The Volunteer who was Chairman of the Chicago Bears — Mike McCaskey (Ethiopia)

 

A Profile in Citizenship

by Jeremiah Norris (Colombia 1963–64)

 

Mike McCaskey photo: Chicago Tribune

In an article published in the Chicago Tribune on May 26, 2020, John Coyne recalls how he met Mike McCaskey — not at Soldier Field but rather in Fiche (fee CHĀ), 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 John, gave Mike an entirely new perspective on the world, one in which he was profoundly grateful.

After Mike’s Volunteer days were over, he went on and earned a doctorate, spending the next decade teaching at UCLA and Harvard Business School. Then, as John explained, his family legacy caught up with Mike, returning him to Chicago, called on by his mother to take over the Bears as president and CEO in 1983 after his grandfather, George Halas, died.

In 1984, while head of the Bears, Mike became a benefactor 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 very well educated and yet underemployed, Mike 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 restaurant.

In 1999, during the long-running war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Mike returned to Africa with four other RPCVs. Their mission was to promote peace by talking with the leaders of both countries. The former Volunteers remembered 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 “in 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 Bear T-shirts to the foreign minister, who in 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 other RPCVs to attend the signing ceremony in Algiers, in recognition of the work they had done to achieve peace in the Horn of Africa.

After leaving the Chicago Bears in 2011, Mike continued on with activities which were representative of the Peace Corps 3rdGoal.  He focused on his three driving interests in Ethiopia: health care, education, and leadership training. An opportunity that combined all three presented itself when he read a best selling book titled : “Being Mortal’.  He met its author and 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’s CEO, Mike created yearly fellowships to encourage young surgical team members in Ethiopia to work on quality improvement programs in their hospitals. The first McCaskey Save Surgery Fellows were chosen in 2017 and, today over 25 Fellows have benefited from Mike’s efforts.

Although a university had been built in the village of Fiche, Mike knew that new buildings don’t ensure a quality education. By the time a student reaches a university, it is essential that they be comfortable speaking English because it is language of instruction, and also because once they graduate, they will need this language to compete for jobs in a global economy. Mike had a vision in which he could change that by combining technology and student-directed learning. So, he created the Tenacity Project, so named for the powerful quality he saw in the Ethiopian people.

Although Mike had been the President and CEO of one of the National Football League’s most illustrious and profitable teams, nonetheless he reached back to use his talents and wealth for the benefit of those less fortunate. The day that Mike gained an “entirely new perspective on the world” when overlooking the Blue Nile River, he then went on to apply it to the Peace Corps 3rdGoal during his entire professional life., earning him a well-deserved Profile in Citiznship.

 

 

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