Cummings Foundation, Inc. (CFI) developed the McKeown Scholars Program in 1996, in memory of James L. McKeown, late president of Cummings Properties and former managing trustee of the Foundation, who died suddenly in 1996 at the age of 41. The Foundation awarded 831 scholarships totaling more than $2 million in Mr. McKeown's honor between 1997 and 2015.
Mr. McKeown was a well-known business leader, widely respected for his outstanding professional expertise as well as his unwavering integrity, compassion, and far-reaching desire to provide opportunities to others, particularly young people. He left his wife, Denise, and two very young daughters, Kelly and Molly.
A Woburn native and graduate of Woburn High School, Salem State College, and University of Vermont, Mr. McKeown also studied at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and had lectured at Massachusetts Center for Continuing Legal Education. He was a marathon runner, competitive swimmer, bicyclist, golfer, and tennis player.
Spending his entire working career with Cummings Properties, Mr. McKeown maintained many community roles, including service as a member and treasurer of Woburn Industrial Development Finance Authority and president of Woburn Business Association. He was once selected as "Boy of the Year" at what was then named Woburn Boys Club. Closely associated with that organization nearly all his life, he went on to become the first-ever Club alumnus to be elected a director, and then served two terms as its youngest president, as well. In 2014, the Club was renamed James L. McKeown Boys and Girls Club in his honor.
Eligibility and selection criteria for the McKeown Scholars Program represented qualities, values and achievements Mr. McKeown embodied and would most likely have considered himself in determining award recipients. Some of these criteria include scholarship, excellent writing ability, community service, reputation for fairness and integrity, and a demonstrated concern for helping others.
The McKeown Scholars Program attempted to recognize the very top high school graduate in Woburn, where CFI has its most significant interests, and in Winchester, where it has its origins. Candidates who were considered as potential McKeown Scholars were in the upper 20 percent of their graduating class, and wrote a 500-word essay under exam conditions on a subject that was first announced at the hour of the essay competition.
All essays were anonymously graded, and a committee at each high school determined the actual $10,000 award winner for that community, based strictly on merit. Selection was based on essay results and personal interviews, plus other evidence of each candidate's writing skills, community service, and overall aptitude. Winners also received handsome commendatory plaques at awards ceremonies at their respective community's high school.
The Foundation's scholarship program was directly designed to focus extra community attention on improving the writing ability of local area students. In that regard, its interests closely parallel the business strategy of Cummings Properties, which for decades has placed a very heavy emphasis on hiring people with outstanding writing ability, and then helping them to further improve it.
Every year since 1973, for example, Cummings Properties has routinely required all applicants for any management-level position to complete a standard written editing exercise. The results of these exercises then weigh heavily in all hiring decisions. The company has also routinely brought in outside writing instructors to work with employees of all levels in regular after-hours writing clinics.
This is not at all unlike the "enlightened self interest" policies so famously promoted by United Shoe Machinery Corporation, Cummings Properties' predecessor in Beverly, a hundred years ago. Like USMC, the Foundation strongly supports the notion that it can positively affect the education level of the area's workforce, simultaneously helping it and its 1,800 tenant firms to be more competitive.