A Life of Riley – and Giving

John Riley, Admiral Tim Szymanski and Kevin Reilly at the 2017 Salesianum sports banquet

We’ve all crossed paths with some truly memorable individuals.

You know the type: upbeat friends you look forward to grabbing a coffee with, people always ready with a crazy story or big idea.  Characters with character.  Natural leaders who effortlessly make friends and exude integrity.  Impressive folks who don’t take themselves too seriously and are good listeners.

On Thursday night October 12th one of our state’s most important and beloved organizations will honor such a person: John Riley.

At that evening’s Easterseals annual dinner, Riley, a longtime board member, will be presented with the Drex Jones Award, “in recognition of outstanding volunteerism on behalf of children and adults with disabilities in our region.”

Easterseals honoree John Riley, his late cousin Tommy, and Tommy’s favorite entertainer, “Elvis”

John’s dedication to the Easterseals mission of helping those with disabilities live full, meaningful lives spans decades of work as a particularly effective board chair, advocate, and fundraiser both locally and at the national level.  Inspired by his childhood experience growing up with a cousin with significant disabilities, John has never forgotten St. Francis’ guidance that “it is in giving that we receive.”

But anyone who knows John is aware that his Easterseals service, impactful and noteworthy as it is, is only a small part of his extraordinary – and uniquely Delaware – story.

John Stephen Riley is a product of Wilmington’s 9th Ward, one of nine children and a proud “Kinger” who earned tips as a double-bagging caddy at Wilmington Country Club then went on to become a championship golfer himself.   Riley’s tale is part Horatio Alger, part First State-Zelig: over the last 40 years this Renaissance Man has repeatedly shown up at noteworthy moments.

A Salesianum grad who captained the golf team at Delaware, Riley served in the United States Army, rising to the rank of captain, and has maintained a deep love of and support for the military and its history.  After two years as a social worker, Riley began a successful business career at Xerox, punctuated by forays into elected political office (a rare 1980s New Castle County Council member not to be investigated by the FBI … I kid) and even the world of sports management.

Together with NFL veteran Kevin Reilly (a fellow Salesianum alum and Xerox colleague) and Wilmington lawyer Murray Sawyer, Riley formed Pro Management, Inc. to guide the professional boxing career of Hockessin’s own Henry “Hammerin’ Hank” Milligan, an All-American wrestler at Princeton.  PMI’s run was brief, but to say the least it was eventful.  (See here for a complete account of the PMI story in Riley’s own words.)

While Riley et. al.’s time ringside did not exactly end up being the stuff of Jerry Maguire, his love of sports and knack for networking translated into hundreds of thousands of dollars raised for Leukemia research via an annual golf tournament that brought legendary athletes to Wilmington year after year.  In today’s celebrity culture it is hard to conceive of a local charity event anywhere that could regularly feature the likes of Arnold Palmer, Joe DiMaggio, Franco Harris, Fuzzy Zoeller, Payne Stewart and even George “Spanky” McFarland of Little Rascals Fame (who grew so close with Riley that when he passed, John was one of his grieving widow’s first calls).  But over a 10 year span into the early 90’s, Riley, Reilly and others scored the biggest of names — and throngs of generous participants.

John Riley is a Republican with healthy, informed conservative views on many matters, but he’s a throwback to an era when party affiliation wasn’t much of a factor in determining one’s friends, or even government service.  He served as state director of business development under Democrat Governor Tom Carper, chalking up some critical wins including keeping AstraZeneca in Delaware and creation of the Delaware Biotechnology Institute at UD.

A gifted writer and wry storyteller, one of Riley’s most recent projects is collaborating on the inspirational biography of his close friend Kevin Reilly, “Tackling Life,” which will be released in the coming weeks.

I say “one of” because no sooner had John retired from his longtime role as an executive with Ashland, that his quiet competence was called back into action, this time to get the state’s new economic development unit, the Delaware Prosperity Partnership, up and running.

Riley is the kind of guy who gives a much beleaguered “Establishment” a good name.

East Side Charter School, the Leukemia Society, Mary Campbell Center, Christ Our King Church.  The list of John’s beneficiaries is long.  So the Easterseals event is timely, both in recognition of John and his wife Sharon’s exemplary, ongoing service to the state, but also because the needs are ever greater for the organization and those special and deserving souls they serve.

Easterseals is one of Delaware’s largest providers of disability services including individualized supported employment, giving people with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to work in the community and earn competitive wages. Easterseals also leads in therapeutic intervention for infants and toddlers, serving more than 1200 Delaware children last year – unfortunately an area of growing demand given the increasing number of babies impacted by opioid addiction.

Of course, there are legions of giving people around us who will never be celebrated (and like John, don’t want to be).  If you don’t know John, think of them in supporting Easterseals or any number of other good charities carrying a heavy load for us all.

For more information on supporting Easterseals (and no, btw, that is not a typo: new one-word brand name) or attending the dinner, call (302) 221-2065 or go to http://www.easterseals.com/de/get-involved/events/2017-annual-dinner.html

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About the Contributor

Michael Fleming

Michael Fleming

Wilmington resident Michael Fleming is a marketing and communications executive.


  • What a beautifully written article! Thank you Michael, Christy and Town Square Delaware for recognizing both my Dad and Easterseals for all the good that they do!

  • What a great article about an even greater person!! So wonderful to learn about all of his selfless work with the Easterseals and his much deserving volunteer award for this great cause!

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