U.S. Transportation Secretary grateful for Catholic education

One hour before President Barack Obama addressed school children around the country Tuesday via television and the Internet, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation was in Peoria telling students that his own Catholic school education means “everything” to him.

“I’m a product of Catholic schools,” said Ray LaHood in addressing more than 500 students in the new gym of St. Vincent de Paul School. The Peoria native said his years at St. Bernard’s Grade School and Spalding Institute had a lifelong impact on his values, beliefs, faith, and principles.

“The Catholic Church is a part of my life because of my grade school and high school teachers,” said LaHood, who taught at Holy Family School in Peoria and St. Joseph’s School in Pekin before entering public service.

LaHood’s grandson, McKay, is a second-grader at St. Vincent’s. The transportation secretary later visited McKay’s classroom before watching President Obama’s address with a group of students in the library.

A U.S. Congressman for 14 years, LaHood was confirmed as Secretary of Transportation in January. He is the only member of President Obama’s Cabinet who is officially Republican affiliated.

LaHood and other Cabinet officials had been asked by the president to speak in schools that day to reinforce Obama’s televised message on the importance of education and studying hard.

“If you work hard, you can do anything you want,” LaHood told the students. He especially encouraged them to concentrate on reading and math, to listen to their teachers and parents, and to “shut off the (television) and read a book.”

Looking at the hundreds of young faces in the year-old gym, LaHood said the students should thank God that at St. Vincent’s they are in “one of the best schools, with some of the best teachers, in one of the best facilities.”

“There are children all over America who don’t have what you have,” said LaHood, who credited Msgr. Jason Gray, adminstrator of St. Vincent de Paul Parish, for carrying on the education tradition begun by the parish’s founding pastor, Msgr. Robert Livingston.

Asking teachers who sat with their classes on the bleachers to stand up for applause, LaHood told the students their instructors aren’t working for money but because “they love all of you and they know they’re making a difference in your lives.”

LAHOOD answered several questions from both students and teachers, including if he knew President Obama — “Yes, he gave me this job” — and whether he supported the recent “cash for clunkers” auto buying incentive. Another “yes,” with LaHood calling the program a “lifeline” for the ailing auto industry that resulted in the sale of 70,000 cars in a month.

He told the students the primary concern of the transportation department is safety, and that since his appointment in January he has traveled to 28 states checking on the air, road, and rail industries and “making sure the money we’re spending on bridges and roads is being spent correctly.”

He told the students that if they get a good education they could become anything — from a policeman to a teacher, a doctor, a priest, or a high-ranking government official.

“I’m proof of it,” he said.

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