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A Deep Friendship and a Deeper Impact

Partnership Vice Chairman Bill Finneran was “a child at heart,” Executive Director Jill Kafka reflected recently. And Bill’s own daughter Karen laughed in agreement before she and Jill shared stories amply proving Bill’s reputation as a good-hearted troublemaker, particularly in the Partnership Schools community. They had come together for Bill, to reflect on his legacy and on the efforts of his dear friend, Dick Schmeelk, who at 96 years young has raised nearly $1 million in Bill’s name for the children of Partnership Schools.

Karen shared that in the days before her father passed away last fall, Bill had one ongoing worry: “Who’s going to take care of my kids? I didn’t do enough.”

If you knew this extraordinary man, chances are you know two things: Bill did a great deal for “his” kids, and those kids aren’t just his four biological children. They include “our” kids, the students of Partnership Schools. This summer, months after his passing and despite his worries, Bill’s drive to do more for them is continuing to have an impact–in part thanks to a friendship that could teach all of us a great deal.

“I thought, ‘Who the hell was this guy?’” That was Dick Schmeelk’s first reaction when Bill approached him at a fundraising dinner for Covenant House, declaring that he’d heard the two of them ought to meet. What began that night was a friendship that would last over forty years and impact thousands of children.

As Dick explains, “Bill had a wonderful gift with people. He could start a conversation with a perfect stranger, and in nothing flat he’d develop a friendship. I didn’t have the same gift of easy conversation with people I didn’t know.” But while Dick may be less of an extrovert, Bill’s daughter Karen explains that “my dad had so much respect for Mr. Schmeelk–for his goodness and his spirituality. He had the utmost respect for him and how purely good he is.” And the two shared a drive to give back.

“He came from nothing, and he was eager to give back,” Dick shares about his friend. And as Dick got involved in the inner-city schools of the Archdiocese of New York, now known as Partnership Schools, he involved Bill too.

As Jill Kafka explains about Bill and Dick, “They had the same instinct of wanting to help, and they were more powerful doing it as a twosome. They introduced each other to new projects.” And Karen adds, “They are similar in that they wanted to tell other people and get them to help. And they both always thought, it wasn’t enough.”

But they did more than simply involve each other in giving. As Karen notes about her dad and Dick, “They didn’t just give the money. They dove in; they wanted to be with the kids. They wanted to go to the school concerts.”

Bill “wanted the kids around him,” Karen explains. When he went into a school he was supporting, “the kids all knew him, and he felt responsible for them; maybe he felt the unconditional love from them, or knew he was making a difference.” And the difference he sought to make was highly personal. During a school visit, for example, Bill noticed one child was having a hard time focusing. He brought the issue to the principal’s attention. When it was revealed that the student had a severe hearing problem fixable through surgery but prohibitively expensive for the family, Bill took care of it. Other stories of his sensitive, thoughtful, and highly personal approach to supporting students abound.

“He felt like all kids didn’t get a fair shot, and that bothered him deeply,” Karen explains. Bill thought until his last days about how to fill gaps so that more children could have a shot at the generation-impacting arc of his own life.

And he thought too about his friendship with Dick Schmeelk. Dick visited him the day before Bill died. As Dick tells it, “I told him he double crossed me; I’d planned that he’d give the eulogy at my funeral.” Bill responded with some jokes about playing tennis the next week. But when Dick left the hospital room, Bill left the joking aside. “My dad turned to me and said, ‘that man is a gift,’” Karen said.

Dick Schmeelk continues to be a gift–and a friend. Over the last few months, he’s spearheaded an effort to honor the legacy of his friend and keep helping Bill’s kids. Through the William B. Finneran Student Opportunity Fund, Dick has raised $700,750 of its $1,000,000 target, largely thanks to his persistent calls and outreach. The fund will provide much needed scholarship and student support for the students of Partnership Schools.

The unprecedented events of the last few months have caused many people to take stock, to reflect on what’s really important in the middle of life’s uncertainties. Friendships like that of Bill Finneran and Dick Schmeelk are chief among them–two men who reinforced the best in each other in the process of impacting the lives of others.

“We both had the same aims,” Dick reflects: “you make it, you give it away.”