One of the things they don’t teach you in new president’s school is how to handle the calls you make to parents with condolences on the death of their child. While serving as president of Harold Washington, I have made these calls more often than I could have imagined. Our students have died from a variety of causes, and none of the calls are easy. They don’t get easier.
Last week, we lost Kevin Baker. By all accounts, Kevin was doing everything we could ask of a young man who had grown up in a troubled South Side neighborhood of Chicago. He cared deeply about his family. He was not involved in gangs. He made the daily trip from Chicago Lawn to Harold Washington College, where he was enrolled for his second semester. Kevin was committed to getting an education and contributing.
The incident, as reported in the press, was further evidence that Kevin was trying to do the right thing. He was a block from home at 4:15 PM, having left Harold Washington after his Thursday afternoon class. When confronted by the robbers, he turned over his phone when asked, without argument, as one is supposed to do.
None of this saved him. The young man known as “college boy” in his neighborhood was shot and killed for reasons we cannot understand. Several of Harold Washington’s faculty and staff have reached out to me, expressing grief that such a dedicated, caring, committed young man is gone. Our Wellness Center Director visited one of Kevin’s classes to offer support. One of his classmates commented that she, too, was regularly harassed by gang members on the walk from her El stop to her house. The loss of Kevin raised the spectre for these students of the risks they face daily.
Members of our community delivered condolences to Kevin’s family at his services this past Thursday. His mother was appreciative that the college had reached out, even while the family struggled to understand and asked for help in identifying Kevin’s killers.
Each time I make one of these phone calls or visits, I am most overwhelmed at the ability of parents to simply function. I know how much it pains our community to deal with the loss of our students. I cannot imagine the multiples of grief that must crush these parents. And I can’t know if, in the face of insurmountable odds, surrounded by violence and poverty, you raise a good son who sees a college education as a way to improve himself, your grief over your loss is even more profound or crushing. I only know that it is important to make the call, to tell the family we are here, we care, and we, too, have lost a special young man. We grieve with them.