Then the talk turns to Davis's dream of refereeing for the NBA. Davis says to start, that job can fetch him $90,000.

"I think it's a good thing," King says. "The more money he makes, he can send it to Hales." He notices the time. "I've got to go run my school," he tells Davis.

"School's over," Davis says.

School may be over, King replies, but he can still make it back in time to chat up the kids hanging out for study hall.

When King gets back he runs into Maurice Elrod and tells him he needs to send two copies of that financial aid form to Oberlin. "Rumor has it," he says to another kid, "that you're not passing Mrs. Small's class." The kid is indignant. "I got a B in Mrs. Small's class!" "That's the rumor," King tells him, over the din of chattering students.

Back in King's office, sophomore Alfred Lee and freshman Etienne "Pete" Blair have been playing games on his computers. Something's wrong with the one Alfred was using.

"It's all my fault," Alfred says.

"Now that we know that it's all your fault," King says in an accusatory tone, "explain to me if you saved the information which was on my screen."

"I didn't turn it off," Alfred tells him.

"It just automatically went off?" King asks.

"It froze," Alfred says. King asks what he was doing on the computer when it froze. Pete lets out a little laugh.

"Poker,"Alfred practically whispers, his head hanging.

"Now, did I give you permission to come in here and play poker?" King asks.

"I'm afraid not," Alfred says.

"You could have asked me and I would have saved my stuff and let you play the game, right? Because of course I would not say no to you, right?"

Pete jumps in, feigning outrage. "What would give you the audacity to just come in here and work on his computer?" he asks Alfred.

"Thank you Pete," Alfred replies.

Another student pops in and says hello. Then a staff member comes in with a fax. King listens to his phone messages. "Tim, I have an idea," says one. "I want you to call me. It's going to make us rich."

"Yeah, we know," Pete tells King. "It's one of your friends."

Somehow King has gotten the computer going and Alfred is back on it. He has racked up $42,000 winnings on the poker game.

"If we had that money in real life--man!," Pete says.

"We wouldn't be playing poker with it, I'm sure," King says.

I tease Pete and say to him, you'd give all your winnings to Hales, right?

"Of course I would, and if anyone asked me why, I'm going to say because of Mr. King," Pete replies.

"Gentlemen," King announces, "I'm going upstairs to the faculty party."

"You want us to leave?" Alfred asks.

"No, you may stay here, but protect my office. When you do leave, close my door."

"Do you want us to lock it?" Pete asks.

"You don't have to lock it, just pull it."

"You want us to turn the lights out?" Pete asks. "You can do that if you like," King says. "Thank you."

"OK. Take care," Pete shouts.

"You too."

Though King hasn't mentioned it, the fax he was handed earlier contained some pretty big news. Saint Martin de Porres Academy, another south-side Catholic school, has announced that it's closing at the end of the school year for lack of money.

The next morning, Hales's academic affairs vice president, Thomas Calhoun, drops by King's office and they talk about the news.

"I was thinking maybe we should have Hales north and Hales south," King says.

"I understand they have a lovely campus," Calhoun says. "Would you like to get it?"

"Sure," King says.

"Well, are you prepared?" Calhoun asks.

"Ye-e-e-ah," King says. "I'm not so much concerned about getting the campus. I'm more concerned about ensuring that these kids have a place to go to school. And we can't take 200 students, so we have to have a place to have them, so that could be the place. But you know the problem with that place, according to that memo, is that it needs $3 million worth of work. I was thinking maybe they shouldn't close. Maybe we should figure out some way to keep the school open. You know what I mean?"

"I'm sure they've been figuring for a while," Calhoun says.

"Yeah, but that's the same thing they did to Hales," King says. "The archdiocese announced, you know, decided to close Hales. And then some other people came up and did some more figuring and here we are. You know what I mean?"

By day's end, King and his vice presidents decide Hales will accept all de Porres's male students--about 140--if they choose to come. It will mean extra fund-raising on King's part, but he thinks he's obligated. (Later, the Chicago Public Schools bought de Porres and opened a public school there. About 20 former students expressed interest in coming to Hales, but in the end only two did.)

That night King drives to a nearby church to speak at a ring ceremony for Hales juniors and seniors. Alfred and Pete tag along in the back of his car.

