They say Rev. James Close is not much for getting hugs, but whether or not he wants them, this weekend he is apt to get squeezed plenty.
Close, 70 and battling cancer, is retiring from Mercy Home for Boys & Girls after 33 years at the helm of the venerable, 119-year-old orphanage. On Sunday, 1,500 invited guests are expected at a 1 p.m. mass at Holy Family Church in his honor.Seen as a local hero, Close is also something of a national legend to the non-profit agencies that come to him for advice on how to raise millions.
From an impoverished orphanage caring for 89 tough, troubled urban boys in a worn-out 19th Century building, Close built an institution with two sparkling campuses and a $31 million annual budget--98.2 percent of it raised privately.
Of course, you might not get a lot of hugs for raising money, but you do for raising kids, especially if those kids come to you broken and you send them out into the world whole.
Along with a crush of dignitaries, scores of alumni who grew up under Close's supervision are expected on Sunday--people who as adults look back with extreme gratitude for their time at Mercy Home and say meeting Close was the most important event in their lives.
One of those is Edward Gamble, who came to Close as a teenage runaway and now, at 40, is a husband and father working as a special investigator for the Illinois attorney general's office. Gamble vowed to embrace Close on Sunday, like it or not.
"Father Close is not the kind of guy you can walk up to and hug," said Gamble. "He likes to joke and is friendly, but you shake his hand and punch him in the shoulder, that's what he likes, not so much hugs. I hug him, anyway, and I want to give him a hug Sunday."
Close never wanted this job. Ordained in 1963, he spent 10 happy years as a priest at St. John Brebeuf in Niles. At 37, he was a tall, physically imposing man with jovial blue eyes and satisfied with parish work.
But Cardinal John Cody interrupted that dream, summoning Close to his office in July 1973. The no-nonsense cardinal came to the point. Rev. Edward "Jake" Kelly, who had headed the home for nearly four decades, was dying of cancer, and Cody wanted Close to take over the home immediately.
Close, who was barely aware of Mercy, was stunned and disheartened at the prospect.
"I am a chicken, at heart," he said. "The next day I told Cody that, after a night of prayer and reflection, I had decided I could not take the job. `Well,' he said, `I prayed and reflected on this last night, too, and you are going to the Mission of Our Lady of Mercy. Tomorrow.'"
The home he inherited had been taking in boys since 1887. It was a three-story building at 1140 W. Jackson Blvd. amid gritty factories and warehouses.
With no experience in child care or running a residential institution, Close had 89 troubled, unruly adolescent boys to look after, many there as a last resort before reform school.
"It took me a year and a half," he said, "before I could begin to think about a long-range plan of what needed to be done."
In 1934, when Kelly took over the home, the Depression had eaten away at most of Mercy's income sources. So Kelly collected phone directories from cities across the country and, every night, made each boy in the home find a likely Catholic name and pen a hand-written appeal for funds.
It was a pioneering effort at direct-mail fundraising. Those who sent money began to get the home's newsletter, The Waifs' Messenger. Studying the newsletter's mailing list 40 years later, Close realized the home had built an emotional bond with hundreds of donors who still sent money, year after year.
Close decided to go back to school--not for a degree in social work or psychology but for an MBA at Notre Dame.
"I saw that there was a very significant business aspect to what we were doing," said Close. "I decided that I could hire social workers to run our programs with kids, but that I wanted to manage the home."
And that is what he has done ever since.
Mercy Home is independently run but falls under the authority of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago--similar to the Maryville Academy and Misericordia facilities.
Donors, who poured in $25.6 million last year, have helped expand the home considerably. Mercy now owns nearly the entire block on which it sits; the new main residence for boys is in a renovated warehouse.
The money allowed a girls residence to open up in the former Walgreen family mansion at 116th Street and Longwood Drive, and widened the age groups the Mercy Home serves. The home currently has 132 children who attend 53 city and suburban schools.
More than 22,000 kids have moved through Mercy Home in its history, including about 9,000 during Close's tenure. To help them with money and support in college and vocational training, Close created an unusual "aftercare" program that provides continued services.
