• Sun-Times
  • Mayor Harold Washington, shown here in 1986, dropped out of DuSable high school, then earned his degree in an unusual way.

I’m sure Mayor Emanuel cares about Chicago’s children and wants them to have the best schooling possible. But maybe his interest in the city’s schools would be keener if he had a personal history with them—if he himself was a Chicago public school alum. That, however, hasn’t been true of many Chicago mayors.

Emanuel spent his early childhood on Chicago’s north side. His parents sent Rahm and his two brothers not to the neighborhood public school but to Anshe Emet, a Jewish school in Lakeview. Students at Emet got “lots of individual attention and heavy doses of art, music, and theater,” Rahm’s older brother Ezekiel wrote in Brothers Emanuel, his book about the three successful brothers, published a year ago. When Rahm was eight, the family moved to Wilmette, where the brothers continued their superb education in the New Trier Township public school district, whose students were wealthy and white. The brothers ultimately graduated from prestigious New Trier high school.

If Emanuel’s lavish reelection campaign is somehow derailed, the person who replaces him as mayor won’t be a CPS product either. Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, one of Emanuel’s two chief opponents, graduated from Saint Procopius elementary and Saint Rita high school. Alderman Bob Fioretti, the mayor’s other main rival, graduated from Saint Anthony elementary and Mendel Catholic high school.

  • Brian Jackson/Sun-Times
  • Mayor Emanuel’s formal education began at Anshe Emet, a Jewish school in Lake View. His family moved to Wilmette when he was eight, and he graduated from New Trier high school.

I knew that not many CPS alums had ended up in the seat of power on the fifth floor of City Hall, but I wondered how uncommon it actually was. Last week, with the help of Lyle Benedict, ace municipal reference librarian at the Harold Washington Library Center, I learned that it was even rarer than I thought. Over the last 100 years, you can count the CPS high school grads-turned-mayor on one finger. And that lone exception dropped out of high school, completing his requirements later from 7,400 miles away—so Emanuel’s abbreviated finger will suffice.

Ergo, this trip down mayoral lane:

Richard M. Daley (1989-2011), graduated from Nativity of Our Lord elementary and then De La Salle Institute, the cradle of Chicago mayors. De La Salle is a Catholic high school at 34th and Michigan. It was a boys’ school for most of its history, but now also has a girls’ campus at 1040 W. 32nd Place.

Eugene Sawyer (1987-’89) completed elementary and high school in his home town, Greensboro, Alabama; he moved to Chicago when he was 25.

Harold Washington (1983-’87) had an interesting school career. After his mother left the family in the summer of 1926, Harold’s father, a lawyer living on the south side, sent his two young sons, Harold, four, and Edward, six, to a Catholic boarding school in Milwaukee that catered to the children of black professionals. The nuns at Saint Benedict the Moor were strict, and Harold and his brother balked at the regimentation, according to Dempsey Travis’s biography, Harold: The People’s Mayor. They ran away repeatedly, often somehow making it back to Chicago, and after three years their father finally gave up and enrolled them in a Chicago public grade school, Felsenthal, at 41st and Calumet. Harold graduated from another public elementary school, Forrestville, at 45th and St. Lawrence, and then moved on to DuSable, a public high school at 49th and Wabash.

He read avidly on his own but found his classes at DuSable boring, and after his junior year, he dropped out and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. In 1942 he was drafted into the Army. While stationed in the South Pacific during World War II, he completed enough correspondence courses to earn his degree from DuSable. He picked up his diploma upon his return in 1946, when he was 24.

  • Sun-Times
  • Mayor Jane Byrne, in 1979, her first year in office. She graduated from a Catholic grade school and a Catholic high school.

Before Washington:

Jane Byrne (1979-’83): Queen of All Saints elementary; Saint Scholastica High School.

Michael Bilandic (1976-’79): Saint Jerome’s Croatian elementary; De La Salle Institute.

Richard J. Daley (1955-’76): Nativity of Our Lord; De La Salle.

Martin Kennelly (1947-’55): Holden elementary (a Chicago public school); De La Salle.

Edward J. Kelly (1933-’47) attended a Chicago public school until fifth grade, when he quit to work.

Anton Cermak (1931-’33) attended school sporadically in his hometown, Braidwood (about 60 miles southwest of Chicago), before he moved here with his family at 17 and went to work as a railroad brakeman.

William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson (1927-’31), born into a wealthy family, graduated from a Chicago public school, Skinner elementary, then attended a private prep school, Fessenden, that was “popular with wealthy families on the city’s West Side,” according to the biography Big Bill of Chicago.

William Dever (1923-’27) attended public schools in his hometown, Woburn, Massachusetts, through ninth grade, then quit to work in his father’s tannery. He moved to Chicago at age 25.

Before Dever, Big Bill Thompson served his first terms as mayor, from 1915 to 1923.

So that’s 100 years—during which a single Catholic high school, De La Salle, has produced four times as many mayors as all Chicago public high schools combined. Or five times as many, if you count De La Salle grad Frank Corr, the acting mayor for 32 days after Cermak died in office.

  • Sun-Times Media AP
  • Mayor Richard J. Daley with his son Richard M. at a political rally in 1974. Father and son both graduated from Nativity of Our Lord elementary and De La Salle Institute.

Why has private school been a more common stepping stone to the mayor’s office? Kids who attend such schools tend to be privileged to begin with, at least compared with most public school kids—and then the advantages of private schools compound the privilege. This list of mayors, it should also be noted, is a fairly small sample, and it’s skewed by the generations of mayoral dominance by Bridgeport Catholics, for whom De La Salle was the finishing school.

But to return to my initial theory about the implication of this—that a mayor would be inclined to care more about the city’s public schools had he himself attended them: if this indeed has been a factor, it may have disadvantaged CPS for decades. And why wouldn’t it be a factor? Mayors are human, and their own backgrounds surely influence how they govern. Wouldn’t they work harder to help the public schools if the public schools were in their marrow? If Mayor Emanuel had graduated from Wells high school in West Town, for instance, would he now be as strong a supporter of charter schools, given how they’re endangering Wells? (Granted, it might depend on how he felt about his time at Wells; personal experience can work in both directions.)

There’s of course another kind of personal connection mayors can make with CPS: if they have kids of their own, they can send them to a Chicago public school. Commissioner Garcia’s three children are grown, but all three are CPS products. Alderman Fioretti has no children.

And Mayor Emanuel? In Brothers Emanuel, Ezekiel noted that when he and Rahm moved back into the city in the late 1990s, they both sent their kids to Anshe Emet, the private school they’d attended as children. According to Ezekiel, few of Emet’s students had been from rich families when the Emanuel brothers went there in the 1960s, but by the 1990s the enrollment included children of stockbrokers and commodity traders, “even a few Republicans,” and the school seemed “more entitled and snobby.”

Rahm’s three children have left that snobby school behind, though not for a public school. Now they attend the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where tuition is nearly $30,000.