Chicago Visionaries: Daniel Burnham, MLK and Fr. Chris Devron

His biggest installation (the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1892) is long gone except for a few city parks and his Flatiron Building graces another city but architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham lives on in the minds of many Chicagoans for this famous quote:

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.”

Anyone who toils in any remotely-creative endeavor knows the honest insight of his adage, even if we so rarely seem to live it.  In these times of economic uncertainty and shaken confidence, when fear runs roughshod through the collective national psyche, commissions retreat toward ‘smaller plans.’

But not always.  On Martin Luther King Day yesterday, my wife and I attended the dedication of Christ the King College Prep on Chicago’s West Side with our younger daughter (the older one had to study for finals).  There, amidst the economic blight of West Jackson Boulevard, shines a brilliant new high school designed by John Ronan Architects on a site that long held vacant, boarded-up tenements.  It is a 100,000 square foot jewel sparkling through the heavy smog of diminished hopes and long abandoned expectations.  This is the twentieth inner city school built on the innovative Cristo Rey model of local businesses collaborating with private education.  CtK students work at Chicago-area companies five days a month to offset a major part of their annual tuition while gaining critical exposure to the corporate world.  These students attend longer school days and work through a longer school year and in the end, nearly 98% of these graduates do go to college.

This stunning new facility is the responsibility of Fr. Chris Devron, SJ; a good-humored, deeply-dedicated guy with an easy going charisma.  He lives in the same West Side neighborhood Dr. King moved to in 1966 to highlight the plight of the poor and expose injustices like racial steering.  And Chris has taken a similarly committed path, graduating from Notre Dame in ’89, then earning a dizzying array of degrees from Loyola University, Weston Jesuit, Harvard Divinity and Xavier in New Orleans.  He’s worked in Harlem and Brooklyn, earning a long list of honors he never bothers to mention.

But he will talk about his dreams for the Austin neighborhood.  He’ll tell you how the need is overwhelming; despite the 14,000 high school age youth in the area, local schools have only 7000 school spaces.

Yesterday, his dreams officially came to life with singing and dancing and prayers and celebrations.  But amidst all the joy, I was thunderstruck by a casual mention that this state-of-the-art school cost $28 million…

–and they still have $17 million left to raise.

Now I understand the Jesuits have built a business on education and incredible acts of faith, but this singular example of steadfast courage blows my mind.  And yet if it bothers Fr. Chris, he’s strong enough to shield any uncertainty.  As he said when they broke ground a year and a half ago, “”Today, it is the power of hope that breaks ground to create Christ the King.”  He is unwavering in his faith that the money has come and will continue to come, despite the conventional wisdom that investing money in this neighborhood is a foolish waste of resources.  And because he believes, so do we.

It’s so easy to let faith in our dreams lapse, but that faith must be protected.  Dreams fuel innovation, they power change and growth and heart-stirring accomplishments.  Like lifting a lost neighborhood on your back and carrying it until it can get back on its own feet.

Big dreams cost big money, but first and foremost, they demand time and commitment.

And faith.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

One thought on “Chicago Visionaries: Daniel Burnham, MLK and Fr. Chris Devron

  1. Joe Ryan says:

    This has to be one of my favorite posts. Fr. Chris is a true leader and a shining light. This article, Dennis, was the clearest, most heart felt writing I have ever read of yours (of course I am not a marketing person) – KUDOS.
    Faith is priceless, brother.


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