Gamble praises the home and Close for keeping in touch years after he left--including when his National Guard unit was called up in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and when he decided to get married.
"He is incredible," Gamble said of Close. "He has always been there for me in each big change of my life. He married me and my wife in the Boys Home chapel. That's how connected I feel to the place. ... We have a daughter who is 11 years old and two boys, 8 and 3, and they all have visited the home and know Father Close."
Gamble was 14 when he ran away after a fistfight with his mother's abusive boyfriend in the family's Cabrini-Green apartment in 1980. For a year and a half, he lived on rooftops in warm weather and rode the "L" all night in winter, stealing food to survive.
He was a smart kid, but the stress of living on the street got him kicked out of Wells High School. After a year out of school, he got himself enrolled into a program for dropouts and found a part-time job, but still had no place to live.
One day in 1982 he went to see a probation officer who was working with a friend, to see if she could get him into a foster care facility. Instead, she told Gamble about the Mercy Home.
"I walked over there that day and knocked on the door," he said.
Gamble was just the kind of kid that Mercy tries to help, somebody in trouble but highly motivated.
"They said they'd give me a room, a desk, a closet and three squares a day," said Gamble. "I asked how much I'd owe them. To me, it was an unbelievable place."
The home arranged for him to transfer into De La Salle, a Catholic high school, and paid his tuition. He graduated with honors in 1984, and the home helped him select a college, University of Illinois at Chicago, and provided financial assistance. He graduated with a degree in criminal justice.
Gamble's story is not unusual at the Mercy Home. A lot of kids came there from backgrounds even more harrowing than his, yet hundreds have gone on to universities and colleges all over the country. Even more have gone through trade schools and apprenticeships leading to good-paying careers.
"We measure success by how our kids get an education, acquire the work ethic, find a job, fall in love, get married and nurture their kids," said Rev. Scott Donahue, 52, whom the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin named 11 years ago as Close's assistant and successor.
Close's business acumen certainly has played large in Mercy's triumphs, but he and his staff say the real key was his early decision to stop taking contracts to care for children who were wards of the state.
That choice was risky and--to some--foolhardy because it eliminated the home's main income source: state funding. But it also freed the home from standardized dictates, allowing Close to choose which children to admit and how to treat them.
Each prospective resident of the Mercy Home undergoes testing to evaluate the child psychologically, emotionally, socially and intellectually. Only three out of eight qualify.
The home will not take children with psychoses, fire starters, those who refuse to quit gang life and those with IQs under 80, because they would lack verbal skills needed for the home's intensive, mandatory group therapy sessions.
The testing process costs $2,500 for each child, paid for by Mercy. The home's staff works to find suitable treatment facilities for those children it rejects.
Once accepted, a child enters a treatment regimen that closely involves the school the staff selects for that child to attend.
"It's important that they learn to operate and navigate successfully in school," said Tita Yutuc, Mercy's head of youth programs.
Each child lives on a floor housing eight to 12 kids, sharing a well-appointed room and bathroom with one other child. Social workers staff each floor 24 hours a day and run the nightly therapy sessions.
Those sessions can be painful, which Close says accounts for the fact that about a third of those who are admitted later quit Mercy. "When a kid succeeds here, it's been after lots of struggle," said Close.
Slowed now by age and illness, Close admits his energy isn't what it used to be, but his eyes still sparkle with merriment. He says he's going to "try retirement on like a new suit."
"I don't know what I am going to do," he said. "I will live part of the year here at the home, part of it down in Florida, where much of my family has moved, but I will help out when asked, meet with donors when asked and otherwise stay out of Father Scott's way."
Children's problems, he says, are not going away. "Kids coming to the home today are more damaged or more wounded, and with far more complex problems, than those that were coming here when I first came to the home," Close said.
Child-care professionals say his legacy goes beyond what he accomplished at the home.
"We're going to miss him dearly," said Margaret Berglind, executive director of the Child Care Association of Illinois. "He has been one of our great leaders."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun