here's some earth-shattering good
news happening in the City of Angels that probably won't make
front-page headlines across the nation: A local couple is "having
fun" donating millions of dollars to archdiocesan inner-city
schools, thereby enabling dreams to come true for thousands of
disadvantaged students. John and Dorothy Shea are investing their
time and money into this project because they believe that disadvantaged
kids who attend Catholic schools are likely to become adults who
will make the world a better place.
"Didn't Peter Lynch say in your
magazine [May 1993] that doing this kind of work is fun?"
asks John during a May interview in the spacious living room of
their lovely Pasadena home near the Huntington Library. (Lynch
is a wealthy investor who raises funds for Boston's inner-city
Catholic schools.) "It really is fun. When you invest some
of your time and money in a project that ends up successful and
helps kids-helps the community-it gives you a good feeling."
Fun isn't John's only motivation: "My Catholic faith pushes
me to do what I do, governs my actions," he says.
Saluting Vision and Conviction
John is president and chairman of the
board of the J. F. Shea Company, Inc., an outgrowth of a business
his grandfather began in 1887 in Portland, Oregon. John's dad
and uncle joined the business after World War I. One of their
significant projects during the early 1930's was Boulder Dam (now
called Hoover Dam), named one of this country's seven modern civil-engineering wonders in 1955. Today, John and his cousins, Edmund
and Peter Shea, are co-owners of the company that has built and
sold over 25,000 homes, and has completed heavy-construction projects
in excess of $1 billion throughout the United States.
The extended Shea family is known for
its generosity: "There are five Shea family foundations,"
says John. The John and Dorothy Shea Foundation provided funds
to build kindergartens in 28 archdiocesan schools in low-income
neighborhoods and computer-lab classrooms in 26 of those schools.
(The equipment for the computer labs was funded by the Riordan
Foundation-Richard Riordan is mayor of Los Angeles and was president
of the Archdiocesan Education Foundation.)
The Sheas also funded major additions
to the Verbum Dei High School campus in South Central Los Angeles.
In addition to a new library, new cafeteria, new classrooms and
a new all-purpose center, the athletic facilities (a regulation-size
gym and a regulation-size football field) nearly doubled what
had existed. The school's all-male student body of about 255 gratefully
greeted these improvements at the beginning of the 1995 school
These contributions by the Sheas are
among the many projects that fall under the Archdiocesan Education
Foundation's "Grant the Dream" fund-raising campaign,
completed in 1994. The Foundation's annual report for the 1994-95
fiscal year reports that this campaign raised over $88 million,
designating $65 million for endowment and almost $5 million primarily
for current-use tuition assistance. Donations came from individuals
as well as the business community.
Over 4,000 need-based partial-tuition
grants were approved for the 1995 school year (using the Federal
Lunch Program family income guidelines to determine eligibility--income
for a family of four cannot exceed $19,695 annually). But the
partial grants per student of $600 for elementary school and $1,000
for secondary school don't cover the cost of tuition, and the
tuition charged doesn't cover the cost of educating a student.
The archdiocese says that the average
tuition per student at a parish elementary school is $1,640, while
the actual operating cost to the parish is $1,965. Average archdiocesan
high-school tuition per student is $2,700, while the actual cost
is $3,700. In comparison, the public-school cost per student is
There are 100 archdiocesan inner-city
schools serving 30,000 students: 93 percent are minorities and
eight percent are not Catholic. About 44 percent of students are
Hispanic, eight percent are African American, 15 percent are Asian.
The dropout rate in archdiocesan high schools is only one percent,
with 93 percent of 1995 graduates headed for higher education.
While these numbers may seem quite
impressive, there are still over 5,000 empty seats in inner-city
archdiocesan schools that could be filled if more funds were available
for tuition assistance--Los Angeles is the second-largest city
and metropolitan area in the United States. "In the inner
city they need more students" to fill the classes, confirms
Dorothy Shea. "In the affluent parishes there are huge waiting
Dorothy favors partial tuition assistance,
rather than full tuition grants. "There is a feeling that
people should pay something," which may be one reason why
this program to help
disadvantaged children and their families is successful.
