JEFFERSON PARK — When Lionel Rabb was a sophomore at Von Stueben High School in 1993, he invented a software system Chicago Public Schools now uses to identify and track students with digital identification cards.
Self-taught and without a college degree, Rabb, 37, used that technology to launch Omicron Technologies Inc., a Jefferson Park firm that has worked for city agencies as well as some of the largest companies in America, including 3M, ExxonMobil and Coca-Cola.
Now Rabb is working to reinvigorate the Far Northwest Side neighborhood by funding a new art museum and spearheading a plan to renovate Jefferson Memorial Park without taxpayer money.
"If something isn't going to change everything, it is not worth doing," said Rabb, who moved to Jefferson Park seven years ago, before his two daughters were born.
Rabb is not wasting any time — the location and design for the art center honoring Chicago native and internationally acclaimed artist Ed Paschke will be unveiled next month, and plans for the park are expected to be finalized by April.
Rabb said his determination to get things done quickly was heightened by the three years he spent in prison after pleading guilty to robbing a Norwood Park bank when he was 17 and a junior in high school.
"When you sit in a cage for three years, you learn the value of time,” Rabb said. "Time is your only enemy. The rest is just bulls---.”
Rabb said he got involved with the park in an effort to "test some ideas on how to engage a disengaged community.”
"I want to invest in our backyard,” Rabb said. "This is my family's home.”
Progress in Jefferson Park has "stalled,” and Rabb said he wants to kick start a process of "respectful growth.”
Frank Suerth, a member of the Jefferson Memorial Park Advisory Committee, said Rabb is not the type of person to make small plans.
"He wants things to happen right away, and I like that about him,” Suerth said. "Here in Jefferson Park, things take forever.”
A 'Hidden Opportunity'
Rabb grew up "working class" in Albany Park and North Park. Although money was tight, his father, an electrical and mechanical engineer, gave him his first computer and taught him the basics of wiring and mechanics.
"I don't come from money, I come from nothing,” Rabb said.
As a child and as a teenager, he recalled, he moved from one "s---" apartment to another after his parents divorced.
He fell in with what he described as a bad crowd.
Rabb used a semi-automatic handgun to rob the TCF Bank in the 6100 block of Northwest Highway on Jan. 14, 1994, according to court records. Two of his friends — also high school students — were also convicted in connection with the crime, which netted about $20,000.
"Sometimes s--- gets out of control,” Rabb said. "I'm thankful that no one was physically hurt and that no shots were fired.”
Had he not been arrested, Rabb would have likely ended up dead, he said.
"It was a hidden opportunity to take a pause,” Rabb said of his conviction. "It was a clean break from a world that was toxic.”
Rabb was sentenced to seven years in prison by Cook County Judge Richard E. Neville, whom Rabb praised as a "great judge” for allowing him to finish high school before going to prison.
While incarcerated at the Vandalia Correctional Center in southern Illinois, Rabb said he rewired part of the prison and changed the way the commissary operated — all for $4 a month.
"Sitting in prison allowed me to see how broken our system is and how draconian so many of the sentences are,” Rabb said. "And when they get out, people who have been in prison can't get a job.”
After he was released in 1998, Rabb said he "worked his a-- off” to restart his company, which in 2004, inked a five-year $5 million contract with Chicago Public Schools for the technology and systems that help the district keep track of students via their identification cards.
The contract was renewed annually from 2009 to 2013, and in June the board agreed to a new two-year contract worth $4.1 million, according to district records.
A CPS spokesman said that a district contractor with a criminal conviction would not be prohibited from doing business with CPS if the conviction occurred more than five years before the contract was signed.
In hiring Omicron, the CTA followed its standard procurement procedures, which include determining if the company is barred from doing business in the city or the state, according to agency spokeswoman Tammy Chase.
Rabb's firm did not appear on any of those lists, Chase said. Doing a background check on every vendor would not be practical because of the time and expense involved, she added.
A 'Man of Unbelievable Vision'
As Omicron began to thrive, Rabb said he turned his attention to philanthropic efforts. In 2001 he founded the Marilyn G. Rabb Foundation, now known as MGR Youth Empowerment, in honor of his stepmother, who died of cancer, and then the Rabb Family Foundation.
"I have the luxury of not having to work,” Rabb said, adding that Omicron employs about 160 people and subcontracts work to 40 companies. "I choose to help.”
MGR Youth Empowerment has helped more then 20,000 at-risk youth through programs in the arts, health, mentoring and green initiatives in several states, Rabb said, adding that he does not operate the foundation but raises money and awareness for its programs.
Downtown already gets a lot of attention from the funding community, which was part of the reason for the Rabb Family Foundation's focus on Jefferson Park, Rabb said.
Rabb said he wanted to create a museum honoring Ed Paschke because the artist known for painting colorful, close-ups of people's faces was dedicated to giving "blue-collar people a chance to see real art.”
In the Rabb Family Foundation's first major project in Jefferson Park, a $40,000 mural honoring Paschke was created in a viaduct along Lawrence Avenue near the Kennedy Expy., a tunnel that once had crumbling walls and was covered with bird excrement.
National Veterans Art Museum Executive Director Levi Moore said Rabb, the chairman of the museum's board of directors, has done important work in helping the museum grow after moving from the South Side to Six Corners in Portage Park in 2012.
Rabb is a "dynamic individual” whose experience as a businessman has helped the museum raise money and make new contacts, Moore said.
"He has so much energy and enthusiasm,” Moore said. "He brings a lot to the table.”
While the foundation is working on several projects in Jefferson Park, its focus is much wider, with programs throughout Chicago and in several other cities and Canada, Rabb said.
Rabb recalled how he bumped into a Foreman High School student who had considered joining a gang before participating in the MGR foundation's program that trained students to run the Chicago Marathon.
Ultimately, the Portage Park student decided to become a police officer, and is preparing for the academy, Rabb said.
"I think the people we have helped are in a better place,” Rabb said. "We are not trying to force our help on them.”
Marc Paschke, who runs the foundation dedicated to his father, called Rabb "a man of unbelievable vision."
"In what seemed a matter of minutes, [Rabb] had come up with a plan” to build a small museum where the public could see Ed Paschke's art, as well as a recreation of the artist's studio in Jefferson Park, said Marc Paschke.
Suerth, of the Jefferson Memorial Park Advisory Committee, is working with Rabb to reshape almost every inch of Jefferson Memorial Park with a larger playlot, a bandshell and perhaps an ice rink as part of a $3 million renovation.
Rabb is crucial to the future of Jefferson Park, Suerth said.
"If there were five Lionel Rabbs, I'd take them all,” Suerth said. "He is incredibly generous and thinks only of the people of the community.”
A 'Footnote' — Not a 'Defining Moment'
Rabb's history is not widely known in the community.
Moore said he had not heard about Rabb's criminal past, and when a reporter asked him about it, he said he was "stunned.” He declined to comment further.
Suerth said he hoped attention to Rabb's criminal record would not dissuade Rabb from being civically active.
Rabb said groups and organizations are welcome to choose not to work with him and his foundations because of his criminal record — which Rabb referred to as "footnote” and not a "defining moment” in his life.
"It is foolish to talk about things that happened 20 years ago,” Rabb said. "If, at the end of the day, they don't like me because of something that happened 20 years ago they think is somehow relevant, then so be it.”
Marc Paschke said Rabb's two-decade-old criminal record is irrelevant.
"I have to believe he developed that motivation due to his past mistakes,” Marc Paschke said. "And if you examine his life since that period over 20 years ago, he has done more with his time than anyone I have ever met.”
DNAinfo.com Chicago reporter Erin Meyer contributed to this report.