Speech: Ralph Campagna, 2016 Betsy Plank Honoree

CASS HILL: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I’m Cass Hill. Tonight, I have the privilege of introducing the very first recipient of the Betsy Plank Award. And to me, no individual embodies the tenants of this award, as well as my father, Ralph Campagna.

Ralph grew up in Chicago on the west side where he started going to Off the Street Club when he was a child. A graduate of St. Mel School, Ralph earned a bachelor’s degree in speech and education at Northeastern Illinois University. In the spring of 2014, Lewis University presented to Ralph The University’s highest recognition– the honorary degree of Doctor of Humanities. He has devoted more than 50 years of service to Chicago’s oldest club for boys and girls at risk, providing leadership as the club’s executive director.

His life and career have been focused on growing and nurturing the hearts and minds of thousands of young people, and every facet of the wealth of life experiences he has been involved in has been incorporated into the invaluable wisdom and life lessons he brings to inner-city children each day. The Betsy Plank Award is a special one that celebrates the awardee’s whose lifelong commitment to mentoring and leading. Ralph has spent his life in service to Chicago’s very needy but very wonderful west side children, who have taken a brave stand with him against the gangs, drugs, and violence that would steal their future.

Tonight’s award recognizes the dedication and impact of individuals who have fostered relationships with their organization, community, and profession. Ralph’s selfless commitment to his community and to Chicago’s youth in need has received widespread recognition both locally and nationally. Ralph has become a beloved hero to the club’s supporters and public relations and advertising community.

President Ronald Reagan recognized Ralph with these words, “you truly stand for what is right in America, not only in Chicago but for all mankind.” Newsweek named Ralph one of 50 unsung heroes in the United States. And he has been honored for his community involvement by the Chicago Father’s Day Committee, which named him Father of the Year.

Illinois Governor Jim Edgar acknowledged Ralph as an invaluable asset to the children of Illinois, while the Chicago Commission on Human Relations bestowed its Brotherhood Award on Ralph for his work promoting diversity and racial harmony.

The Betsy Plank Award honors individuals who have shaped the future. As with countless at-risk youth, my own future was forever changed when I became Ralph’s adopted son. My future has forever been shaped by the lessons I have learned and I have taken away from all the teachings given to me by my father. Lessons my two young children will one day be told and retold about his selfless acts, his standing up for what’s right in the face of strong opposition from violent ruthless gangs. And yes, I will tell my children of their grandfather’s early courage on the right side of history when he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama.

Ladies and gentlemen, when it’s all said and done, the heart of mentoring, leading, shaping young minds to be positive instruments for change is simply someone who sees more talent and ability in you than you see in yourself and helps you to bring it out. It’s someone who envisions a possible future and believes it can be obtained. Greatness doesn’t set out to be great. It sets out to make a difference. And it’s never about the role, but always about the goal. I’m so proud that you have chosen to honor this great man with this award for a great woman, Betsy Plank.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am honored to introduce my mentor, my hero, my father. The legendary executive director of Off the Street Club, Mr. Ralph Campagna.


I’m going to try not to get emotional after that introduction. Well, thank you for that wonderful introduction, Cass.

Ladies and gentlemen, 116 years ago a man known as Brother John McMurry used his life savings of $8.00 to rent a modest storefront space. His mission was to get a turn of the century at-risk immigrant children off the rough streets of their crowded near west side of Chicago tenement community. Because his goal was simple and direct, he painted on the large plate glass window “Off the Street”. Thus, was born Chicago’s oldest club for inner-city boys and girls.

Through several world wars, the Great Depression, various social upheavals, good times and bad the Off the Street Club has endured. During all of its proud history, its main base of support has always been and remains today, Chicago’s public relations and advertising community. And I’m so proud of that.

For 55 of Off the Street Club’s 116 years of history, I have been blessed and privileged to be a part of the club. The last 36 of which as the club’s executive director. And I can tell you honestly that the challenges facing the several thousand children we serve not far from here on Chicago’s troubled west side are more difficult and more graphic than any time in our club’s history.

When I attended the club as a youngster– and I did– about the worst thing that happened was it might rain. Today, for too many, inspirational young boys and girls it rains bullets. The mindless violence of the ubiquitous west side street gangs has deeply challenge club. With several of our young members shot, and one of our staff members murdered a few blocks from the club.

But if I paint a picture that seems without hope, that is certainly not the case. I assure you again, honestly, that Off the Street Club is a place of soaring hope, populated by countless courageous young people who want nothing to do with the gangs, the violence, and the drugs that make their journey to adulthood so harrowing.

Each day these youngsters bravely say no to the gangs and violence that face them in our turbulent West Garfield community. It is with those inspiring young people that I share this truly distinguished honor bestowed on me today. This evening, ladies and gentlemen, I am mindful of an important caution spoken to all of us more than a century and a half ago by Frederick Douglas. He said, “it is easier to build strong children than to fix broken men”. His words are more relevant today than ever.

And I can tell you with complete honesty that for many years, your community– the public relations and advertising men and women– have reached out to Off the Street Club in the inner city to help us make a real difference. I’d like to take just a very brief moment to recognize three gentlemen who are here with us today. First, the man who nominated me for this wonderful honor, tonight’s award, and a distinguished member of your community– my longtime friend Keith Burton. Keith.


You’ve already met my son Cass. And Cass, I’m so proud of you. And with him from the Off the Street Club is our dedicated, highly regarded Social Director, Arnett Morris. Both of these men are front-line soldiers–


Both of these men are front-line soldiers in the battle to save Chicago’s children. Ladies and gentlemen, please know that I am profoundly touched and filled with gratitude to be the first recipient of the Betsy Plank Award presented to me tonight. I will express my gratitude in the most meaningful way I know, and that is by returning to Off the Street Club in the days ahead and continuing to endeavor to bring help for today and hope for tomorrow too so many deserving inner-city children.

I close with the words of one of the giants of the last century, Winston Churchill. It’s a quote that has helped illuminate my life journey. He said, “you make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.” I humbly accept this Betsy Plank Award, because she was a person who gave so much of herself to so many. Thank you and God bless you.



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