October 4, 2012
Jeremy Clark is a serious young man from a serious neighborhood: Roseland on the South Side, the kind of place most of you see only from a distance, in a crime story.
Blue cop lights flashing, yellow police tape on the trees, angry neighbors mingling, reporters asking about the dead.
Jeremy, 16, has friends who've turned to the gang life. But his grandmother wanted him on a different path, so she sent him to Leo High School, a Roman Catholic school on 79th Street where all the boys graduate and all are accepted into college.
That's where I met him a few weeks ago, while reporting a column about schools that weren't on strike in Chicago. The boys I interviewed talked about becoming doctors, biologists, architects, veterinarians, engineers, teachers. One told me about his dream.
"I want to study criminal justice and join the FBI," said Jeremy, a junior, "because I want to be an advocate for justice. It's been a dream all my life to join the FBI, and I will."
There were many letters and notes about that column from readers. But there was one in particular, from the FBI. Special Agent Ted McNamara, who runs the organized crime squad. He read about Jeremy's dream, as did other FBI agents. And they did something about it.
They invited Jeremy and a couple of his classmates — and Dan McGrath, the president of Leo, my friend and a former Tribune sports editor — on a tour of the FBI headquarters on Roosevelt Road.
Jeremy wanted to go into law enforcement since he was a little boy, devouring TV shows like "Cops," "Law & Order," "Criminal Minds" and "CSI." When he heard about McNamara's invitation, he thought at first someone was playing a practical joke.
"But it turned out to be real," he said, adding that he'd never met an agent in person before. "It was a dream come true to go on a tour and meet an agent in real life. …I could see myself walking with a badge through the hallway. It showed me where I could be in 10 or 15 years."
The students dusted for fingerprints and toured the gun vault, with the agents showing them guns recovered from the Chicago gang wars of past and present. The students put on SWAT equipment and studied models of crime scenes. They toured a library of closed files — all the paperwork from closed cases — including one case that rocked Chicago's criminal and political worlds in recent years: the Family Secrets case, the case that sent mob bosses and hit men to prison for life.
There was something else. The diversity. It wasn't all white guys in wing-tips.
"They saw a really diverse group working there, a lot of women," said McGrath. "I thought it was representative of the United States. These were real people."
The Chicago FBI headquarters, only a few years old, rises above the old West Side, gleaming high-tech, glass and stone, lording over a tired part of town. There is nothing showbiz or Hollywood about it. And there is nothing glitzy about professionals like McNamara, whose methodical ways and attention to detail — not TV flash and dash — terrify the Chicago Outfit bosses and other gangsters.
McNamara and Joan Hyde, who had specialized in Chicago corruption and is now a spokeswoman for the bureau, gave the boys booklets on the FBI. They also gave them an 11-page questionnaire applicants must complete. The questions involve financial history, criminal history, foreign travel, immigration status of relatives, even background of a spouse.
"If that's what he wants to do, it's doable," McNamara said. "A lot of people want to do it, but they don't always know what it entails."
He didn't sugarcoat it. He didn't talk down to them. He told them that it takes hard work, absolute focus, a four-year college education, often in a specialized area, from accounting to languages, science and so on. And for young people like Jeremy — or for others from wealthy suburbs — it takes the guts not to let friends or people you think are your friends lead you wrong.
"A lot of people who want to be agents have barriers because of credit problems," McNamara told the boys. "And some people have problems because of drugs. Everyone that comes in takes a polygraph. You can't stumble through the answers."
The FBI doesn't take applicants straight out of college. The bureau wants applicants to begin a career elsewhere first. Agents say most recruits start later in life, in their late 20s or early 30s. Some are former military personnel, but others come from job paths like teaching or accounting. Foreign language skills are needed and prized.
The visitors went into the gun vault through a heavy door that could secure a safe in a bank. Inside were old weapons and new. Special Agent Mark Quinn asked the boys if they played "Call of Duty," the video game played by boys around the world.
"Oh, yeah!" they said, excited.
It was just after 1 p.m. On any other day, they would have been in English class.
Jeremy doesn't want to spend his life behind a desk. He wants to travel to other countries and stay active. He promises to work hard to get there.
"It was like putting a piece of cheese out in front of a mouse to make it run," said Jeremy. "It put a drop of water on my tongue."
Good luck, Jeremy.
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