At the ceremony, King sits on the stage with Franciscans and lay faculty. After all the juniors and seniors have come up to receive their rings, King walks down onto the church floor and in an extemporaneous speech tells them that their rings are a symbol of their connection and responsibility to Hales. He found his old high school ring in his drawer this morning and put it on for old-times' sake. Tonight, he's ruminating on the fate of Saint Martin de Porres.

"Many of you have probably heard the very sad news that Saint Martin de Porres Academy is closing," he says. "There was a period of time when people thought that Hales was not going to continue. Why is it that eight years later you are sitting here in this room? Because alumni who had class rings said they would not allow Hales Franciscan High School to close. Those of you who are seniors, I know you will go on to do great things. And I also know that this ring will end up in a drawer. But remember that your commitment, your dedication, and your responsibility to your alma mater, your soul mother, Hales Franciscan High School, must never end up in the drawer! Congratulations as always. I am incredibly proud."

After the ceremony, King drives back to Hales and mixes with parents and students until about 9:30 PM. When he leaves, Alfred and Pete are still tagging along behind him; he'll drop them home on his way to his parents' house in Pill Hill (where he was still living at the time). First, though, he stops at McDonald's and Taco Bell to buy his passengers some dinner. "You know, they're growing boys," King explains. "They want to eat."

Tim King has accomplished much in his two years as Hales president--particularly in fund-raising. In his first year he exceeded his $700,000 goal by $100,000; last year the goal was $1 million and he beat it by $200,000.

He is also leaving his mark on the academic side. In addition to his social justice class, which he brought from Archbishop Carroll High School, he has added course requirements in a number of core subjects, he says. The English requirement has been increased from three to the equivalent of seven and a half years; math from three to four years; social studies, science, and foreign language from two to three years; and computers from a half year to a full year. King also claims credit for the "Summer of Enlightenment," a study and internship program in which students have attended prestigious overseas and domestic universities and won internships at firms like Morgan Stanley, Paine Webber, and the Chicago Board Options Exchange.

And since King became president, more students are staying at Hales. Under his leadership, the school's attrition rate dropped to 6 and 5.4 percent in his first and second years respectively--down, he says, from about a 12 to 15 percent student loss in some years before him. "One thing that we did right off the bat was communicate that if you want your son to be here and your son wants to be here and is willing to work hard, we're going to make it happen. And we're not going to let a financial issue stop it," King says. "If a family is moving or having some type of instability, we're going to find a place for the kid to live for a certain amount of time. We told our faculty that we're not in the business of throwing kids away. Hales is about saving kids. We had to create bonds and relationships with the students so that they wouldn't want to leave the school because this is their family. It's a lot of my arm around you, it's a lot of I'm going to give you a ride home."

King's style, fund-raising ability, and caring for the student body have won him praise from students and faculty on up to the board of trustees and his predecessor Father Charles Payne, who still lives in the friary atop the Hales building. But of course the approval has not been unanimous. "When I first became president of the school the thing was, 'Here's this young rich kid coming here trying to tell us all what to do.' You get that impression from teachers, from students, from parents, and so that's the big thing. You have to prove yourself. [And then when you do, they say] 'OK, wow, he actually raised the money, he actually did all the things he said he was going to do.' OK, so now there's another issue, now there's another issue. People are always going to have different issues."

Here are a few of them.

Teachers have a certain amount of freedom within the classroom, one teacher told me, but overall Hales is Tim King's domain: he asks for staff input on school matters, but usually implements his own ideas.

Well, King says, he does do this--he has strong feelings about what role the school should play in the larger community. Even so, he says, he wants everyone, including students, involved in making decisions. For example in his first year he put student representatives on the discipline committee, which reviews discipline cases and makes recommendations to the student services vice president, who is free to accept or reject those recommendations. All King does, he says, is give legal advice to the VP or arbitrate if a parent appeals a decision. Similarly there's an academic review committee, composed of teachers and administrators, who have, among other things, examined how to redesign the school curriculum. King says he reluctantly accepted their recommendation to bring back pre-algebra and physical science, courses King had discontinued in favor of higher-level offerings. The reinstatement was prompted by the discovery that about a third of freshmen were failing algebra, biology, or foreign languages at the end of their first quarter. King says he would have preferred keeping the higher-level classes and charging teachers to find a more creative way to teach them.