Dorothy's involvement with Catholic
schools goes beyond donating large sums of money. She served as
chairwoman of the Education Foundation's strategic planning committee
and serves on the school board at her parish, St. Philip the Apostle
in Pasadena. Some of the reasons she thinks Catholic schools succeed
are the values and discipline, which includes uniforms (favored
by President Clinton for
public-school students, too).
John Shea was one of five people in
the Los Angeles Archdiocese to whom Cardinal Roger M. Mahony presented
the prestigious Cardinal's Award on February 2, 1996. The program
distributed at the recognition dinner describes this award as
"given annually to extend appreciation and gratitude to persons
who have given extraordinarily of their time, talent or treasure
in ways that benefit the quality of life in our community."
'in the Habit of Giving'
The program quotes John on his priorities:
"The Catholic Church and my family are the most important
things in my life. The main reason we give to the Catholic schools
is because we believe they are more successful in educating disadvantaged
children. They are doing the job. But we also give to public schools.
The Pasadena School District is also very effective. If you have
the wherewithal to improve our community and our country, it's
rewarding to do it."
On presenting the award to John, Cardinal
Mahony said, "John, it is not the success of your company
which we salute tonight, but rather the vision which you and Dorothy
have had for many years, the conviction that it is through education
that disadvantaged children in the inner city will be able to
overcome poverty and become responsible and contributing citizens....Your
faith, your priorities, the values of integrity and love for the
Church, which you and Dorothy have instilled in your eight wonderful
children, are gifts we recognize so vividly in you."
In his response, John included his
wife: "Dorothy and I have been thinking together and working
together for many years on charitable causes, and we did come
to the conclusion about 10 years ago that the most serious problems
we had in this country were the inner cities-this was a tremendous
eye-opener." He recalled statistics which said that over
93 percent of inner-city kids who went to Catholic schools graduated
and went on to higher education, "and we realized that they
were doing a tremendous job with the inner-city children. Let
me advise any of you," he told the crowd of over 850 who
attended the $250-a-ticket, black-tie fund-raiser, "if you
want to help the inner cities, the best place to put your efforts
and your dollars is in the Catholic schools. They are really very,
Cardinal Mahony praised the opportunity
John and Dorothy have given thousands of students. But John turned
the phrase around by saying that he and his wife were the ones
given an opportunity, due to the success of the family business:
"The company has given us the opportunity to help
programs like the Catholic schools in the inner cities."
John and Dorothy's vocabulary consists
more of "we" than "I" when talking about their
family and the projects they work on together. Dorothy laughs
as she recalls how she met John: A friend told her, "I know
this guy whose wife died--he has five children--and I want you to
marry him!" Her friend had exaggerated by one the number
of children: John was a widower with four young children--his wife
had died from lung cancer.
From Preschool Through High School
John Shea and Dorothy Babbitt were
married in 1968, following a short courtship. They added four
more children to their family, for a total of eight: John, Anne,
Jim, Carrie, Allison, Maura, Matt and Dottie. These now-grown
children received much of their education at Catholic schools,
from elementary through college. (Dottie, the youngest, is still
working on her college degree.)
What do the Shea kids think about what
could have been a large part of their inheritance being given
away? John and Dorothy seem surprised by such a question. "I
think they're very pleased with the charitable giving that we
do," says John.
Dorothy adds, "I think they're
proud of us."
"We don't have a real large foundation,"
explains John, "but we don't plan to leave a big foundation.
We like to spend it."
They explain that they don't think
it's a good idea to leave a large amount of money to their heirs.
And they are confident that most of their children are established
in careers and can take care of themselves.
In the future, Dorothy and John intend
to involve their children more in their charitable work. They
both recall being taught the joy of giving by their parents, who
were generous with their wealth, and have tried to pass on that
legacy. "I think it's very good for kids to see their parents
giving," says Dorothy. "Maybe it gets you in the habit
As Dorothy walks through the home where
she and John raised their family, she notes that their collection
of Western artwork reflects her Southwestern heritage: Dorothy
Babbitt Shea grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona, where the Babbitt
name is well known--her cousin Bruce is the U.S. secretary of the
interior. The Shea home has its formal areas, but it also reflects
a place where children and grandchildren are cherished and welcomed:
lots of family photos and plenty of seating space at large tables
in several rooms. It's easy to visualize earlier mealtimes at
the oversized round table with a lazy Susan in the middle, which
no doubt spun out-of-control on more than one occasion.
