John O'Neill'79 spoke to current Ritamen and their grandparents as the Alumni Guest Speaker at the All-School Mass this morning. O'Neill, who is currently serving St. Rita as Director of Institutional Advancement, spoke about coming home to St. Rita and the life lessons he learned during his four years. Full text of his speech is below.
Good morning, and welcome to our Grandparents, alumni and other friends of St. Rita. Are there any Ritamen Grandfathers in the chapel? Welcome home, guys. As Father said, my name is John O’Neill and I have recently ‘come home’ to St. Rita after 30-years in the business world. Even though our address has changed since I graduated in 1979, the feeling and family atmosphere that makes St. Rita such a special place hasn’t changed a bit. In my new role as Director of Institutional Advancement here at school, I’m asked a lot by donors and alumni if the family atmosphere is any different than it was back in their day, and I’m glad to tell them it’s alive and well at 77th and Western.
I grew up in the Scottsdale section of St. Bede’s, long before Josh Blaszak used to roam those same streets. While at St. Bede’s I played football and basketball and was a decent student. Back then, St. Bede’s was a pretty unique place because, upon graduation, if your parents couldn’t afford a Catholic education, you went to Bogan High School. Otherwise, girls usually went to Queen of Peace and boys went to St. Laurence. It’s just the way it was – we all came from big families and you followed your brothers or sisters. In my case, I had a brother who was a Junior at St. Laurence and another who was a teacher and a football coach, so it was a ‘slam dunk’ I was going to St. Laurence.
In Scottsdale we were all pretty much the same people in our same comfort zones: We were all Sox fans, we hated the Cubs, we played 16” softball, we didn’t care for St. Denis to the east, the Burbank kids to the west and never ventured north of 79th Street. We went to the St. Laurence football games and learned the fight song at a very young age.
Little did my family know, though, that I didn’t really want to go to St. Laurence even though my family was there. I only knew 2 guys that were then enrolled at St. Rita, but I had heard (and this was long before smart phones, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – social media in general) there were some pretty good student athletes from the Southwest Conference where I played that were considering St. Rita and, if they all went, I thought we just might have a pretty good football team one day.
My mother, of course, wanted me to go to St. Laurence for obvious reasons and, like the smart man he was, my dad stayed out of it but would support whatever decision I made. St. Laurence had won three consecutive Prep Bowls (long before the State playoffs) and hadn’t lost a game in a couple years. The best student athletes from the south side were flocking to St. Laurence and most of my friends were going there for sure, but I still wasn’t sold on it.
After a long week leading up to the test, I had to break the news to my Mom that I was going to go to St. Rita and wondered if SHE’D be the one to call my brother and tell him I wasn’t going to St. Laurence. That didn’t turn out so well for me. . . .
Needless to say, things were pretty interesting the next few weeks back in Scottsdale. “You took the test at Rita?” “Rita’s going to close”. “You know who goes to Rita – kids that can’t get in anyplace else.” “Only greasers go to Rita”. (You’ll have to ask your parents or grandparents what “greasers” were).
I went anyway. . . .
The summer of 1975 passed and it was time to head to St. Rita stadium for freshman football tryouts. We were to be in the stadium the first day at 8:00 am sharp, where we were greeted by Father Lew and Father McGrath, our coaches. I walked in the stadium and couldn’t believe it! I had never seen a place quite like this place: a dirt football field surrounded by a 10 foot high fence on the south end, a brick wall on the west side and cyclone fences on the other two sides. This looked more like a prison exercise yard than a football stadium. I was wondering if it was too late to transfer to St. Laurence.
We had to line up and say our names and where we were from: St. Rita Parish, St. Mary Star of the Sea, St. Agnes, St. Gall, St. Nick’s of Tolentine, St. Adrian, St. Clare de Montefalco, St. Steven, St. Joe’s and St. Anne, St. Gabes, St. Bruno, Five Holy Martyrs. Who were these people? Where were these places? Where were all the guys from St. Gerald’s, St. Denis, Christ the King – ‘ya know, the southside parishes?
Needless to say, I was a long way from my comfort zone in Scottsdale.
I was a decent student while I was here, and I still remember when dividing fractions, I need to invert and multiply (thanks to Mr. Lasky), I remember the secret of wealth is achieved by paying yourself first (thanks Mr. Jeffrey) and I can still balance chemical equations (thanks to Mrs. Krystof), who, along with Mrs. Hopkins, are both products of Scottsdale Avenue and Queen of Peace! My parents (grandparents to my sons Dan, ’09 and Mike, ’11), were they alive today, would be pleased I still remember those rules long after my graduation from St. Rita.
These days, though, except for helping my daughter with her homework, I don’t divide many fractions, only occasionally read balance sheets and income statements and don’t balance chemical equations any more (I did last year!), so I can’t say I use those portions of my education any more. Instead, every day I come to work, talk to an alumni or donor or officiate a football game, I draw upon my experiences and life lessons I learned a long time ago while a student here at St. Rita.
I guess you can say St. Rita is where my world met the real world. . . . .
Look around you: you are surrounded by kids from 158 different parishes, from places like Schaumburg, Elgin, West Chicago, Lincoln Park, Homer Township and Lakeview. They are of different races, colors, creeds, shapes, sizes and political beliefs, just like I was almost 40 years ago. When your time here at St. Rita is up and you either head off to college or enter the working world, you’ll quickly realize your time here at St. Rita has given you a SIGNIFICANT advantage because – guess what – you’re going to be asked to work side-by-side with people of different races, colors, creeds, shapes, sizes and political beliefs – and your success and livelihood are going to depend on them. You’re doing it on a daily basis today, so you’re way ahead of the game. By choosing to attend St. Rita, you not only receive a great classroom education, you’re learning life’s lessons each day you enter the building.
Two months ago Mr. Mrozek asked me to come back to St. Rita to become the Director of Institutional Advancement. I jumped at the chance. How could I not come home and give back to the place that has been so good to my dad, my sons and me? My first few days of work were very similar to my first few days of football camp: I had never met the majority of the people I was working with, but we are all working toward the same common goal: to make St. Rita High School the place where kids from all over want to attend for the same great education and head start on life I got and you’re getting.
By the way, those guys with the funny names from those faraway parishes I was so concerned about? We figured out a way to come together as a team and ultimately win the 1978 State Football Championship. Many are still friends to this day; a few of them are your dads or uncles.
Hopefully, many of you in this church will get the same chance I had, to send your sons to St. Rita and come back and give any way you can.