Some teachers wonder if King has lowered admissions standards. Recently a few kids with undetected learning disabilities slipped through the admissions process. They couldn't hack it at Hales (which is not equipped to handle the learning disabled), were tested and found to have disabilities, then were referred to the public schools. One teacher I spoke with cited this incident as an indication of King's lax attitude toward admissions. But King's predecessor, Father Payne, says that similar incidents happened before King's time. And another teacher cited a different kind of case--for example, a student with a known learning disability who entered the school and performed well enough to be promoted--as evidence of the school's commitment to education. "I'm at giving someone a chance," King says. "If someone is willing to work hard and willing to be part of this community, we're going to give him the opportunity." He has given the school's admissions process "more teeth," he says, making it more competitive, but at the same time he wants to give more students a shot at attending. For admittance, the school used to require only grades and test scores in most circumstances, but King also requires application essays, letters of recommendation, and student and parent/guardian interviews.

Then there's the "100 percent issue." King is outwardly proud of the fact that 100 percent of 1996 graduates were admitted to college. In fact when you phone the school he tells you about it in the voice-mail greeting. But some students are admitted to area community colleges that aren't known for rigorous admissions procedures. And King has no idea how many Hales students actually go to college, only how many are admitted. These qualifications prompt some observers to scoff at the 100 percent claim and dismiss it as the kind of PR talk that rich donors like to hear.

Thomas Calhoun, academic affairs vice president, estimates that 80 to 90 percent of Hales students actually do enter college and that these figures will rise over the next few years because Hales has new programs designed to show students the specific benefits of doing so.

For his part, King cites the difficulty of keeping track of graduates. He says he once tried to conduct a survey of 50 former students who left Hales before graduating and could only reach two of them. Besides, he says, "You've got to ask yourself where do you draw the line? Is our job to prepare a student to get into college, or is it our job to make sure now that 100 percent of our graduates graduate from college within four years? I don't think that that's our job."

King emphatically denies that the 100 percent statistic is a marketing tool. It's more a message to students than to donors, he says: "It is not for purposes of looking good to a donor. When I tell a student that if you work hard and follow the rules, you're going to get into college, that's a promise I make to them and I am going to fulfill that promise." King insists that the Hales college counselor find a college for each senior, even if the kid doesn't want to go. At least the student has an option. Even one teacher who called the statistic a selling tool agreed it's a good thing these kids now have this choice --and I've heard several other staff agree.

Finally there are issues that arise in the social and economic distance between the two worlds King moves in: the impoverished community that Hales serves and the affluent boardroom milieu from which he seeks funding. In a sense it is King's mission to bring these two worlds together, but the attempt inevitably raises questions and suspicions about who he really is, where he comes from, and where he thinks he's going. One former student told me he'd heard a rumor that the school pays for King's fancy 4Runner. (According to King the school pays half the lease, plus the insurance; it also offered a car to and paid insurance for the former president, Father Payne, who as a Franciscan priest was bound by the vow of poverty and unable to own a car himself.) A teacher grumbled to me about King's 30th-birthday celebration, a party in the Bahamas for King and about 80 other people, including two Hales staff. (His parents paid for the party, King says; the guests paid their own way.) And inevitably people wonder aloud about King's ambitions. Sean Stalling, 26, who taught religion at Hales and is now the school's athletic director, says that he basically respects King but wonders about his motives. "He's somebody that if he ran for political office, or was promoting [someone for office], I would definitely think he could get them in. He's a helluva promoter and he's using it for the good of the school. I hope he's not doing it to make Tim King great, I'm hoping he's doing it to make Hales great. If he does that, he'll go down as one of the greatest educators of all time. He'll have taken a school like Hales and made it one of the great schools. Then he'll go down in history."

King says everything he does is for the good of the kids. But it seems he wouldn't mind going down in history either. He'll leave Hales when it outgrows him. "I have a great interest in government and politics," he says. "So I think I would enjoy serving this city and country in that way."

Reminded that he comes from a family of "firsts"--his grandmother's currency exchange, his grandfather's wholesale produce market--I ask half-jokingly if King is entertaining notions of running for president.

"It would be great to be president of the United States, but at the same time I think it would be even greater to do a whole bunch of smaller, but in the big scheme of things more important things that would take place along the way," King says. "So, we'll see."

Wait: the U.S. presidency is really a possibility?


People praise King for forsaking the big bucks of lawyering to preside over Hales. But it would be a great move for someone with political aspirations. Attorneys are a dime a dozen, but saviors of inner-city kids are the stuff of TV movies.

