James Fay, superintendent who oversaw era of change in District 59, dies at 87

  • James Fay, who served as superintendent of Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59 from 1978 to 1993, died June 19 of natural causes.

    James Fay, who served as superintendent of Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59 from 1978 to 1993, died June 19 of natural causes. Courtesy of the Fay Family

  • James Fay was a talented basketball player at St. Ambrose University, where he is in the school's Athletic Hall of Fame. He was drafted by the New York Knicks in 1955, but then was drafted into the Army before a long career in education.

    James Fay was a talented basketball player at St. Ambrose University, where he is in the school's Athletic Hall of Fame. He was drafted by the New York Knicks in 1955, but then was drafted into the Army before a long career in education. Courtesy of the Fay Family

 
 
Updated 6/25/2020 8:09 PM

Those who knew former Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59 Superintendent James Fay say he was never one to shy away from the tough decisions.

Like having to close eight schools amid declining enrollment. Or adding bilingual classes to help the children of new immigrants who moved to the area. Or introducing computers to the classroom, at a time when many were still skeptical if the newfangled technology would pan out.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Despite the controversies, Fay remained at the helm of the district for 15 years -- a tenure almost unheard of in today's local schools climate.

"He was just a person who really did the best for kids, regardless of how difficult it was or what a political disadvantage it might be," said Bob Bortnick, who served under Fay as associate superintendent of curriculum.

Fay, who led District 59 from 1978 to 1993, died June 19 of natural causes with his devoted wife of 58 years by his side. The longtime Arlington Heights resident was 87.

It was his love of education, coaching and volunteering -- and lessons learned from those experiences -- that have inspired his six children and 13 grandchildren, said Kathy McHugh, his oldest daughter.

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Two children are educators, one granddaughter decided to attend St. Ambrose University in Iowa (where Fay is in the school's Athletic Hall of Fame for basketball), and a grandson is entering the Army (after being drafted by the New York Knicks in 1955, Fay was drafted into the Army, where he served for two years.)

Fay, who started his career in education as a Chicago public school teacher and coach in 1958, worked his way up, eventually becoming a principal and then District 59 superintendent. He spent nearly three decades as an educator in the district.

At one point in his career, when Fay was teachers union president, he was awarded a watch from the union following a particularly tough contract negotiation, McHugh recalls. Shortly after he became superintendent -- and started making decisions on the other side of the fence -- teachers picketed and held signs that said, "What time is it, Superintendent Fay?"

"I know he agonized over some very tough decisions," McHugh said. "I think the bottom line is he was always a family man -- doing what was in the best interest of the families he was neighbors with."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Along with his skills on the court in his younger days, Fay was a longtime basketball coach in the Arlington Heights Youth Athletic Association. He also was a regular Friday night football referee.

Like his friend the late Rev. John Smyth -- also known for his athletic prowess and being drafted into the NBA -- Fay was a devoted Catholic and supporter of Maryville Academy in Des Plaines. The Fay family regularly hosted two Maryville residents for holidays and other family functions.

"The greatest gift given to his children was passing on (the importance of) doing the right thing," McHugh said. "That goes along with your moral character and the laws of love passed on from our Christian faith and making the right decisions, even if they might not be the most popular or bring you the most friends."

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