Warren Cherry: A School Community Builder Who Never Bowled Alone

My mentor, Warren Cherry(scroll down to view a film about his life), died on July 11, 1990, long before people shared almost everything with their online communities, but I am certain he would have agreed with Robert Putnam that people need to connect with each other in person around a common purpose.  Bowling Alone, a book by Robert Putnam (2000), lamented the decline of community engagement.   Fewer people were involved in organizations like PTA, civic groups, clubs, unions, or even interested in politics and voting.  While more Americans were bowling, most of them were “bowling alone.”

Putnam believed the lessening interest in membership in groups and participation in community and civic activities had a profound impact on interpersonal relationships in general and was changing the nature of life in America.  Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page agreed, noting back in 2006 that the Internet was starting to have an enormous impact on real face-to-face conversations.  As Page stated, “the more we Americans are connected to the world, the less we seem to personally connect with each other.”

Of course, between 2006 and the present, the Internet has had an even more profound impact on our social connections.  We are “virtually” connected to a huge number of “friends” (over 500 is not uncommon!) and belong to many groups in which we share our most intimate thoughts with people we never meet.  More time spent communicating via Facebook, texts, and Twitter means even less time experiencing actual give-and-take, face-to-face time with family, friends, and neighbors.

Warren Cherry

Warren Cherry

That was never Warren Cherry’s way of community building.  The first time I met Warren was in the summer of 1979 when I was in front of my house with my kids who were probably 8, 6, and 2.  A man approached me, reached out his hand, introduced himself as the incoming principal of Lincoln School, and handed me the start-of-school packet.  I will never forget the warmth of that greeting and how excited and awed my kids were.  Who had ever heard of a principal who came to your house to meet you?  When my daughter received a birthday card from him that November (he never missed one, even those that fell in the summer), we were no longer surprised by his hands-on approach to all of us lucky enough to be on his “Love Boat” (Am I dating myself?).

During the first year of his tenure as principal of Lincoln School, Warren taught me a profound lesson about educational priorities.  At that time, I was the PTA volunteer in charge of the Bookery, a school book store that enabled children to buy or swap books.  Our location in the foyer in front of the auditorium made it easy for some students to steal books and hide them under the seats in the auditorium, retrieving them on their way home.  Once I caught on to this scam, I went to Warren for advice about how to catch the perpetrators and stop them.  While Warren made it clear that he didn’t condone stealing, I’ll never forget him saying, “There are far worse things to steal than a book.”  His empathy for a child who had to steal a book to possess one taught me to overlook minor infractions and bend the rules if the result was good for children.  Many years later, I invoked a version of Warren’s thinking as Director of Cherry Preschool whenever I decided to fill an opening with a child whose family could not pay tuition or to keep in school a child whose family owed us money.  The needs of a child always trumped strict adherence to the rules.

Mr. Cherry in the background (behind me and youngest daughter) cheering on my older daughter's Brownie troop

Mr. Cherry in the background (behind me and my youngest daughter) cheering on my older daughter’s Brownie troop

Following my stint at Bookery, I was PTA President of Lincoln School and by then I was totally enamored with Warren’s style of leadership.  He created a true community in which staff and parents worked together on behalf of the children, his beloved “superstars.”  He always had time for a warm greeting and loved to mingle with the children and chat up the parents.   Even though I completed a master’s degree in Early Childhood Leadership and Advocacy, everything I learned about running a school came from Warren’s example.  The man was truly amazing, serving on numerous community boards and actually doing hands-on work rather than just lending his name to the list of executive board members.

Shortly after Warren died, a group of people from the Evanston community he loved and served so well created the Warren W. “Billy” Cherry Scholarship in his memory.  Its mission: to perpetuate Warren’s total acceptance of all people, his commitment to the highest standards of educational excellence, and his energetic dedication to enriching the children and institutions of Evanston. Each year, scholarship money is awarded to recent or past graduates of Evanston Township High School who need financial assistance to achieve their dreams of pursuing associate’s, bachelor’s, or graduate degrees in education or youth work.  In particular, the scholarship is awarded to students who have overcome poor academic achievement or other hardships; who demonstrate leadership, sensitivity, compassion, commitment, and love of children; and who have a commitment to community involvement.

If you have 30 minutes to spare, please watch this film.  I promise it will inspire you and be be well worth your time.

The Cherry Story for Vimeo from Video by Susan Hope Engel on Vimeo.

In addition to the scholarship fund, I was deeply honored to name my fledgling early childhood program for him.  So much of what Cherry Preschool ultimately became reflected this kind and empathic man.  There is a saying that has been part of Cherry Preschool since its beginnings: “Creating a caring community starts here.”  Warren Cherry’s impact on the preschool that bears his name is to create a true community in which parents can put down their iPhones and stop “bowling alone.” Cherry parents know that when they reach out their hand in friendship to others, they will discover the old cliché is true – you always receive more than you give.

Warren’s legacy is still relevant today – it is far more rewarding to bowl with others.

To make a donation in honor of Warren Cherry and the ideals by which he lived, go to:

Cherry Preschool

The Warren “Billy” Cherry Scholarship Fund

Please share your story of someone who made a difference in your community.


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