PORTLAND — As the first recipient of the Ahern Scholarship for Cheverus High School graduates, Tom Yates feels the weight of high expectations. And he’s OK with it.

Leonard F. Ahern was a Cheverus alumnus and a longtime teacher who left $1 million to the private high school when he died in June 2008 at the age of 89. The gift was the second-largest in the school’s history.

It established a $40,000 annual scholarship to be awarded to a deserving senior who demonstrates Cheverus’ principles of intellectual competence, personal growth, spiritual development, commitment to justice and community leadership.

Though Yates never met Ahern, the 18-year-old scholar and athlete aspires to be like his unexpected benefactor.

“Mr. Ahern truly represents what a Cheverian should be: loving, caring, concerned about others,” said Yates, who lives in West Baldwin. “This scholarship represents how much I’ve grown over my four years at Cheverus and how I’m developing as a leader and how much I have to contribute in the future.”

Yates, who will graduate in June, plans to use the scholarship to study business management and psychology at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. The money will be awarded in $10,000 increments over four years. With a financial aid package provided by the college, his annual tuition, room and board of nearly $46,000 will be paid in full.

“I’m pretty much set,” Yates said. “Financially, the Ahern Scholarship took a lot of pressure off.”

Yates is an honor roll student, a senior class officer and a co-president of the student council at Cheverus, a Jesuit Catholic college-preparatory school for boys and girls. He’s also an Eagle Scout, a jazz trumpet player, a member of the school’s soccer, track and lacrosse teams, and a coach and third-degree black belt in tae kwon do.

He started the Cheverus International Club, joined the Spanish and Haiti Solidarity clubs and was inducted into the National Honor Society. He volunteers regularly in a soup kitchen and works part time at a sushi restaurant.

“In my mind, Tom Yates’ name resonates with maturity and leadership,” said Valerie Webster, a Cheverus guidance counselor. “He is an extraordinarily energetic young man with many interests and talents.”

Still, Yates was shocked to learn that he had won the scholarship. “The other six people who were nominated were top students,” he said.

Yates is the son of Kenneth Yates, a small-business owner, and Yeong-Rae An, a home health aide who was an accountant in her native Korea.

Yates speaks fluent Korean and attends the Rainbow United Methodist Church on Washington Avenue in Portland, which serves the small but tightly knit Korean community in southern Maine.

“My Korean heritage is very important to me,” Yates said, noting that respect for elders and others is emphasized in the Korean community, and friends are treated like family.

Education is important to both of his parents, Yates said. His pending graduation from Cheverus will help ease his father’s regret at turning down an opportunity to attend the private school when he was a teenager. Yates said he has chosen to study business largely because he shares his parents’ aptitudes for the field.

It’s fitting that a business major is the first recipient of the Ahern Scholarship, said Steven Ahern, Leonard’s nephew.

“My uncle was a financial wizard,” said Ahern, who lives in Windham. “He was very frugal, and he learned to invest his money well. He pretty much taught himself.”

Leonard Ahern was born on Prince Edward Island and moved to Portland with his family when he was about 10.

His father, Michael, came to work on the railroad but missed his livelihood as a fisherman back home. When his mother, Elizabeth, refused to return to Prince Edward Island, the couple separated, and Michael Ahern went back to Canada alone.

Elizabeth Ahern stayed in Portland with her five children and worked in restaurants as a waitress and cook. Later, she ran her own restaurants in Portland, Ogunquit and Wells.

“My uncle had a deep love and respect for his mother,” Steven Ahern said. “That’s why he dedicated the scholarship to her.”

After graduating from Cheverus in 1940, Ahern served in the Army during World War II, which is when he became a U.S. citizen, his nephew said. Afterward, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maine and a master’s degree from George Washington University.

He worked briefly as a translator for the U.S. government in France and, after settling in Washington, D.C., taught French and Spanish for decades at a private school in Alexandria, Va.

He also tutored high school and college students and worked as a waiter at French restaurants that catered to employees of and visitors to the French Embassy.

Leonard Ahern never married or had children. His ashes were interred in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington in a moving service that his nephew attended.

In establishing a scholarship at Cheverus, Leonard Ahern ensured that his love of learning would live on.

“He dedicated his life to education,” Steven Ahern said. “He enjoyed going to Cheverus. I think some of the Jesuits who taught him really motivated him to learn.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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