Michael McCaskey: In Memoriam

Longtime Chicago Bears leader, his service in Peace Corps in Ethiopia changed how he saw the world.

By Jonathan Pearson and Steven Boyd Saum

Photo courtesy the Chicago Bears


Michael McCaskey was the grandson of the legendary George “Papa Bear” Halas and inherited the mantle of leading the Chicago Bears football team for nearly 30 years. He was president and CEO of the Bears 1983–89 and then chairman of the board 1999–2011. The team won their first (and so far only) Super Bowl in 1985. Peers voted McCaskey NFL Executive of the Year.

He was born in 1943. He earned degrees in philosophy and psychology at Yale, and in 1965 he began two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia, teaching science and English in Fiche, a town on the edge of the Rift Valley.

 

Fiche, 1965: Ethiopian students with teacher Michael McCaskey. Photo courtesy the Chicago Bears

 

“My students were astounding,” he said. “My days as a teacher in Ethiopia changed my perspective on the rest of the world, for which I am very grateful.”

He earned a Ph.D. in business from Case Western Reserve in 1972 and taught at UCLA and Harvard Business School. And yet, wrote fellow Ethiopia RPCV John Coyne, he “never really left Ethiopia. He never forgot the people, his students or the country’s ancient greatness.”

 

“My students were astounding,” he said. “My days as a teacher in Ethiopia changed my perspective on the rest of the world, for which I am very grateful.”

 

While head of the Bears, McCaskey began supporting and advising the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago. “In 1999, during the long-running war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Mike returned to Africa with four other former Peace Corps volunteers,” Coyne wrote for the Chicago Tribune. “Their mission was to promote peace by talking to the leaders of both countries.” U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, a fellow RPCV, was part of the delegation; he recounted the moment when the foreign minister of Ethiopia welcomed his old Peace Corps teacher—Mike McCaskey. The mission did not end conflict, but when peace was signed in 2000, the RPCVs were invited for the signing ceremony in Algiers.

 

Returning to Ethiopia: Michael McCaskey, left, meets with medical staff. Photo courtesy John Coyne

 

In 2005, McCaskey co-founded the Bears’ charitable organization, which has given over $21 million to some 100 organizations in Chicagoland to support education, youth athletics, medicine, and health awareness. After McCaskey retired, he devoted time to greater work with Ethiopia: supporting health care, leadership training, and education. Fiche, the village where he taught, is now home to a university; he worked with it to develop a program combining technology and student-directed learning. He died on May 16. 

“Although Mike is gone,” Coyne writes, “his work, now named The Fiche Project, continues.”