They say Rev. James Close is not much for getting hugs, but whether or not he wants them, this weekend he is apt to get squeezed plenty.
Close, 70 and battling cancer, is retiring from Mercy Home for Boys & Girls after 33 years at the helm of the venerable, 119-year-old orphanage. On Sunday, 1,500 invited guests are expected at a 1 p.m. mass at Holy Family Church in his honor.Seen as a local hero, Close is also something of a national legend to the non-profit agencies that come to him for advice on how to raise millions.
Of course, you might not get a lot of hugs for raising money, but you do for raising kids, especially if those kids come to you broken and you send them out into the world whole.
Along with a crush of dignitaries, scores of alumni who grew up under Close's supervision are expected on Sunday--people who as adults look back with extreme gratitude for their time at Mercy Home and say meeting Close was the most important event in their lives.
One of those is Edward Gamble, who came to Close as a teenage runaway and now, at 40, is a husband and father working as a special investigator for the Illinois attorney general's office. Gamble vowed to embrace Close on Sunday, like it or not.
"Father Close is not the kind of guy you can walk up to and hug," said Gamble. "He likes to joke and is friendly, but you shake his hand and punch him in the shoulder, that's what he likes, not so much hugs. I hug him, anyway, and I want to give him a hug Sunday."
Close never wanted this job. Ordained in 1963, he spent 10 happy years as a priest at St. John Brebeuf in Niles. At 37, he was a tall, physically imposing man with jovial blue eyes and satisfied with parish work.
But Cardinal John Cody interrupted that dream, summoning Close to his office in July 1973. The no-nonsense cardinal came to the point. Rev. Edward "Jake" Kelly, who had headed the home for nearly four decades, was dying of cancer, and Cody wanted Close to take over the home immediately.
Close, who was barely aware of Mercy, was stunned and disheartened at the prospect.
"I am a chicken, at heart," he said. "The next day I told Cody that, after a night of prayer and reflection, I had decided I could not take the job. `Well,' he said, `I prayed and reflected on this last night, too, and you are going to the Mission of Our Lady of Mercy. Tomorrow.'"
The home he inherited had been taking in boys since 1887. It was a three-story building at 1140 W. Jackson Blvd. amid gritty factories and warehouses.
With no experience in child care or running a residential institution, Close had 89 troubled, unruly adolescent boys to look after, many there as a last resort before reform school.
"It took me a year and a half," he said, "before I could begin to think about a long-range plan of what needed to be done."
In 1934, when Kelly took over the home, the Depression had eaten away at most of Mercy's income sources. So Kelly collected phone directories from cities across the country and, every night, made each boy in the home find a likely Catholic name and pen a hand-written appeal for funds.
It was a pioneering effort at direct-mail fundraising. Those who sent money began to get the home's newsletter, The Waifs' Messenger. Studying the newsletter's mailing list 40 years later, Close realized the home had built an emotional bond with hundreds of donors who still sent money, year after year.
Close decided to go back to school--not for a degree in social work or psychology but for an MBA at Notre Dame.
"I saw that there was a very significant business aspect to what we were doing," said Close. "I decided that I could hire social workers to run our programs with kids, but that I wanted to manage the home."
And that is what he has done ever since.