By Tracey Primrose
The Cassins have devoted decades to this mission, the seed of which was planted more than a century ago.
BJ (Brendan Joseph) Cassin was born 30 miles outside of Boston in Lowell, Massachusetts, an industrial city known for its textile mills and hardworking blue-collar families. In the early part of the 20th century, lowly paid teenage girls were the mills’ secret weapon. The “mill girls” worked long, tedious hours operating loud, dangerous machines, and when BJ Cassin’s mother, Irene, was only 13, she was about to join their ranks. But then something momentous happened, which would change not only Irene’s life but the lives of generations of students to follow.
Irene’s four older sisters, all mill girls, threatened to go on strike if their father did not allow Irene, the youngest daughter, to go to high school. The sisters prevailed, and Irene earned a high school degree. She later married Joe Cassin, who managed a local furniture store, and together they raised BJ and his older brother, Joseph, in Lowell.
Education was everything to the Cassin family. Both boys went to the local Xaverian Brothers Catholic high school. At 18, Joseph entered the Xaverians and went on to earn two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. A high school teacher and college professor, he stayed in religious life for 22 years before leaving to marry and raise a family. BJ would attend Holy Cross, the Jesuit college about an hour away in Worcester. His yearly tuition, including room and board, was $950, which was a stretch for his parents because there was no financial aid or grants.
The summer after his freshman year at Holy Cross, BJ had an experience that still brings a smile seven decades later. An accomplished piano player, he was selected to join a band that spent the summer of 1951 touring Europe, playing at Army posts in close proximity to Iron Curtain countries. “At that point, I had been to Boston twice and New York once. It was life changing,” he says.
BJ entered the Marine Corps after graduating from Holy Cross in 1955. He went to “finishing school” at Quantico, served at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, and was deployed to Japan and Okinawa for two years. When he received his orders to report as security officer at Naval Air Station Alameda, he had no idea where that was. A fellow officer told him, “San Francisco. You’re a lucky son of a gun.”
BJ could not imagine how prescient that remark would be. Soon after arriving in the Bay Area, he met Bebe (Isabelle Beryl Shute), a United Airlines flight attendant living with two other friends in San Francisco’s Marina District. She had been a teacher for a few years but got her wings to see the world. BJ became friends with the three roommates, but he was falling hard for Bebe and decided one Christmas to go for broke. “She was on a ladder hanging mistletoe, and I grabbed her leg and looked up at her and said, ‘I want you to be the mother of my children.’ It was now or never. I couldn’t hold back anymore.”
The gamble paid off, and the young couple were married six months later in 1960 at the Carmel Mission. In those days, flight attendants had to be single, so Bebe left United and resumed her teaching career while BJ worked in sales for an oil company. Before long, Bebe would give up teaching again as the family quickly expanded with the addition of Joe, Rob, Kelley, Jonathan and Cate.
BJ left the oil business and took a position with a paper company and then was hired as a vice president of market research and development for Memorex, which was IBM’s first computer tape competitor. Nearly half of the computer tape was damaged in the manufacturing process, and one of BJ’s first projects was to figure out what to do with the rejected tape. The answer: high quality audio tape. Baby boomers will remember Ella Fitzgerald’s iconic, glass-shattering Memorex television commercials. “Is it live or is it Memorex?”
When BJ proposed that the company deploy a new technology to revolutionize data storage, higher ups at Memorex passed on the idea, so he and a few partners co-founded Xidex, which grew to be a Fortune 500 company.
BJ, though, “loves working on new stuff,” so he left Xidex in 1979 to invest in venture capital start-ups. His timing was spot on. “I started being successful in venture capital when personal computers really started taking off. And because of my background with Xidex, I had a pretty good idea where that industry was going.” BJ went on to make key investments in a number of highly successful technology companies.
From the very beginning, the Cassins were committed to using their resources to focus on a shared commitment—leveling the playing field. They began by providing scholarships to local students in need at St. Francis High School, attended by four of their children, and at Santa Clara University, where daughter Cate, “the caboose,” earned her degree.
Although giving individual scholarships was rewarding, BJ, true to form, wanted to find a way to leverage his dollars. So, in 2000, when he was asked to tour an innovative Catholic high school for economically disadvantaged students in Chicago, he and Cate jumped on a plane. Cristo Rey Jesuit High School’s concept was simple but brilliant: combine rigorous academics and a corporate work study program to equip students with practical business skills and the means to fund their college preparatory educations. BJ says, “The experience blew my socks off. The cartoon light bulb went off over my head. This was something we could franchise.”
In 2000, BJ and Bebe established the Cassin Educational Initiative Foundation with a $22 million gift. The foundation has helped support and launch 25 Cristo Rey high schools and 34 NativityMiguel middle schools in underserved communities nationwide. Today, there are 40 Cristo Rey high schools and 60 NativityMiguel middle schools. The experience of going to the opening of a new school has never failed to give them goose bumps, BJ says.
Because of his background in venture capital, BJ knows how important early money is, and he is proud to say that following his foundation’s investment in the Cristo Rey Network, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made gifts totaling more than $15 million.
Father Peter Pabst, SJ, chancellor and founding president of Cristo Rey San José Jesuit High School in East San Jose, California, is a close friend and collaborator of the Cassins. He says, “BJ is the type of person—and he’ll say this himself—who doesn’t really invest in projects; he invests in people. And so, he’s investing in our students, investing in our staff, and investing in all of those who are part of boards of the schools and the families. That investment is really about people and people achieving their full potential. It has been marvelous to watch that kind of leadership.”
In 2015, BJ and two partners saw an opportunity to replicate the success of the Cristo Rey Network in tax credit states, where vouchers can be used in private schools; they co-founded the Drexel Fund (named after St. Katharine Drexel) to do just that. The fund invests in the growth of high quality, financially sustainable networks of faith-based and other private schools in underserved communities. In the last eight years, the partners have raised $50 million and opened 70 schools.
BJ and Bebe have been generous donors to both Jesuit works and to the Jesuits West Province, where BJ has served on the province’s investment committee for many years.
BJ says that he and Bebe have been blessed. Theirs is a close family, where everyone looks out for each other. During the pandemic, many children and grandchildren camped out together at what BJ jokingly referred to as “Cassin Central,” their Bay Area home. The oldest of their 11 grandchildren just got married, and all five children live nearby.
In conversation, BJ is quick to mention the work of the Holy Spirit. It came up when he talked about not being able to pinpoint Alameda on a map and how providential that posting would be because he would meet the beautiful young woman who would share his life. And he talked about the Holy Spirit again in terms of the life-giving work he and Bebe have been doing to create educational opportunities for students at the margins of society.
“I know education changes lives. It changed the life of both my brother and me as we were the first in our family to graduate from college. If we could add up the number of lives that we have hopefully touched because of education, it’s probably a pretty good number. And that’s not a bad scorecard.”
Somewhere in heaven, the mills girls are cheering.