Special Olympics Chicago plans for permanent home

Illinois Supreme Court justice, who co-founded movement in Chicago, says building would preserve 'legacy'

The city's top supporters of Special Olympics locally are in the early phases of planning a permanent athletic facility and headquarters for the organization, which was founded here in 1968.

"A couple of other states have built (or are in the process of building) Special Olympics facilities — Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey," said James "Skinny" Sheahan, a former president of Special Children's Charities, the organization that raises money for and runs Special Olympics Chicago. "What we have said from time to time is that it would be nice to have a permanent site, in addition to the great facilities we use at the Park District."

Leading the effort are Sheahan, a former aide to former Mayor Richard M. Daley; Jim Houlihan, the former Cook County assessor and lobbyist; and Jay Doherty, president of the City Club of Chicago and a lobbyist. Renderings of the facility have been done. But financing and fundraising plans are not in place.

"A permanent site costs a lot of money," Sheahan said.

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke co-founded the Special Olympics movement while working as a full-time special education teacher for the Chicago Park District. The first games were held at Soldier Field.

Burke said a permanent building is a great way to preserve the movement's "legacy." Her daughter, Sarah Burke, director of external affairs at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, has recently joined the organization's local board. I asked the elder Burke whether her daughter joined at her request.

"No," Burke said. "I did drag them to some of the games over the years. But never — because that kind of service work or involvement has to really be from the heart. They have to want to do it themselves."

Sarah Burke, 37, added: "It's an obvious" — she paused — "transition to a different group."

"Not that we're getting older," said Anne Burke, 69.

"Did you hear my pregnant pause?" Sarah said. The two started laughing, realizing they were trying to tiptoe around the ascension of the next generation without insulting each other.

Although Anne Burke does not sit on the board of Special Children's Charities, her input is sought by local leaders. And she has strong opinions about reshaping the national organization's mission. She said the kids she coached in the late 1960s, whom she lists by name during our interview, are now are in their 50s and 60s. One has had a stroke; his parents have died and his siblings are taking care of him — but not everyone has siblings, Burke said.

"The huge amount of money that has been spent on the games is short-term thinking," Burke said. "And I had many conversations with (co-founder) Eunice Shriver about this. And I said to her: 'You've got to stop with this money. We should be spending money, earning money and raising money for long-term residential care facilities.' The NFL, the National Hockey League — they have pensions for their players. We have nothing. And their parents die, and there's no place for them to go."

Awaiting a decision

President Barack Obama flew to North Carolina on Wednesday to award the first of three planned manufacturing "innovation institutes" — so the fate of Chicago's bid won't be known until an expected announcement in the "coming weeks," according to the White House.

Chicago specifically covets a $70 million Department of Defense grant for a "Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute," which would fall under the oversight of UI Labs, a nascent University of Illinois-affiliated effort focused on turning academic research into moneymaking, job-creating products. (UI stands for "Universities and Industries.")

The grant is a much bigger deal than it appears — because inside Chicago's bid is at least $70 million worth of private sector matching money, which the Defense Department required. Should Chicago fail to win the grant, those private sector commitments would be shelved.

"If we lose this, it's a disaster," said Chris Kennedy, chairman of the board of the University of Illinois and a son of the late Robert Kennedy. He later added: "We would try to build on some aspects" of the grant proposal. "But the energy around it would go to another part of the country."

The Chicago Sun-Times first reported that Chicago's chief competitor is Huntsville, Ala., and credited Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., as that region's champion.

Kennedy said he has called on local notables — from billionaire Lester Crown to former White House chief of staff Bill Daley to personal injury attorney John Cooney — for help.

Charitable gift

This week, U.S. District Judge Charles Kocoras sentenced billionaire Ty Warner to two years of probation for stashing millions in Swiss bank accounts to evade taxes.

The judge lauded Warner's "kindness, benevolence and generosity," stating that: "Society will be best served to allow him to continue his good works," Tribune colleagues Becky Yerak and Jason Meisner reported. Kocoras added that Warner has shown more concern for humanity than any other defendant he has ever seen, the reporters wrote.

Prosecutors didn't see it that way.

Their sentencing memorandum made this point in a footnote: "Defendant asserts that he has given $140 million worth of charitable donations since 1995. … On defendant's individual income tax returns from 1998 to 2011, defendant claims only approximately $35.7 million in charitable deductions. Defense counsel explained to the government that the $140 million figure includes the retail value of any Beanie Babies donated to charity, not the actual cost of those goods to defendant."

So that's $104.3 million worth of donated Beanie Babies. Among the recipients: 1 million Beanie Babies to "children in Iraq"; more than $300 million worth for a Red Cross blood drive; and 1 million to the Children's Hunger Fund for relief efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to online biographies.

The prosecution's view? "Given his means, defendant's charitable works are hardly exceptional."

Melissa Harris can be reached at mmharris@tribune.com or 312-222-4582. Twitter @chiconfidential. Newsletter at tinyletter.com/MelissaHarris.

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