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The Verdict: First Alumni Association scholarship winner pays it forward

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
Tom Dillon won the first Blackhawk Alumni scholarship, but he's given back ever since (Chase Agnello-Dean / Blackhawks).

Early in the winter of 1987, Tom Dillon heard of this new organization, the Blackhawk Alumni Association, that was instituting a college scholarship program. Dillon, then a senior at New Trier as well as a hockey player and fan, did the necessary paperwork and submitted his application.

“I had to write a short essay,” Dillon recalled. “My mom, Sharon, was a teacher, so she checked it over. I mailed it and figured I’d never hear back. Then, one night I’m sitting at our kitchen table. Phone rings and I answer. It’s Keith Magnuson. He congratulates me. I won the scholarship. I was shocked. I just kind of froze.”

And thus did Dillon become the first in a long line of honorees to be recognized by one of the most giving groups of its kind in professional sports. As the Blackhawk Alumni mark their 25th anniversary, the list of scholarships awarded stands at 82, while total grants have topped $1 million.


Blackhawks Team Historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. He authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001, was the featured contributor in "One Goal Achieved: The Inside Story of the 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks," and has co-authored biographies on Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.

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Dillon, 42, and wife Marijane have three children, ages 7 to 10. He is executive vice president/branch manager for the Illinois branch of AmWINS. As he sits in his spacious office on South LaSalle St., Dillon points to pictures of famous Blackhawks behind him. A busy and successful businessman, he could have put the alumni in his rear view mirror too. But the character that helped him earn a scholarship when he asked for help is a staple of his existence.

“When we started this idea, we were hopeful that past recipients would become involved in what we do,” said Cliff Koroll, president of the Blackhawk Alumni. “Tom has been right at the forefront. There is never a time when we call or have a meeting or prepare for a function that he isn’t available, despite all that he has going on. It’s people like Tom, people who care, who have made us what we are.”

But the idea that he would take the money and move on is anathema to Dillon, who has a long memory along with an estimable resume.

“I was blessed, either my essay knocked them out or I was the only applicant,” he said, chuckling now. “But what the alumni did for me, I can’t forget. It’s my responsibility to try to give back, just as all the ex-players and associate members do. That first scholarship check was for $1,500. I went to Villanova and got an economics degree. But here’s all you need to know about the Blackhawk Alumni Association: the second scholarship a year after mine was for $3,000, and although they didn’t have to, they gave me another $1,500 to match it. And they kept growing and kept adding. After four years, I received not the initial $1,500, but more like $8,000.”

Now, the alumni award scholarships for $20,000, or $5,000 a year—a philanthropic effort funded largely by fundraisers that include its annual golf tournament at Medinah Country Club, site of the recent Ryder Cup, and the scholarship luncheon produced and directed by Dillon. As Koroll praised, Dillon does everything for that affair every March but cook the meal.

During its existence, the Alumni Association has tendered scholarships in varying numbers. But upon the tragic death of Magnuson in a 2003 automobile accident, it was decided that his No. 3 jersey be commemorated by awarding exactly three scholarships annually. It was Magnuson, the fiery defenseman, who conceived of the Alumni, along with Stan Mikita, Jack Fitzsimmons, a dear friend of the Blackhawks, and Koroll—not as a reason for former teammates to gather for a few beers and reminisce about old times, but as a vehicle to contribute to the community.

“A crusher when we lost Keith,” said Dillon. “We’ve had so many special people through the years. Some not with us anymore, like Fitzie, Bill O’Rourke, Jack Mullins, Don Lavarre, Wally “Gunzo” Humeniuk. And so many still doing so much, like Sal Ferrara, and past winners like Joe Moore and Michelle Radzik, the first female scholarship winner. But Maggie was the heart and soul. I remember at his funeral, Cliff turned to me and said, ‘We’ll need you more than ever now.’’’

If there was any question about where the new Blackhawks’ regime stood on the alumni, the answer came early. John McDonough, the president and CEO, took over on Nov. 7, 2007. One day later, he put in a call to Koroll. The legacy of Bill Wirtz’s support would be preserved and nurtured through his son Rocky and the entire organization. The alumni have a suite at the United Center for games, and a willing point man in Pete Hassen, senior director for market development and community affairs. As McDonough stated when he joined the Blackhawks, if you don’t respect your past, you have no future.

The alumni have a substantial financial dossier, in part because of largesse from its associates and those sold out fundraisers, but also because this is a salary-free zone. All administrative costs, noted Dillon, are absorbed by the administrators. The 12-person board of directors is still agonizing over a significant landmark: “whether to buy our first laptop computer,” he said. Beyond the scholarships, the alumni look after former players who encounter difficult times. The next wheelchair to be donated won’t be the first.

“I remember the first luncheon, at one of Maggie’s favorite spots, the Como Inn,” said Dillon. Magnuson delivered his prepared remarks, and they were never brief. He wasn’t an after-dinner speaker. He was a way, way after-dinner speaker.

“But I finally got up to give my talk,” Dillon went on. “I was nervous, and I showed up without a belt. I screwed around a little bit at Villanova, like any college kid, but Maggie stayed in touch from a distance. I didn’t want to disappoint my family, I didn’t want to disappoint him. I remember where I was when President Reagan got shot in 1980, I remember where I was when Keith called me about the scholarship, and I remember where I was when I heard he had died. On my way to work, 6 in the morning, getting gas for my car. Still hurts, hurts us all. But, you know, if he were still here, I think Maggie would be proud of the Blackhawk Alumni.”

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