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Cabdriver's son channels grief into learning, teaching

In 2005, Ayodeji Ogunniyi's father was murdered by three youths in the Chicago area. Since then, he's resolved to make a difference in the classroom.

January 17, 2010|By Lolly Bowean
  • Ayodeji Ogunniyi has recently started a full-time position at Thornwood High School. A colleague says he is "born to teach."
Ayodeji Ogunniyi has recently started a full-time position at Thornwood… (William DeShazer / Chicago…)

Reporting from Chicago — Ayodeji Ogunniyi is a teacher who connects with students and stays with them until they absorb a lesson, his mentors and supervisors say.

He's new -- he started his first full-time teaching job this month at Thornwood High School in a Chicago suburb -- but he knows he's found his calling.

"He was born to teach," said Julie Glaser, an English teacher at Thornwood who supervised Ogunniyi when he was student-teaching. "He has a lot of patience. He likes the students. He enjoys being with them and seeing them grow and learn."

Ogunniyi's passion for helping young people grew from an unlikely place: Four years ago, two teenagers and their 22-year-old friend robbed and murdered his father, a cabdriver.

Since then, Ogunniyi, 23, has committed himself to working to make sure youths know they don't have to throw away their lives.

"I hate the fact that these were 18-year-olds that killed my father," he said. "I need to make sure no other teenager ends up like this. My father was taken away. Their lives were taken away too."

When Ogunniyi was awarded his bachelor's degree from Roosevelt University, his family rejoiced. It was the proud culmination of a process marked by grief.

His father, Abimbola K. Ogunniyi, was a college-educated bank manager in his native Nigeria. In 1988, he immigrated to Chicago, but because his credentials didn't transfer, he became a cabdriver.

It was sometimes dangerous work, and Abimbola Ogunniyi had been robbed several times, his youngest son said. After he had a car accident, he quit working for a while and started taking college courses.

But with both sons going off to college, the father started driving again in 2003, this time taking only private fares because it was less risky, Ayodeji Ogunniyi said.

"My mother and brother told him: 'Stay home, don't worry, we will work,' " Ogunniyi said. "But he never liked to see anyone in need. He saw my mother struggling and said every man has to support his family."

On Dec. 22, 2005, Abimbola Ogunniyi was called out to pick up a fare in Evergreen Park. The three passengers planned to rob the driver of his SUV and use it in an armored-truck heist, authorities say. But during the carjacking, they shot Abimbola Ogunniyi and left him to bleed to death in an alley.

Joyce McGee, now 22, was sentenced last month to 40 years in prison in connection with the robbery and murder. Jimille Brown, 23, was sentenced to 40 years last year. Elliot C. Peterson, 26, is awaiting trial.

"It was so hard on my mother," Ayodeji Ogunniyi said. "She pulled her braids out. She scratched up her face out of grief."

When his father was slain, Ogunniyi had just finished his first semester at Northern Illinois University. He decided to leave school so he could work and help support his mother.

"It was a depressing time for me," he said. "Not only was my father taken from me, but freshman year of college is a big thing for college students. That too was taken from me. I did not want to go to school anymore."

But, one class at a time, he moved toward finishing his education. He took on a tutoring job with Thornton Township, worked part-time at a hardware store and enrolled at a local community college.

As Ogunniyi spent time tutoring, he found he was passionate about changing lives.

"He was one of the few people who could do math and could teach it," said Larry Lawrence, the program manager for the Thornton Township Youth Committee. "He had a compassion for kids that I wish all teachers had."

Ogunniyi learned to use his father's murder as motivation.

"He didn't get angry. He didn't want revenge. That was most impressive, and it speaks to his character," Lawrence said. "It shows how his father raised him."

When Ogunniyi earned enough credits, he enrolled at Roosevelt University. "Studying literature . . . [gave] me a way to escape from the pain of losing my father in a tragic way," he wrote in a letter to professors.

As a student-teacher at Thornwood, he was able to relate to his students, some of whom have their own difficulties at home, Glaser said.

"It helps some of our students to see that there was somebody else . . . that has succeeded. Therefore they too can overcome their trial," Glaser said. "It gives our students someone who can understand."

Ogunniyi was handed his college degree on the fourth anniversary of his father's death.

He was also offered a full-time position at Thornwood High.

"Four years ago we were grieving and mourning," he said. "But now we are rejoicing. Now we at least have another memory for that day."

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