The Warren “Billy” Cherry Scholarship Fund organization turns 30 this year. The numbers tell the story: Over that time more than 330 scholarships have been awarded providing more than $1 million in educational funding. The first scholarship, for $2,500, was granted in 1993, three years after the untimely death of Warren Cherry, a beloved educator in Evanston.
At the April 2023 scholarship award dinner, 23 scholars were awarded a total of $130,000 in scholarships, the most ever, ranging from $1,500 to $6,650, according to Robert “Bob” Reece, Cherry’s brother-in-law and president of the fund.
It’s an extraordinary accomplishment for a nonprofit that has no paid staff, all to honor the legacy of the man felled by cancer at the age of 47. Awardees are deserving ETHS graduates who have successfully overcome academic or personal challenges and are pursuing a full- or part-time college program in education or youth work. Scholarships are awarded for one year, but students are encouraged to apply each year they are still in school.
The determination to thrive and be resilient
Take Nathan Norman, for example, He is a workforce development manager in Evanston’s Department of Health and Human Services and a four-time Cherry scholarship recipient. He graduated from ETHS in 2001 “without a plan,” he said. Within a few years, he faced adverse circumstances including incarceration, but eventually decided to pursue education and get his life back on track.
“In 2016, the people at the Warren Cherry Scholarship Fund embraced me when I shared my journey with them. They said the scholarships were for people like me – late bloomers who overcame challenges and adversity, people with resiliency who wanted to give back,” said Norman.
“The scholarship meant more than money to me,” he continued. “It meant I am part of something bigger than myself, and it gave me an impetus to succeed.”
After two years at Oakton Community College, he completed his bachelor’s degree at Northeastern Illinois University, graduating summa cum laude. Norman continued at Northwestern University, graduating with a master’s degree in public policy and administration in 2022. Norman completed each of his degrees while working full-time.
Education as a pathway
Reece described Cherry “as a good kid but not a serious student. He barely got out of ETHS.” He was extremely popular, perhaps even charismatic, but had no interest in going to college, according to Reece’s sister, Patty, who is chairman of the fund. Cherry went to school to learn how to be a barber and practiced that profession.
But after a couple of years, Patty said he wanted more out of his life. He had friends from Evanston who had attended Trinidad State College in Trinidad, Colorado, a public two-year college close to the Rocky Mountains. There wasn’t much to do there besides study, so he felt there wouldn’t be any distractions. He enrolled and dug into his books.
Two years later, he graduated from Trinidad and enrolled in Adams State University in Alamosa, Colorado, graduating with his bachelor’s degree in education, and then stayed on to complete his master’s in education.
After graduation, Cherry returned to the Midwest and got a job teaching on the South Side of Chicago. After a year there, he was hired by District 65 and started teaching fourth grade at Timber Ridge School (now Bessie Rhodes Magnet School) and after a few years was moved up to the position of associate principal of Skiles Middle School, now Martin Luther King Lab School.
As his career advanced, he became the principal of Central School until it closed in 1979, then was appointed to Lincoln Elementary School as its principal.
‘The ultimate leader’
That summer, Cherry got a list with the addresses of all the families who had children who would be attending Lincoln. He went to each home, knocking on doors and introducing himself to the families and meeting their children. It’s a story still talked about when people mention Warren Cherry.
Anne Bodine was in second grade when Cherry started at Lincoln.
“He knew every student’s name and story,” said Bodine, the RoundTable’s community events editor. “He was the ultimate leader. Every day he wore a three-piece suit and a big smile. He was adored and respected by everyone. He prioritized what was best for the students and what would enable them to learn. He called Lincoln his ‘Love Boat’ and the students were his ‘superstars.’
“He could make you feel safe and comfortable. When I think of him, I think of someone strong and powerful, but also warm and fuzzy. It was just a special time to be at Lincoln,” said Bodine.
Billy had transformed into Warren, the name he’d be known by professionally. He was in the prime of his life: happily married with two young children, and working in education. He was also working on his doctorate in education at Northwestern University.
Not bad for a kid who barely got through ETHS.
Cherry Scholars continue to give back to Evanston
The Reeces said that there are numerous Cherry scholars living and working in Evanston as teachers, coaches, school and city administrators, and police officers.
One of those is Rudy Meo, the director of business services at ETHS and an assistant coach for the school’s men’s basketball program. Meo received a Cherry scholarship more than a decade after graduating from ETHS, where he was a star athlete on the basketball team.
Meo was interested in pursuing his Masters in Business Administration but didn’t think he could afford it. Bob Reece encouraged him to apply for a scholarship. The scholarship helped him to pursue an online MBA from Western Governors University during the pandemic while he was working full-time.
“I am thankful for the Warren Cherry Scholarship Fund for helping people like me take advantage of educational opportunities,” said Meo. “I feel driven to accomplish and give back to the Evanston community.”
Bob Reece said the board’s goal is to have the resources to be able to provide $150,000 in scholarships every year. One of the ways the organization raises money is through its annual golf fundraiser. This year’s outing will take place on Monday, June 26, at the Wilmette Golf Club. More information and registration is available here.
Warren “Billy” Cherry was a blessing for our 3 daughters and our entire family… Mr. Cherry “empowered ” his staff, parents and especially his “super stars”
His investment in our children and in Evanston continues to pay wonderful dividends through the scholarships given in his name.