There are easier ways to become president, King says. He loves this school and its mission.

It's chilly on the afternoon of June 1, and some of the 1,000 or so people assembled on Hales's south lawn are throwing coats over their suit jackets and short-sleeved dresses. Some are running toward an outdoor stage to snap pictures of the 60 black-robed seniors marching down the aisles between the folding chairs. It's Hales Franciscan's 35th graduation ceremony.

Thomas Calhoun opens the ceremony, followed by two Hales students dressed in African garb and playing drums. When it comes time for the Negro national anthem, "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," the audience of mostly black faces joins in. The anthem is followed by the salutatorian's speech. He tells everyone that if they're not part of the solution, they're part of the problem, and he enumerates some of the problems that Hales graduates should seek to solve: drug abuse, homelessness, negligent parenting, teenage pregnancy.

The commencement speaker is Donzell Starks, a 1978 Hales graduate who's now president of Inner City Entertainment, partners with Cineplex Odeon in three new multiplex theaters that will serve entertainment-starved neighborhoods on the south and west sides. He tells the students one of the most important lessons they need to learn, if they're heading for corporate America, is the value of paper: it's their resume that will get them in the door and open opportunities.

Finally, after another musical selection, the graduates come up to take their diplomas. Some actually dance across the stage as King hands them out. Then it's time for the valedictorian's speech.

"He leaves us to attend Dartmouth College, where he will prepare for the study of medicine," Calhoun says by way of introduction. "It is a pleasure to present this young man, our valedictorian, Rex Allen Davis II."

"We love you Rex!" someone shouts, and the crowd giggles.

"You too Chuck!" Rex shouts back.

Rex takes his place behind the lectern and welcomes everyone. He speaks of all the students who made this senior class so special--the class clowns, the wannabe pretty boys, and so on. When they all head to college, he says, they will have to work hard to stay ahead of the game. He singles out Tim Griffin, a white teacher who left a prestigious business job in the Loop for Hales, for being one of the seniors' favorite teachers. Mr. Griffin always stood his ground, Rex says with much conviction, opened up to the students to reveal his personal side, and sparked a fire in them that will burn for years. Rex next mentions the parents, assuring them that he and his fellow graduates understand the sacrifices and hardships they had to endure to get them to this point. He thanks his mother, Linda D. Davis; if it weren't for her he would not have made it this far. She stands up to the audience's adulation. He praises the Hales administration and faculty. He praises Tim King:

"Since he's been at Hales Franciscan, he has envisioned the ideal academic institution," Rex says. "His vision begins with the students and he has always opened his door to us and let us in. Mr. King has the vision to help us go places we've never dreamed of going before. Europe, top universities, soup kitchens, and more! In doing so he has touched many students in many different ways in his short time at Hales."

Rex wraps up his speech, gleefully shouting out "High school is officially over!" But after this he's not quite ready to leave the stage. He pulls out a letter.

"I have one last thing to read on behalf of me and my senior class. This is to one of my best friends at Hales--Mr. King." Rex pauses to take a breath, then begins to read. "Your thoughtfulness has a way of touching lives," Rex says, his voice cracking, "of making days a little brighter, hearts a little happier, and problems seem a whole lot smaller. It is people like you who make the difference in this world." Rex is crying and he can barely get the words out, but the audience cheers him on with clapping and shouting. King, who sits onstage behind the speaker's lectern, is wiping his eyes. His mother Loann, sitting in the audience behind a group of Franciscans, sniffles and dabs her face with tissue. "And though you may not hear it often," Rex continues, "you are appreciated very much. You are the kind of person who will never be forgotten."

With that, King rises from his chair, and he and Rex hug amid the audience's enthusiastic claps and shouts.

At the reception in Hales's cafeteria, just about every graduate's family nabs King to mug for a picture with their son. As he works the room King spots the Sullivans, the family who brought Rex into their home last year, and they chat proudly about Rex's speech.

"I never saw that side of Rex, when he was giving his speech today," Dr. Sullivan tells King.

"He was into it," King says.

"He's usually so quiet, you know," Jannine Sullivan says; maybe his true calling is to be a preacher.

"Preachers don't make enough money," King tells her. "He needs to be a doctor, so he can make money and send it to Hales." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photographs by Lloyd DeGrane.

Add a comment