The Mike McCaskey most didn’t know — far away from Soldier Field

The Mike McCaskey most didn’t know — far away from Soldier Field
MAY 26, 2020 | 5:23 PM

Mike McCaskey with children in his Peace Corps village in Ethiopia. (Associated Press)

I met Mike McCaskey in the fall of 1965, not at Soldier Field but in Fiche, Ethiopia, a small village perched high on the escarpment above the Blue Nile River, far from the shores of Lake Michigan. Mike was a Peace Corps volunteer assigned to teach in an elementary school. He would live for two years in a tin-roofed, whitewashed house made of dirt and dung and teach in a two-room school. Those two years, he later told me, gave him an entirely new perspective on the world, one for which he was profoundly grateful.

At first, that change wasn’t obvious. After the Peace Corps, he returned to the U.S. and earned a doctorate, spending the next decade teaching at UCLA and Harvard Business School. Then, perhaps inevitably, his family legacy caught up with him and he returned to Chicago, called on by his mother to take over the Bears as president and CEO in 1983 after his grandfather, George Halas, died.

But McCaskey, who died May 16 at 76, never really left Ethiopia. He never forgot the people, his students or the country’s ancient greatness.

In 1984, while head of the Bears, McCaskey became a benefactor, mentor and adviser to the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago. He raised funds to create a state-of-the-art Destiny Computer Training Center for Ethiopians in the city. Knowing Ethiopian immigrants were well educated and yet underemployed, he also created a nine-week entrepreneurship training program. A number of its graduates went on to start small businesses in Chicago, including the well-known Ethiopian Diamond restaurant.

In 1999, during the long-running war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Mike returned to Africa with four other former Peace Corps volunteers — all but one had been volunteers in Ethiopia. Their mission was to promote peace by talking to the leaders of both countries.

Former volunteer, and now U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., remembers their first meeting in Addis Ababa with the foreign minister. After formal greetings, the minister turned to Mike and asked where he had taught as a volunteer. When Mike said “a village near Addis Ababa,” the minister replied, “Fiche.” Mike suddenly recognized the official as one of his elementary school students. After joyous hugs and reminiscences, Mike presented a package of Chicago Bears T-shirts to the foreign minister, who in over 30 years had never forgotten his Peace Corps teacher.

When the long conflict was finally resolved in 2000, the prime ministers of Ethiopia and Eritrea invited Mike and the others to attend the signing ceremony in Algiers, in recognition of the work the former Peace Corps volunteers had done to achieve peace in the Horn of Africa.

After leaving the Bears in 2011, Mike was freer to focus on his three driving interests in Ethiopia: health care, education and leadership training. An opportunity that combined all three presented itself when he read Atul Gawande’s bestselling book “Being Mortal.” He reached out to the physician and, over lunch, learned about his work with the Lifebox Foundation, an organization that aims to improve the safety of surgery and anesthesiology in low-resource countries. In 2017, working with Lifebox CEO Kris Torgeson, Mike created yearly fellowships to encourage young surgical team members in Ethiopia to work on quality-improvement programs in their hospitals. The first McCaskey Safe Surgery Fellows were chosen in 2017 and, today, over 25 fellows benefit from Mike’s efforts. On his last trip to Ethiopia, Mike, a gifted photographer, visited hospitals to document their operating room procedures for Lifebox.

In 2016, Mike was first diagnosed with preleukemia. By early 2020, he was living in isolation in the latter stages of treatment. Mike again turned his attention to the village of Fiche. A university had been built there, but new buildings, Mike knew, do not ensure a quality education. By the time Ethiopian students reach university, it is essential that they be comfortable speaking English, because it is the language of instruction, and also because, once they graduate, they will need the language to compete for jobs in a global economy. And yet, as Mike knew, many students arrive at university with poor English-language skills.

Mike had a vision to change that, by combining technology and student-directed learning. And so, in the last months of his life, he rallied his energy to create The Tenacity Project, named for the powerful quality he saw in the Ethiopian people — and which Mike’s friends had always seen in him. Although Mike is gone, his work, now named The Fiche Project, continues.

Fiche, Ethiopia, and Chicago, USA, are a world apart, yet Mike was comfortable in both places. Mark Foster, a fellow Ethiopia volunteer, remembers visiting Chicago in the 1980s and going to the North Shore to meet Mike for dinner. “I took a commuter train and Mike was on the platform when the train pulled in. A bunch of us got off, but the train didn’t start up again. Mike and I headed for the stairs and, walking by the head of the train, we found the engineer waiting. The train engineer lectured Mike on what to do with the Bears that season. Mike listened politely and nodded, with his usual smiling grace. Eventually the engineer got back in the cab, the train left, and Mike commented, ‘Just like Fiche.’”

As in Chicago, Mike’s African town was full of people — school bureaucrats, the local nobility and Peace Corps staff (such as me) — who were ready to give Mike advice about how he should do his job. Mike didn’t need it. Whether it was dealing with Bears fans or fulfilling his lifelong commitment to the people of Ethiopia, he saw his job clearly and gave everything to it. Rest in peace, Mike.

John Coyne is a novelist living in Westchester, New York. He was in Peace Corps Ethiopia from 1962-67, first as a volunteer and then as an associate Peace Corps director.


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