Brave Heart | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Neighborhood News

Brave Heart

A posthumous tribute preserves the legacy of a fearless social worker.


Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe


By Ben Joravsky

There were no obituaries for Sam Sains. He died of cancer on December 22, so maybe his passing was lost in the Christmas rush. Or maybe people just forgot that for almost 50 years he was at the heart of efforts to erase poverty and transform lives. Some of those efforts were controversial ones, like the ill-fated job training program in Woodlawn.

After he became ill a couple of years ago, some of Sains's friends decided to raise money and publish a book about him. "A life like Sam's should not go unrecorded or unremembered," says Peter Benkendorf, an executive with the Magnani & Associates marketing firm who's leading the book-publishing effort. "There's too much to learn from him."

According to Benkendorf, Sains was not much different from many of the wayward youths he helped set straight. The youngest of five children, raised by Jewish immigrants who ran a corner store in Brooklyn, Sains was a lousy student who nearly flunked out of high school.

During World War II he served on a coast guard transport ship, ferrying troops to war zones. "It was the most traumatic experience of his young life," says Judith Sains, his widow. "He went all over the world and saw so much destruction, poverty, and death. These things stayed with Sam. They motivated him to do something special with his life."

After the war Sains earned bachelor's and master's degrees from NYU, taught industrial arts in several New York high schools, and signed on with Xerox, which sent him to Chicago to organize a job training program for inner-city adults.

It was here that he hooked up with the Woodlawn Organization, a fledgling community group run by two young activists, the Reverend Arthur Brazier and Leon Finney. In 1967, TWO got a million-dollar federal grant to set up a job training program that was intended in part to encourage members of two warring gangs, the Blackstone Rangers and East Side Disciples, to go straight. Under the direction of Sains and Brazier, TWO hired gang members as teachers and brought in other gang members to be students. Like it or not, many kids looked up to gang members; if the gangbangers went straight the kids might follow. Or so it was argued.

"Sam said his job was to develop educational material and work with the teachers, teaching them how to teach, so to speak," says freelance writer Michael Glab, an occasional Reader contributor hired by Benkendorf to interview Sains and write the book. "It was all basic stuff--how to fill out an application, how to conduct an interview. It must have been a strange sight--this little white guy in Woodlawn, the only white guy in the room. I asked Sam if he was scared and he looked at me like I was crazy, as if the idea of being scared in Woodlawn was absurd. He wasn't pugnacious but he was confident."

The program was doomed. For one thing, the feds had not cleared it with Mayor Richard J. Daley, who opposed federal programs he didn't control. For another, it was an obvious target for Great Society bashers.

Within a few months the Tribune was having a field day, shocking readers with sensational accounts of tax dollars showered on hoodlums and ex-cons. The outrage reached Washington, where Senator John McClellan of Arkansas convened a congressional hearing. Sains flew to the capital but was never asked to testify. Instead, McClellan concentrated on lurid accounts of pot-smoking, gun-toting, gangbanging federal grantees. During one dramatic nationally televised exchange, Blackstone Ranger leader Jeff Fort walked out of the hearing room rather than answer McClellan's questions. The program, never re-funded, is still remembered by right-wing ideologues as a classic case of liberalism run amok.

"The senators never wanted to hear Sam's reasoned account of what the program was about," says Glab. "This was a show hearing--they wanted sex, crime, and drugs. In some ways it was perfect Sam never testified. He was not a spotlight guy. He never missed a meeting but he never called a press conference."

Many questions raised during the ruckus remain open to debate. Were Sains and his allies hopelessly naive to believe that the gang members were truly interested in a mainstream existence? Were they legitimatizing gangs and sending the wrong message to law-abiding teenagers? Or did the senators, the Tribune, and Daley squander a valuable opportunity by vilifying a good program, exploiting fears and adding to the notoriety of Fort (now serving a life sentence for murder, racketeering, and other convictions) and other gang leaders?

"I asked Sam many times whether the program was a mistake and he never wavered in his response," says Glab. "He'd say, 'We got over 100 kids jobs they never would have gotten. Was that a mistake? Was it a mistake to see them working at International Harvester, Argonne National Laboratories, or Union Carbide?' He said he'd do it again. I asked him about the criminal records, and he said, 'What do you expect? These are gang members, not choirboys. What are we supposed to do, just lock them all up? Wouldn't it be more practical, cheaper in the long run, to educate them?' You have to understand, these were desperate times--people were talking about a civil war. But Sam was right there in Woodlawn trying to reform the baddest of the bad boys. That's not naive, that's noble.

"He did think some of the social workers were a little naive. He said there were college students who came out of the University of Chicago to work in Woodlawn and before you know it they were talking and dressing like gang members. Sam never did that. Sam always wore a suit. He said, 'I have something to offer the gang members. They had nothing to offer me.'"

After the program ended, Sains moved to Massachusetts and set up the Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical School, a widely lauded public institution. He returned to Chicago in the late 1970s to work for TWO; eventually he became a private consultant to dozens of not-for-profits, including the Chinese Mutual Aid Association.

"Sam was very practical. He always said you can't expect to win them all," says Judith Sains. "But he saw a lot of success. Sometimes he'd be walking in Hyde Park and someone would yell, 'Hey, Sam.' It would be a guy who had been in the gang program and now he had a respectable job and a legitimate life. Sam used to tell a story from his childhood about how he saved three pennies to buy chickpeas from a peddler. But a beggar came into the store and Sam's mother said, 'You have to help this man.' So Sam gave him his three pennies. What a sacrifice for a little kid--he could almost taste those chickpeas. Later he was walking along with his head down, feeling blue, kicking a tin can, and what did he see lying on the street but three pennies? So he got his chickpeas after all. He loved that story. It was as if he learned at an early age that kindness is its own reward."

There will be a memorial service for Sains on January 24 at Piser Weinstein Menorah Chapel (5206 N. Broadway). Finney will deliver the eulogy. If all goes well the book should be finished within a year. "We can send the manuscript to publishers or we can raise enough money

to publish it ourselves," says Benkendorf. "If Sam's story gets into schools and libraries and inspires other people, it's a success."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Sam Sains photo by Bruce Powell.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 

Add a comment