Do What’s Right: an exclusive interview with Robert E. Gallagher

Published December 1, 2003

Parochial school administrators may do their best to keep tuition as low as possible, but often it is privately funded scholarships that make education at a private school a reality for many children from low-income families in the inner city.

And while large national programs like the Children’s Scholarship Fund have focused attention on programs that distribute scholarships directly to student applicants by lottery, in fact there are many other highly successful, locally developed programs that have different mechanisms for funding and awarding scholarships. The Gallagher Scholars Program in Chicago is one such exemplary program.

The program was established in 1994 by Robert E. Gallagher and his wife, Isabel, through the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Big Shoulders Fund. Big Shoulders was established by the late Joseph Cardinal Bernadin in 1986 to provide scholarship support for 111 inner-city Catholic schools in Chicago.

Bernadin emphasized that Catholic schools do not proselytize, but serve as “anchors within their neighborhoods,” offering “a first-class education for both Catholics and non-Catholics.” The character of Catholic schools, he said, helps students distinguish right from wrong, responsibility from irresponsibility, and active citizenship from passive citizenship.

Gallagher places a high value on the Catholic school education he received at St. Francis Xavier Elementary School and Loyola Academy, both in Wilmette, Illinois. Currently the chairman of Itasca, Illinois-based Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., one of the world’s largest insurance brokers, Gallagher attributes part of his success in business to the quality foundation provided by his elementary and secondary Catholic schooling.

He put his education temporarily on hold during World War II to serve as a Navy pilot, returning to graduate from Cornell University in 1947 and join the nine-employee insurance brokerage firm his father had started 20 years earlier.

When Gallagher became president of the firm in 1963, it had grown to 19 employees with revenues of a half million dollars a year. By 2002, Gallagher had expanded the firm to 7,111 employees, with revenues topping a billion dollars and annual GAAP earnings of $130 million.

Active in philanthropy as well as in business, Gallagher has received numerous awards and honors. The most recent was two years ago, when he received the Elizabeth Ann Seton Award in a ceremony at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center in Washington, DC. The award is presented annually by the National Catholic Education Association to recognize individuals whose professional and volunteer contributions have had a significant impact on Catholic education and children in the United States.

Gallagher recently spoke with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: How did you become involved in Catholic education?

Gallagher: Cardinal Bernadin was a very dear friend. We had known him through a business relationship when he was in Cincinnati and then we became closer friends through the loss of our daughter to the same kind of cancer that claimed him about a year and a half later. He was very kind to her. But about nine years ago, he invited Isabel, my wife, and me to have dinner at his house with Monsignor Ken Velo. As Ken said later, “That was the most expensive dinner you ever attended.”

The Cardinal knew I had always been concerned about inner-city children and the poor education they were getting in the public schools, and so he suggested I think about setting up a scholarship program to help these children get an education in the Catholic schools. It would be a program under my control, not something controlled by the Archdiocese.

I asked the Cardinal for some suggestions and he sent me several, but I didn’t like any of them because I wanted something that was permanent. Permanency means endowment—the endowment pays for the full program—and so I created a foundation to do that, called the REG Charitable Trust. It funds the Gallagher Scholarship Program. We’re now 11 years into our program. We just picked up the latest 50 students that started in fifth grade, to make a grand total of 550 Gallagher Scholars.

Our program is an eight-year program, from fifth to twelfth grade. We put the names of all the inner-city Catholic schools in a hat and I draw out ten schools. The principals of those 10 schools then select five students each for the scholarships. The students don’t apply for the scholarships, they’re selected because they’re bright, because they have an eagerness to learn, and because they have some support at home.

This is a scholars program, but they all have one thing in common: They’re poor. These are inner-city schools and at-risk children.

Clowes: So at any one time you have around 400 children in the program?

Gallagher: Four hundred children, that’s correct. The scholarships provide tuition assistance of $1,000 a year for the children in grade school, and $2,000 a year for the children in high school. That’s $600,000 a year in perpetuity from the endowment fund.

When the program was first set up, I developed a code of conduct for the children, which became the road map of success. This code of conduct is given to all the children to learn and adopt when they come into the program. It involves goals, motivation, effort, attitude, and so on—11 items in all.

Another key component of the program is that we have about 125 businessmen and businesswomen from the city who act as mentors. They are volunteers, and they are the real heroes of this program—besides the teachers. I see all of the students five times a year, but it’s the mentors who are with them all the time, one-on-one. It makes a huge difference when someone takes an interest in their lives.

