Story By Donald Liebenson
Photography By Robin Subar
On a seasonally exquisite September night on a practice field on the Northwestern University campus, the Wildcat Marching Band was rehearsing an excerpt from “Coming to America.” Just steps away inside a tent erected on the beachfront, Robert and Patty Reece were being honored for embodying the American ideals celebrated in Neil Diamond’s stirring patriotic anthem.
The event was the sixth annual Evanston MashUp, a networking event hosted by the university in partnership with the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, the City of Evanston, and other business partners. The Reeces received the Corrine Passage Spirit of Evanston Award, an honor that recognizes those who have performed “outstanding service to the community and who (embody) the mix of qualities that represent the city: courage, compassion, vision, and creativity.”
Accepting the award, Robert Reece acknowledged the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “’If I can help someone along the way…my life would not be in vain.’ Thank you for helping us to help somebody along the way
The Reeces have been helping generations of somebodies for close to 40 years through a variety of programs and scholarships they’ve helped to institute and administer.
The Spirit of Evanston honor was a humbling experience, Robert said in a phone interview. “We do the work we do because of our love for young people,” he says. “We never expect to get any public recognition.”
Robert does the work he does because of neighborhood mentors who inspired and motivated him when he was growing up in Evanston, where the Mississippi native’s family moved when he was five. “Growing up, I had a phenomenal experience playing in a youth basketball league,” he says. “I had great respect for my coaches. They were role models for me.”
So when the Fellowship of AfricanAmerican Men was looking for volunteer coaches for its Youth Basketball League, Robert signed on. “A lot of what I am today is because of sports,” he says. “I saw coaching as an opportunity to give back what people gave to me.”
Patty, a native Evanstonian, taught for 34 years before retiring from District 65. She met Robert in line at a bank. She was a student at Roosevelt University, he at Loyola University. When she mentioned needing help with a philosophy paper, he seized the opportunity and offered to bring over a friend of his who was a philosophy major.
“I’m still waiting,” Patty laughs. “He was the only one who showed up that night.” They have been married 43 years.
Patty’s philanthropic efforts are primarily focused on the Warren “Billy” Cherry Scholarship Fund, established in 1991 in honor of her late brother, also a beloved educator, who served as a principal in Evanston schools for 14 years.
The couple describes Warren, who died of cancer in 1990 at the age of 47, as a “late bloomer.” “College was not on his mind,” Robert says. “Two years out of high school he was doing odd jobs, but then, out of the clear blue, a light bulb went off and he said, ‘I can do more with my life, I want to do more with my life, I will do more with my life.’”
The scholarship was created to reach out to those interested in going into education or youth work and who themselves have had to overcome obstacles to get where they are.
In its inaugural year, the organization presented one $2,500 scholarship, Robert says. This year, it gave 16 scholarships totaling more than $36,000. The organization’s goal is to raise $1 million to endow the scholarship so that $50,000 would be available annually.
“I’m amazed at the generosity and the tremendous support from the Evanston community,” Patty says. “We have no paid staff—it’s all volunteers who believe in the mission of our organization.”
Patty also serves on the board for the Evanston Community Foundation, and each summer serves as a tutor with the McGaw YMCA’s reading program for elementary students. Additionally, she coordinates FAAM’s Annual Essay Contest.
Robert, who owns Robert Reece Insurance & Financial Services, is also involved with other youth-based organizations and initiatives, among them the Justin Wynn Fund, named for a fourth-grader who drowned while a student at Lincoln School, and that is awarded to a District 65 fourth-grader who exemplifies outstanding sportsmanship, citizenship, and leadership, Robert says.
He is also involved with the McGaw YMCA, where in 1997 he became the first African-American to serve as president of the Board of Directors. His association with the Y required some persuasion, he recalled.
Growing up, he says, black children did not feel welcome at that facility and he spent his time at the so-called “Black Y” located on Emerson Street. As an adult, Alice Kreiman, then the chairperson of the Board of Directors, recruited Robert to join the Board.
“I asked her why I would want to be a part of an organization where I was not welcome as a kid,” he recalls. “She responded that that was exactly why I should get involved. That, in bringing about change, it was better to be at the table as part of the solution, instead of being on the outside talking about what happened when I was growing up. I’ve been involved with the Y ever since.”
The Reeces are not just an inspiration to young people. Adrian Brewington, General Manager at the Hilton Garden Inn in Evanston, was among those cheering the Reeces at the Evanston MashUp. Robert was one of the first people Brewington met when he moved to Evanston in 2011.
“He was very instrumental in helping me to learn about Evanston and how it worked,” Brewington said.
Brewington met Patty after he got involved with the Warren “Billy” Cherry Scholarship Fund. “After spending time around Robert and Patty, I was amazed by how many people they knew in the community, how much respect they had in this community, and how gracious they were as people,” he said. “They would literally do anything to help out a person in need. They are great role models for this community, and I am a much better person as a result of knowing those amazing individuals.”
Contributions to the Warren “Billy” Cherry Scholarship Fund can be sent to P.O. Box 0944, Evanston, IL 60204.