BRIDGEPORT — Retired furniture magnate Louis L. Valentine set out to create a refuge for thousands of Chicago boys who’d otherwise be creating havoc on the city’s streets.
Quoted in a 1929 newspaper article, Valentine said he believed “the finest investment a business man can make is in the boyhood of our city.”
He donated $350,000 — somewhere around $5.7 million in today’s dollars — for the construction of a building in the heart of Bridgeport known now as the Louis L. Valentine Boys and Girls Club of Chicago.
Founded in 1938, the organization will celebrate its 75th anniversary on May 30 with a gala at the Zhou B Arts Center, 1029 W. 35th St., honoring the Daley family, which backed Valentine’s efforts from the start.
Late Chicago boss Richard J. Daley sent his boys Richard, John, Michael and Bill to the club at 3400 S. Emerald Ave.
“There was a big group of us from the [Nativity of Our Lord] parish. We went swimming, played sports, went to the wood shop. They really taught you well. It was an enriching period of my life,” John Daley said.
The family remains active in the club. John and former Mayor Richard M. Daley are on the club’s board of managers, and Bill Daley is on the corporate board of the larger Boys and Girls Clubs of Chicago.
Daley nephews Patrick and Peter Thompson are also part of the club. Patrick is the board's past president, and Peter helps throw the group's annual golf outing fundraiser.
Once relegated to boys only, the club also had a sister group just up the street, thanks to a push by the late Maggie Daley and her friends. Girls would later join the boys at the 3400 S. Emerald building after the Boys Clubs of America changed its name to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America in 1990.
Today, the Bridgeport club serves about 1,300 boys and girls throughout the area. The yearly membership fee is $20, which gives kids access to a wealth of programs including dance classes, graphic design, photography, swimming, homework help, art instruction and more.
A handful of classes cost extra, typically $25 for two months of instruction.
About 220 kids come through the doors each day for after-school and summer programs, a mix of "kids from million-dollar homes and public housing," club director Erin Rochford said.
Rochford said low membership rates and declines in city and state grant funding mean a constant focus on fundraising to pay for four full-timers and about a dozen part-time program instructors.
Tickets for the gala range from $75 for a single ticket to a "platinum" sponsorship of $15,000. Tickets can be bought by visiting this website.
For thousands of local kids, the Valentine club was a home away from home and a pathway out of trouble.
“It changed my life. Who knows what I would’ve been doing as a kid. Instead of being out in the street doing mischief, we were watching movies, swimming, playing basketball, studying animals,” said Vinnie Hickey, 34, a Bridgeport playwright and actor.
Valentine reportedly donated a total of $600,000 of his fortune to the club.
He died in 1940 of a heart ailment at age 74, shortly before the installation of the club entryway's iconic cedar totem poles, carved in Seattle and transported by rail across the country for free by the Great Northern Railroad.
The totem poles were created to give kids who entered a symbolic safe passage into the building.
In the same 1929 newspaper article about Valentine's massive donation to the club, a friend predicted the facility, with its indoor swimming pool, auditorium, gymnasium and various game rooms, would be a lasting gift.
Valentine, the friend said, "has taken the leadership in a movement which is going to write a worthy future for the city."