Men's Track
Illini Great Cirilo McSween Passes Away

Cirilo McSween won three invidual Big Ten titles with the Illini but is more remembered for his work outside the track.
Cirilo McSween won three invidual Big Ten titles with the Illini but is more remembered for his work outside the track.

Dec. 4, 2008

Illini men's track and field legend Cirilo McSween passed away on Nov. 5, 2008. McSween lettered for Illinois from 1951-1954 and was Big Ten indoor champion in the 440 yards in 1951 and Big Ten outdoor champion in the 440 yards in 1951 and 1952. Despite his accomplishments on the track, McSween was more well-known for his humanitarian, business and political work outside of athletics. Below is a brief synopsis of his life:

Cirilo A. McSween was the ultimate success story, beginning in Panama where he often ran around barefoot because his family couldn't afford shoes. McSween excelled as an athlete, scholar, banker, entrepreneur, restaurateur and civil rights advocate in his lifetime, holding various careers and receiving an abundance of accolades and honors. Propelling him was his tremendous work ethic along with passion and integrity. At an early age, McSween was recognized as having enormous athletic ability in running. He began competing in local, central, regional and countrywide contests, and through coaching he excelled and won them all. In the Central American and Caribbean Olympics he drew acclaim for sprinting and for anchoring his team's relay and he placed third in the Central American Olympics, behind two world Olympians.

McSween earned an athletic scholarship to the University of Illinois, where he shattered numerous track and field records including the Big Ten indoor and outdoor 400-meter dash. Not only did he succeed in athletics, but in academics as well. He pursued a business major and was considered by professor Robert Mehr as one of his most brilliant students, and Mehr dedicated the textbook "Modern Life Insurance" to McSween.

McSween then traveled to New York for job opportunities and New York Life hired him as their first African-American sales agent. He sold $1 million in life insurance in his first year, becoming the first African-American to gain entry into the prestigious Million-Dollar Roundtable.

McSween also joined Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. He and King forged a lifelong friendship and through Rev. Jesse Jackson, McSween was appointed as the financial representative for Operation Breadbasket. Soon after, he was appointed to treasurer of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which King headed. McSween was a member of the Executive Board of SCLC and became one of its best fundraisers. He marched and fought for justice, risking his life, and when King was assassinated, McSween was a pallbearer for his funeral.

Rev. Jesse Jackson created a scholarship in McSween's name to pay tribute to his self-made success through hard work, loyalty and persistence. The scholarship was named the Cirilo A. McSween New York Life Rainbow/PUSH Excel Scholarship Award and it helps hundreds of young, college-bound African-Americans fulfill their dreams.

McSween accepted responsibility of being Rev. Jackson's campaign financial chairman when he decided to run for president, and he proved to be a master at his craft. Harold Washington credited McSween for his victory in the Mayoral Campaign of Chicago, another triumphant success for him.

Moving from finance and insurance to entrepreneurship, McSween opened his first McDonald's, which outpaced all others nationwide. He ended up opening ten more McDonald's restaurants, and won The Ronald McDonald Award and the Golden Arch Award twice, a feat that no other had accomplished before.



Maintaining duel-citizenship with the country he loved, McSween served as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Panama. President Omar Torrijos sought Cirilo as his go-to man because of his vast knowledge of political dynamics and his perpetual devotion to Panama. Omar and Cirilo formed a strong bond and after the president's death, Cirilo became the guardian of his two sons. After his death, Cirilo was awarded the highest accolades that a civilian can be accorded for his loyalty and unwavering love of Panama.

A much sought-after speaker as a result of his success, Cirilo was inducted into Chicago State University's Business Hall of Fame and a novel was written about him that is mounted at Chicago's prestigious DuSable Museum of African American history. Two of his proudest accomplishments include receiving The Newmakers Award from the Chicago Defender and being saluted as a "Living Legend" and profiled in Who's Who in Black Chicago.

McSween is survived by his wife Arlene, daughters Esperanza Powell and Veronica McSween; son Cirilo Jr., sister Anna Phillips, grandsons Victor Powell and Derrick Jennings; and a host of friends, business associates and compatriots from Panama.