The Sheas' involvement in funding major
school projects for public and archdiocesan schools in the Los
Angeles vicinity began about seven years ago. "We were thinking
that John was doing so well [in business] that we should be doing
something significant to help the world be a better place,"
Dorothy remembers. They reiterate their concern about the large
number of disadvantaged youth who grow up uneducated in inner
cities riddled with crime, drugs and violence.
John recalls showing Dorothy an impressive
article he read about a successful preschool program in Texas.
"Then we gave Dick Riordan a call because we knew he was
interested in helping schools and disadvantaged children,"
says John. The three of them discussed some of their ideas with
public-school officials in Pasadena.
At the time, Phillip Jordan was superintendent
of the Pasadena Unified School District. Prior to that, he had
a 30-year career in Los Angeles public schools, where he says
he held "a few thousand jobs," including teacher, principal,
regional superintendent and being in charge of court-ordered integration.
Now he is executive director of the Archdiocesan Education Foundation.
During an interview at the Pacific
Dining Car--not far from one of the Cinco de Mayo celebrations
taking place in the City of Angels that first weekend in May--Phil
recalls some of his experiences as an educator. He is joined by
his wife, Marilyn, a retired public-school teacher, and Sister
Mary Jean Meier, R.S.M., archdiocesan director of special services
for Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles.
Phil recalls that when he met John,
Dorothy and Dick to discuss their ideas for Pasadena public schools,
Dorothy stressed the importance of early intervention for low-income
children. "We had a lot of ideas on the shelf that we couldn't
fund," including a prekindergarten program, Phil explains.
The former superintendent remembers his astonishment when, about
10 minutes after the three philanthropists left the spring meeting,
he received word that they wanted to fund the prekindergarten
program for low-income children that had been discussed, and they
wanted to know how soon it could get started. "We'll have
it up in September!" Phil gratefully responded.
Studies show that the four-year-olds
enrolled in this preschool program outperform those in other programs
for this age-group, including Head Start. In addition to their
own contributions, the Sheas and Dick Riordan generated funds
from other benefactors, too. Dorothy cites some reasons why she
thinks this Pasadena program is successful: accredited teachers,
parents who volunteer and teachers who make home visits.
Phil says, "The nice thing about
working with John and Dorothy is that they were hands-on and really
had an interest in how that program was going to be developed:
the program materials, how the teachers were going to be selected
and where it was going to be housed."
As this prekindergarten program in
Pasadena became established, there were still many eligible children
living in three federally financed housing projects who needed
help but weren't registered. "John and Dorothy wanted to
meet with each one of the councils at those housing projects,
tell them what we were trying to do and encourage the people to
get their applications in, because most of the kids would qualify,"
explains Phil. The Sheas spoke at council meetings and also went
to area churches with large minority populations "to make
a pitch, because lots of times these programs are created but
there's no communication."
Phil laughs heartily as he describes
a more recent example of the Sheas doing something significant
for a large public elementary school in Los Angeles that is located
next to Verbum Dei High School. "The Watts riots started
about six blocks from there in 1965," he notes. When the
renovations at Verbum Dei were completed last year, John Shea
looked at the Catholic school and remarked that it made the public
elementary school next door look rather shabby, so he wanted to
paint the outside, if no one would mind. "Mind!" exclaimed
Phil, who had been superintendent of public schools in the South
Central region at one time and knew the unlikeliness that anyone
would come along and offer to fund such a project.
Phil emphasizes that the Sheas do much
more than fund major projects at Verbum Dei: "They are active
participants in the life of that high school. They go to events
at night--a lot of people won't go down there in the daytime! I
think that's a very strong symbol in terms of what it says about
them as individuals: They really are concerned and involved, and
have confidence in those communities."
"The problem with public schools
is complex," Phil explains. "A lot of it has to do with
the politics," such as restrictive teacher contracts and
powerful lobbying by teacher unions. Recalling his own experience
in Los Angeles public schools, he says, "We were all working
pretty hard and had some reasonable outcomes there. But in high
schools today, 50 percent or more students don't finish--they just
disappear! You can't accept that! You can't say that's O.K."
