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A School Principal with Principles – Warren Cherry

Posted in ChicagoNow, July 11, 2014

My mentor, Warren Cherry, died on July 11, 1990, twenty-four years ago, but his legacy lives on. A scholarship that bears his name is awarded every year to a graduating high school senior who needs encouragement to enter teaching or another profession that benefits children. A preschool that bears his name carries on his tradition of creating a sense of community for children, parents, and teachers.

Warren Cherry impacted so many lives. Children who passed through the halls of Central and Lincoln schools in Evanston, Illinois under his leadership and students awarded the Warren “Billy” Cherry Scholarship have gone on to become educators. And Warren touched my life in countless ways and helped shape my views on education.

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

The Cherry Story by Susan Hope Engel on Vimeo.

I so clearly remember the first time I met Warren. It was in the summer of 1979 and 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?

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 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 kids 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.”

Many years later, I invoked a version of Warren’s thinking as Director of Cherry Preschool. 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. Often, 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.

The leadership in our schools today could learn a lesson from Warren. 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 associates, bachelors, 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.

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 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. His example reminds us to join with others to serve children and our community.


by Laurie Levy
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