Richard J. Daley: A Separate World

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(Page 5: Daley's Education)

An excerpt from "American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley — His Battle for Chicago and the Nation" by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor

Jump to: 1 (Chicago) | 2 (The Neighborhood) | 3 (Irish Immigration)
4 (Daley's Childhood) | 5 (Daley's Education) | 6 (The Athletic Club)
7 (Racism) | 8 (Irish Politics) | 9 (Daley's Early Political Career)

Daley was an obedient student, but not a particularly gifted one. He was "a very serious boy," his teacher Sister Gabriel recalled. "A very studious boy. He played when he played. He worked when he worked. And he prayed when he prayed." In 1916, after graduating from Nativity, Daley enrolled at De La Salle Institute, a three-year Catholic commercial high school known as "the Poor Boy's College." De La Salle was located at 3455 South Wabash, in a poor black neighborhood on the "wrong" side of the racial dividing line separating Bridgeport from the black neighborhoods to the east. Daley's commute brought him into closer physical proximity with the blacks who lived across the railroad tracks, but it did nothing to break down the psychological barriers that still separated him and his classmates from their black neighbors.

De La Salle regarded its location in a black neighborhood as an unfortunate trick of fate, and it made no effort to introduce its young charges to their neighbors. "The school was surrounded by tenements and by low life," De La Salle's Centennial Book says in a blunt entry that captures the prevailing attitude. "It was a white school as an island surrounded by a black sea." Daley traveled to De La Salle in a pack of his fellow Bridgeporters, and quickly made his way out of the neighborhood when school let out.

De La Salle, founded by an Irish immigrant from the Christian Brothers Order named Brother Adjutor of Mary, had a highly practical approach to educating the children of the Catholic working class.

Brother Adjutor believed the best training for a young man with few advantages was intensive instruction in business. De La Salle's curriculum combined Catholic religious studies with commercial courses, including typing, bookkeeping, and business law. The school had actual "counting rooms," and other lifelike replicas of business settings, for students to begin acting out the financial jobs they would one day hold. Daley continued to be a diligent but unremarkable student.

One classmate remembered him as "a hard worker . . . maybe a little above average." Brother Adjutor's educational philosophy worked well for Daley: the business skills he acquired at De La Salle were of considerable help later in life, when his financial skills proved to be a critical factor in his rise up the ranks of the machine. Like Nativity, De La Salle instilled the importance of unquestioning obedience.

The Christian Brothers, imposing figures in long black robes and stiff white collars, instructed with a strictness that at times crossed the line to brutal. "They were good teachers," one of Daley's classmates recalled, "but if you got out of line, they wouldn't hesitate to punch you in the head."

De La Salle's real strength was its extensive efforts to get jobs for its graduates. Most young Irish-Catholic boys coming of age in places like Bridgeport in the early 1900s never made it out of the working class. But De La Salle opened up another world, a white-collar alternative, for its students. As graduation neared, its faculty operated as a kind of Irish-Catholic educational machine — mirroring the Irish-Catholic political machine — in which Brother Adjutor and other instructors drew on their contacts in the business world to find jobs for the "Brother's Boys." Brother Adjutor's reference letters were similar to the ones precinct captains were writing in clubhouses across the city. Because of "the necessity of giving our students a good start in life," went one, "I have for many years past strenuously exerted myself to secure for them good positions in the leading mercantile houses of this and other cities." The school's combination of commercial training and methodical Irish-Catholic networking was a powerful engine for thrusting working-class boys into the upper echelons of the city's power structure. When Daley was elected mayor, he would be the third consecutive mayor educated at De La Salle. The school also produced numerous aldermen, including two from Daley's own graduating class, and many prominent businessmen.

A commemorative book boasted, with only some hyperbole, that "The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton" but "the business leaders of Chicago were trained in the Counting Rooms of De La Salle." As an adult, Daley would remember De La Salle warmly as a place that "taught us to wear a clean shirt and tie and put a shine on your shoes and be confident to face the world."

Daley worked after school and on weekends. When classes let out at 3:30 every day, he traveled to the Loop to wrap packages and act as a department store messenger until the early evening. He also worked on bakery wagons and joined the drivers' union.


Jump to: 1 (Chicago) | 2 (The Neighborhood) | 3 (Irish Immigration)
4 (Daley's Childhood) | 5 (Daley's Education) | 6 (The Athletic Club)
7 (Racism) | 8 (Irish Politics) | 9 (Daley's Early Political Career)

Copyright © 2000 by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of Click here for ordering information for "American Pharaoh" at