In the early 1980s, James Liautaud was a trouble-making student at Elgin Academy who ranked near the bottom of his high school class. He drank beer. He smoked cigarettes. He skipped class.
Teachers at the academy, a private prep school, grew so exasperated with his antics that they finally voted to expel him. But the mischievous student had an unlikely defender: the dean of discipline.
The dean, James Lyons, recognized the rebellion as insecurity, and saw what others did not — a student from a financially struggling family, trying to fit in at a prestigious school among wealthier, more polished peers. The dean, who had a working-class upbringing himself, put his job on the line. “If he goes,” he told the faculty, “I go.”
Liautaud — better known as Jimmy John, the founder of a sandwich shop empire with some 800 restaurants — came back to the academy this semester for the opening of a building that bears his name. He gave the school US$1 million, with one condition: The building also had to bear the name of Lyons.
“It’s a real simple deal,” said Liautaud, 44, explaining the motive for his generosity. “Jim Lyons believed in me.”
On a bluff in this old city on the Fox River, the new building houses 12 classrooms, a theater and a library. The high school is now known as the Liautaud-Lyons Upper School.
John Cooper, the head of the school, said educators everywhere could tell stories of dismal students who turned out to be successful in business or the arts. But not many send such a gift.
“He called me up out of the blue and said, ‘Hey I’ve decided to give you guys a million bucks,’” Cooper said of Liautaud.
At first, Liautaud wanted only Lyons’ name on the building. But the school told the sandwich king that it wanted to use his name, too, since his story would inspire many students. There are still a few teachers around who remember Liautaud and his wild ways.
“It’s all in the permanent record,” Cooper said, smiling.
A big man with a streetwise charm, Liautaud delivered the commencement address last year, wearing a T-shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots. He implored the students not to emulate his own academic and behavioral missteps.
Among students at Elgin Academy, Liautaud is regarded as something of a hero. One of them, Christopher Theodorou, 18, said he ordered food from a local Jimmy John’s restaurant for seven straight days after learning about the donation, a gesture of pride and gratitude.
“And besides,” Theodorou said, “it’s delicious.”
Lyons, 74, now retired, said he had spent many hours in the company of young Liautaud, often because he had violated some rule.
In those days, a disciplinary dean had a little more leeway, and Lyons was not afraid to capture a boy’s attention by giving his arm a bit of a squeeze.
“You wouldn’t get away with any of that stuff today,” he said.
But he also had a gentleness that won over the troubled boy.
“I would just listen,” said Lyons, who learned that Liautaud’s parents were going through hard financial times while their son was in school. “He was able to confide in me. He was a pretty good kid. He was just struggling to find out who he was.”
The two men have stayed in touch. They got together for dinner just before Christmas.
“You have a lot of students who become successful,” Lyons said. “But this is one who said thank you.”