Front row, left to right, 2008 Book Award Winners Alyse Edwards, Janelle Beadley, Joi Arceneaux and Joanne St. Felix. Back row, Sheridan Merkley and Tracey Gardner (not pictured, Edson Valencia).Photo courtesy of Cherry Foundation

Warren Cherry was a charismatic and influential Evanston educator and community leader whose dedication to enriching the lives of children earned him the respect and love of the many students, teachers, parents and community members whose lives he touched. Known as Mr. Cherry to his beloved students, he had a way of making every child feel special, often referring to them, while principal at Lincoln School, as his “cupcakes” or “superstars.”

After his untimely death in 1990, admirers determined to keep his legacy alive came together to create the Warren W. “Billy” Cherry Scholarship Fund. The fund provides financial assistance for ETHS graduates who wish to pursue an associate’s, bachelor’s or graduate degree in education or youth work. Nearly 20 years after establishing the scholarship in 1992, the fund is stronger than ever: awarding, in 2010, $3,000 grants to eight individual students.

The board strives to identify and award individuals whose circumstances would otherwise make it difficult to realize their dreams to serve others. The selection criteria include success in overcoming poor academic achievement, lack of focus or other hardship.

“We purposefully do not consider a student’s G.P.A when selecting recipients,” says Robert Reece, board president and husband of Patty Cherry Reece, sister of Warren Cherry.

“Our program is unique, because we provide scholarships to people who have overcome challenges,” adds Steve Strauss, board treasurer. “Those challenges might be academic, they might be social or something else, but it allows us to reach out to students who might not typically receive a gift like this.”

The criteria also reflect the essence of who Warren Cherry was as a boy growing up in Evanston. He was known as Billy Cherry, a popular and active boy at ETHS, but not a serious student. Few then recognized his tremendous potential to lead and to help others.

“My brother was always caring and sincere, and people liked him, but he was not the best student,” admits Patty Cherry Reece, chairman of the board and founding member.

Billy Cherry went to barber school after graduation and had a brief career as a barber before enrolling at Trinidad Junior College in Trinidad, Colo. It was there he began to realize his own potential and purpose in life. His education culminated with completion of coursework toward a Ph.D. at Northwestern University. Dr. Cherry’s service to the Evanston community included teaching at Timber Ridge School, serving as associate principal of Skiles Middle School (now Martin Luther King Lab School), and principal of Central and Lincoln Schools. He served on the boards of the ETHS Boosters Club, the Girl Scouts, the Justin Wynn Memorial Fund, the Mental Health Association, the United Way, the McGaw YMCA and was
a tutor for the Salvation Army.

“He did not just talk the talk, he walked the walk and worked to make things better,” says Mr. Strauss.

Sandy Vitantonio, board secretary, who taught at Lincoln School while Dr. Cherry was principal, fondly recalls how he ran his “ship,” sometimes referring to the school as his “Love Boat.”

“He wore a three-piece suit every single day,” says Ms. Vitantonio. “He had a level of professionalism that rendered respect, but he wasn’t intimidating. He could find a comfort level with anyone who walked through his door.”

When Dr. Cherry first became principal of Lincoln School he personally met with every parent, knocking on doors and introducing himself. He treated everyone equally and had a true open-door policy, adds Ms. Vitantonio.

In the spirit of Dr. Cherry, the board made a critical decision to not just hand over the award to the recipients and send them on their way. Once a scholar is selected, one of the 27 board members is assigned to that scholar. He or she will call the student, make an effort to stay in touch, and offer guidance and support.

“A lot of these kids might be the first in their family to go to college,” says Ms. Vitantonio. “They often feel uncomfortable and have a lot of questions.”

“We want the students to know we care, so we tell them that we care,” adds Ms. Cherry Reece.

Recipients are invited to an annual award dinner where they are recognized and honored by the community.

Funds are raised mostly through individual donations and community support. This year, $30,000 was raised, an impressive feat considering the initial goal was to raise just $2,500 the first year.

“The energy and enthusiasm that continues to exist within this scholarship fund is truly remarkable,” says Mr. Strauss. “I have been on a lot of boards. There is always an initial ground swell of people who want to help and then it dies down. That has not been the case here. People who know our students or who knew Warren personally continue to join our board … a true testament to the man who touched so many people in such a short time.”

Dr. Cherry used every opportunity to encourage his young students and his staff to reach for the stars, take chances and never be afraid to fail. Staff writer Anne O’Connor Bodine was one of Dr. Cherry’s many “superstars” at Lincoln School and is personally grateful to the man who believed in her.