Hales Franciscan High School is a lead character in the story Jack Ryan has told on the campaign trail for the last year.
Ryan, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, makes sure voters know that he gave up a prosperous investment banking career to teach history and literature at the all-boys, all-black Catholic school on Chicago’s South Side. And he frequently uses images of the school to illustrate what he believes is an unorthodox approach to conservative politics. Last May, flanked by some of his former students, he officially launched his campaign from the school’s gymnasium. In speeches pushing his school voucher plan, he cited Hales as a model whose achievements-like sending all graduating seniors on to college-other inner-city schools could end up matching. And one of his most successful television ads before the primary showed him in a Hales classroom, handing back papers and writing on a chalkboard while students gathered around, alternately looking engaged and laughing-a sign that this was one rich white guy who was committed, cool and different from all the others.
And that’s the way many former students and teaching colleagues describe him. “Jack was a good guy. All the time he was here, we never knew he was running for political office,” said Derrel Sanders, who teaches English literature and coaches track and basketball at the school. “I considered Jack a person who was coming to our school to help the least of these. He was a guy who tried to do something.”
Yet as Ryan gears up for a November showdown with Democratic state Sen. Barack Obama, whose district includes the Hales campus, some Hales leaders have been working to deliver the very different message that the school isn’t involved in politics and doesn’t favor anyone in the Senate race.
“We’re proud of the fact that Jack Ryan has been able to reach the level of success he has so far in his political career, and that he’s gone out of his way to spotlight his work at Hales. And we’re proud of the representation we’ve gotten from Sen. Obama over the years,” said Bill Owens, chairman of the Hales board of trustees. But “we are absolutely not endorsing either candidate.”
It was a point school officials made repeatedly this spring, especially after the Hales Association of Parents named Obama the featured speaker at its annual prayer breakfast.
Vivian Carter, president of the parents group, said Obama was an ideal choice to keynote the event, which is equal parts worship service, pep rally and fundraiser. “He’s intelligent, he’s articulate and he’s handsome. Who wouldn’t want to be Sen. Barack Obama at this time? Who would not want to follow his lifestyle?” she said. “I wanted someone who was young enough and vibrant enough to hold [the students’] attention.”
She also wanted someone who was African American. “I think if Jewish men can speak to Jewish kids, and Irish men can speak to Irish kids, why couldn’t a successful African American man speak to our African American young men?”
Carter emphasized that the breakfast is not a political event, and that the speakers have always been chosen for their ability to inspire Hales students and bring in a paying crowd-never for their politics. Past speakers have included clergy and other community leaders, she said.
“This had nothing to do with Jack Ryan,” she said. “Hales Franciscan is not in a Senate race. Jack Ryan spent a couple of years here, and that’s wonderful. But it is not Jack Ryan’s school.”
Carter said she is an Obama supporter, though he had left her “pissed off” last fall when he seemingly blew off an earlier request for a donation to Hales. And she admitted that not everyone at Hales was pleased with the invitation to Obama. “It wasn’t supported, necessarily, by the board of directors.”
Not true, said Owens. “I’m not aware of an issue. The board is supportive of both candidates.”
Obama was certainly well received at the breakfast. As WVON radio personality Cliff Kelley hosted his show live from the hallway just inside the school’s front entrance, Obama stood nearby posing for pictures with students in matching khakis, white shirts and dark ties. Obama began working his way into the gym. Parents, alumni and other Hales supporters pushed aside their breakfast plates and stood to shake his hand, and within moments, a small crowd had clustered around him.
Hales senior DéJuon Battles-Newby was busy directing people to the food tables on each side of the room. A future journalism student at Loyola University Chicago, he said he thought Obama was an odd choice for the keynote speaker, noting that some students were upset about it.
Ryan, his sophomore-year literature and junior-year pre-law instructor, “is a great teacher and a great guy,” said Battles-Newby, adding that many students, including him, were volunteering for the Ryan campaign.
Still, he said, “people here are mostly Democrats. The only reason people here would vote for Jack is because he taught here. And even then, some won’t vote for him.”
A few minutes later, Owens stood at the podium in front to introduce Obama. “I can think of no one who understands the theme of our breakfast better than Sen. Barack Obama,” he said, and applause filled the gym.
Obama congratulated the teachers, staff and parents for making the school successful. He said he was glad to be visiting for the first time in four or five years. Then he said, “Some of you may know that I had the good fortune to be nominated to be the Democratic Senate candidate from the state of Illinois.” He paused for the rousing applause before continuing. “And we have an outstanding Republican nominee who has a bit of connection here, and I’m looking forward to a spirited debate. But I don’t want to talk about politics today.”
He wanted to talk about attitude, he said. “What does it meant to be a full-grown man?” he asked the students. He urged them to take responsibility for their actions and get a great education.
Given the history of discrimination against African Americans, “it’s not surprising that many of us would feel oppressed and abused and have a ready-made excuse for why we can’t do everything right,” he said. For example, “I hear people complaining all the time about politics, about how politicians talk a good game but don’t do nothing. Yet when I ask them, ‘Did you vote?’ they say, ‘No.’ That is unacceptable. You are complicit in your own oppression if you’re not going to use all the tools at your disposal.”
Each of the students should work hard and do better than what was expected of them, he said. “I want you to own your own businesses. I want you to run for the U.S. Senate. I want you to become president-I’m just laying the groundwork for you here.”
Obama next stressed that they needed to learn to empathize with others. “I hope you don’t just hang out with people who look like you,” he said. “Try to spend some time with people from another race and see what their life is like. –¦ One of the reasons our campaign was successful was that we saw that people have common interests.” He received a standing ovation.
Afterward, Naomi and Cleophus Sanders, grandparents of a Hales junior, said the speech reaffirmed their commitment to voting for Obama. They were excited about what they saw as his firm grasp of issues affecting people nationwide. “We look at the work [candidates] do, not just for black people, but for people as a whole,” Naomi Sanders said. “We’re not saying Ryan has not done good work-we just want this young man.”
“Jack Ryan is going to have to try another time,” her husband said.
Kelli Phiel, Ryan’s spokesperson, said he had no problem with Obama’s appearance at Hales. “It’s obviously a good thing when young students become educated on the issues,” she said. “Jack would stand behind that as their former teacher.”
And the Obama campaign stressed that its candidate simply wanted to take the chance to inspire some young men. “They wanted him to speak from his heart,” said communications director Robert Gibbs.
Owens, the board president, believes Hales would be an ideal venue for a candidates’ debate in the fall. He said the board would be in conversation with the two camps. “This is certainly neutral ground for both,” he said.
Several days after the event, though, Carter wanted to steer the subject back to Hales and its students. The breakfast was a success because her son and the other students had heard a positive, encouraging message, she said. And it had helped her group generate some attention Hales desperately needs.
“This isn’t about Barack Obama,” she said. “It’s about the fact that they have windows that are 40 years old. They did have a heating problem. They don’t have the equipment for my son who runs track. We’ve got to have some people there who really care, because there’s so much that needs to be done. That’s what this is about.”