That’s the whole thing: Somebody cares. Somebody loves them and wants them to succeed, but has certain rules and regulations. And in the parochial school system, you have discipline, you have ethics, you have morality, you have rules, you have love, you have learning, you have everything that our country needs to support our schools.

We take nothing for granted, and try to help in every way we can to get them through high school. There’s just tremendous pride that’s been built over these last 11 years with the Gallagher Scholars. Everyone knows that some of these kids are among the smartest in the inner city.

We have eight years to watch the development of these children, and we really take that responsibility seriously. We have a fifth grade orientation that all the students come to for various talks. We have high school students who are going on to college come to visit the sixth grade children to spur them to go on through high school and to college. And what we’ve found with our high school students is that a good proportion can get scholarships for college.

In our first graduating class, we had 35 out of the 50 left after eight years, and I’d say 30 went on to college. In fact, our first batch of scholars are sophomores in college now, studying to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and so on. But what I’ve preached into them is that when they’re successful, they should come back to the neighborhoods and help others. So it’s a round circle.

Clowes: How do you think your program compares with other scholarship programs?

Gallagher: I’m not too familiar with how the other programs work, but I do know my model works. That’s number one. And number two, we have the parochial school system, which is the heart of this program. The results in the parochial schools speak for themselves: 34 percent of the students are non-Catholic; 81 percent are minorities; 99 percent graduate from grade school; 98 percent graduate from high school; and 85 percent or more go on to college.

On the other hand, the public schools in the inner city have failed, and putting more money in those schools is not going to make the children in them successful. This is not about money. This is about basics, like having the Ten Commandments, like having God in school, like having rules, like having regulations, like having discipline. Our rules are basic: no guns, no gangs, no drugs, no sex.

We need something else besides the public schools in the inner city. They are failures but they are kept open by the teacher unions because our politicians won’t make the hard call and take them on. It is absolutely unconscionable. This is America, not socialism: When you fail, you shouldn’t continue.

Clowes: What would be your suggestions for some fundamental changes in those schools?

Gallagher: I think the number one change is that we should re-examine our Founding Fathers and note they usually started every meeting with a prayer. Let’s put God back in the public schools.

The other problem is that the public school monopoly is bankrupt, and throwing more money at it is just waste. In fact, we’ve been doing that for quite some time and all that it’s proven is that money is not the issue. There has to be competition from vouchers and charter schools. I’m 1,000 percent for vouchers.

But most of all, we have to get the word out about what will happen to our country 20 years from now if we continue to produce a workforce that is 50 percent uneducated. We will get a licking from Europe and Asia the likes of which you’ve never seen. This is not just the kids being left behind, this is for us and our future. The United States will be left behind if we’re not careful. We won’t hold on to our markets without leaders in the workforce.

Clowes: What one message would you like to send to policy makers about education issues?

Gallagher: Make the right call. Have the courage to do what you know is right—and that is to open up the whole education system to competition. It isn’t about the separation of church and state, it’s about saving our country.

On the public side, we have inner city high schools that close their doors—lock them—at 2:30 in the afternoon, turning out thousands of children who have no place to go. There’s nobody at home and nobody gives a darn about them in school. What are they going to do? They’re going to join gangs, they’re going to do drugs, they’re going to gang-bang, and a lot of them will end up pregnant or in jail.

On the other side, we have a heroic parochial school system that has kept its schools going. Teachers are way underpaid, but they do it for love of learning, year after year turning out tremendous students with values and love and care and learning, and the politicians don’t give a darn. “We can’t give them anything,” they say.

Yet it is the public schools that are failing. It’s a very serious problem. We have allowed politicians to kowtow to the unions for the votes to stay re-elected. They’ve got to have the courage to make the right decision. Ultimately, they will be judged on the hard calls, not on the easy ones.

In the meantime, I’m so thankful to Cardinal Bernadin for changing my life by getting me involved in Catholic education. It’s very satisfying, and it’s fun. It’s also very touching when a Mexican laborer with gnarled hands comes up to you, whacks you on the chest, and says, “If you ever need a heart, I’ll give you mine.”

We’re having a great time. The students put on a seventh grade dinner, and this year it’ll be all Irish, with corned beef and cabbage. But in previous years we’ve had soul food, Polish food, and we’ve been to Chinatown. It’s beautiful. It’s America. I’m so happy to be involved in the whole process.