Catholic schools, on the other hand, "are certainly providing
a service that is recognized by a large number of low-income parents
as being superior to what the alternative would be for those kids....There
really is not an alternative for most of those kids!"
Myths and Success Stories
Phil's wife, Marilyn, who has been
rather quiet during the interview until now, is anxious to speak:
"We haven't said anything about parents," the former
public-school teacher emphasizes. Referring to parents who struggle
financially to send their kids to Catholic schools, she says,
"If these parents are willing to put in a little extra money,
then education is probably the big priority in their family."
Marilyn recalls what happened when
she talked their daughter-in-law into switching from teaching
at a Catholic school to teaching at the public school where Marilyn
was teaching at the time: "She was miserable! And she's an
excellent teacher. She said that the rewards of teaching at a
Catholic school were just so much better."
Regarding the parents he has met, Phil
says, "There weren't any parents--and this was true of my
public-school service, too--who didn't want something better for
their kids than they had had: That's a given! I don't care how
poor you are, you want more for your kids than you had."
Thus, parents sacrifice to send their kids to Catholic schools
to give them more options than the parents had, in higher education
and the job market. "They're willing to pay for that, but
there are limits to what they can do!"
These parents receive benefits, too.
Sister Mary Jean knows of women who learned English while volunteering
as first-grade teacher aides for a Hispanic teacher. And she remembers
giving some free Hollywood Bowl tickets to a sister who used the
school van to take 12 parents to the famous entertainment site
that wasn't too many miles from where they lived, yet they had
never been there before.
Phil clarifies one misconception about
Catholic schools: "You know, we don't kick that many kids
out of the schools, contrary to the myths that operate in our
culture" about Catholic schools. "We don't sort and
select kids. Once a kid is enrolled, those principals take great
pride in helping him or her adjust and get through." He recalls
asking one principal at an inner-city high school for girls about
the number of students she has expelled. She responded, "I've
been here six years and I can't remember that we ever expelled-we've
suspended some for a few days."
Having worked in L.A.'s inner-city
public and archdiocesan school systems, Phil compares the two.
At public schools, he says, students eye visitors with suspicion:
"Is he a cop?" "What's he after?" "Who
is this guy?" But at Catholic schools, "They just assume
that everyone who is on the campus is there to help them. It's
a whole different, positive kind of thing--they'll always come
up to you and help you."
Sister Mary Jean recalls such an incident
happening when she took John and Dorothy Shea to St. Michael's,
a predominantly black elementary school. As soon as the visitors'
car pulled into the parking lot, a student came over, introduced
himself and accompanied them to the principal's office. Dorothy
remarked afterward that she was moved by the value system and
the respect for adults that she witnessed.
The Sheas' involvement in helping inner-city
kids isn't limited to academics, notes Sister Mary Jean. A priest
in a largely Hispanic inner-city parish is trying to keep about
2,000 kids out of gangs by getting them involved in sports. The
Sheas are partially funding this program--the priest believes it
is important for the kids to raise some of the funds themselves.
John Shea says, "As long as we
keep making money with our company, we plan to stay involved in
the inner-city schools." The Shea family has a
reputation for building significant things that have a lasting
impact: Hoover Dam continues to supply a steady flow of water
and energy to thousands of people in Los Angeles and beyond, and
for many years to come Verbum Dei High School will energize a
steady flow of students to move beyond L.A.'s inner city.
One of them is Johnell R. Holly,
a black student who graduated from Verbum Dei in 1990 and from
West Point in 1995. Like the Sheas, Johnell is doing something
significant. He describes the importance of his Catholic education
in one of the Education Foundation's publications: "Verbum
Dei Catholic High School was more than just a school to us. 'Verb'
was our home. It was our break from the rigors of inner-city life.
But more than anything, it was ours. We took pride in its
existence. We cared for its grounds. And we demanded that any
visitors do the same. We learned about friendship in its purest
form. We learned that love was an O.K. thing. This education we
could get nowhere else."
Mary Jo Dangel is an assistant editor
of this publication. She and her three children all attended Catholic