March 2, 2007

New Bishop Chatard leader says values, faith will guide him

Bill Sahm discusses the future of Bishop Chatard High School in an office at the Indianapolis North Deanery school.

Bill Sahm discusses the future of Bishop Chatard High School in an office at the Indianapolis North Deanery school.

By John Shaughnessy

Bill Sahm knows what it’s like to be a teenager struggling to make sense of the unsettling changes in life.

He also knows the difference that one person and a Catholic community can make to give a young person a sense of belonging.

The details of Sahm’s story surface when he’s asked about the heroes and role models in his life.

Pausing for a moment, he recalls the summer after he graduated from Cathedral High School in 1973, the summer when his father died. As the oldest of nine children, Sahm struggled with whether he should continue his plan to attend the University of Notre Dame. Maybe it would be better for him to stay home, to be there for his mother and his siblings, he thought.

After his mother encouraged him to head to Notre Dame, Sahm still faced the loss of his father, the loneliness of being away from home and the challenge of being a walk-on football player at a school known for its great football tradition. That’s when he met Ara Parseghian, who was already a legendary head coach.

“I showed up at Notre Dame as one of 120 football players,” Sahm recalls. “Ara knew that my dad had just died. He knew my mother’s name, and he knew I had eight brothers and sisters. He was the ultimate players’ coach. He pushed you to excel, but he cared about you, too. That meant everything to me. It made it bearable to be away from my family at the time. Just the whole experience helped me to understand I still had a future, and if I worked hard and did the right things, God would honor that.”

That football season ended at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, where Sahm celebrated as Notre Dame won the national championship. Yet he doesn’t mention that detail as he talks about Parseghian. Instead, he focuses on a scared teenager and the difference a coach made.

That story is an important one to remember now that Sahm was recently chosen as the next president of Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis, starting July 1.

So is the story about Sahm that’s shared by Joseph Hollowell, the president of Roncalli High School in Indianapolis, who was a member of the search committee for Bishop Chatard’s new president. Sahm and Hollowell both taught and coached football at Roncalli in 1979.

“I told the search committee that Bill was a religion teacher when I was a math teacher,” Hollowell recalls. “Our classrooms were right next to each other. When I occasionally shut up and let the students work on problems, it was very easy to hear Bill teaching next door. I learned as much religion just from hearing Bill teach that year as I had learned in all my previous years of high school. He was an outstanding teacher, loved and respected by the students.”

As Bishop Chatard’s next president, Sahm will be called upon to guide the school’s strategic planning, building projects, and fundraising and development efforts—emphases that will play strongly into his 23 years of experience as a businessman, including being a senior vice president with Precedent Commercial Development in Indianapolis.

Yet what’s led Sahm to return to education is the difference he hopes to make with a strong emphasis on faith, the memory of a struggling youth, and the knowledge that one person and a Catholic community can change lives.

“People keep saying how I’m giving up a lucrative career in business,” Sahm says. “But the rewards I’m going to reap are so far greater than I ever had in business.”

His interest in pursuing the position took shape shortly after Holy Cross Brother Joseph Umile announced in February 2006 that he would be ending his 14-year tenure as Bishop Chatard’s president at the end of the 2006-07 school year.

“Brother Joseph actually planted the seed many years ago,” Sahm says. “I was president of the Board of Regents for the first three years. Every year, Brother Joseph would threaten to quit. He’d point at me and say, ‘Just hire him!’ He did it enough through the years that I knew he was planting a seed.

“When it was announced that Brother Joe was stepping down, I began a course of prayer and discussion with Debbie [his wife]—long hours of discussion about whether I should apply. I spent so much time praying about it that I really felt God was calling me to do this.”

He felt his interest growing when he found himself spending many late-night hours writing down his ideas about what he’d like to do as the school’s president. He has since typed those ideas, which cover five pages of single-space copy.

The ideas range from improving alumni connections to having Bishop Chatard students keep deep ties to the ministries of their parishes, from different ways of getting senior students involved in leadership roles in the school to inviting freshman parents to small breakfast meetings to talk about their hopes for the education of their children.

He also is committed to a focus on athletics that will make positive experiences for student-athletes the priority.

“Athletics has been an important part of my life and my children’s lives,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of experiences—both positive and negative—as a participant and a parent. My goal is to make sure that every student who participates in an extracurricular activity, including athletics, has a positive experience. Positive experiences will be our priority. Championships will have to take care of themselves because that will not be the focus. Preparing to be the very best is still essential to our young students’ development.”

All sports teams and extracurricular groups will be required to do a service project during their seasons, Sahm says. They will also have to create a shared experience that develops their spiritual life.

“The student leaders will be responsible for determining what that is from a list provided by the school,” says Sahm, a 1977 Notre Dame graduate who also played as a walk-on on the college’s basketball team.

The connection of school, faith, sports and service leads back to his youth when he followed his father, the late William Sahm Sr., around the city as his dad served as the director of the Catholic Youth Organization in Indianapolis.

“My dad was bigger than life,” Sahm recalls. “He was the head of CYO, but he was involved in so many other organizations. I grew up following him around to CYO events, going to Communion breakfasts. I had all those wonderful Catholic experiences. Everything in my life has prepared me to do this.”

In leading Bishop Chatard, he will come to the school where his mother, Reva, taught for seven years as she continued to raise her family following the death of her husband. He will also come to the school where he and his wife, Debbie, decided to send their four children—all graduates of Bishop Chatard.

“The strength of their experience was definitely the people—students they became lifelong friends with and teachers who took a special interest in them and modeled for them the Christian faith,” he says. “The friends they made were from families who had similar values and a passion for their children to have a Catholic faith experience in high school. And they all came out of this experience with a heart for God and service.”

Brother Joseph sees Sahm as the right choice at the right time for the school.

“Here’s a person who is highly sensitive to seeing what is going on and, at the same time, is willing to step up to make it better,” Brother Joseph says. “If we talk about what’s needed from where Bishop Chatard is to where it can go, he fits the profile of the next step. He’s collaborative, he’s congenial and I just see him as the kind of person who will engage people. He’s committed to the diversity and the values we create here.”

An emphasis on values and faith will guide him, Sahm says.

“When I was a teacher, I would sometimes hear teachers in the faculty lounge talk disparagingly about a student,” he says. “That bothered me so much that I made a point that those were the students I needed to reach out to. That’s how I’ll approach Chatard. I’ll assume the best of everyone here.

‘We want to make the school a place where the students want to be, not just for the classroom experience but to support each other, to have fun and take care of one another. We want to cement the family relationship and be an extension of the family for them in any way we can. We want them to develop lifelong friendships and a relationship with God.” †

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