Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Carl Schurz High School at 100

This past weekend I attended the Carl Schurz High School Centennial Celebration. On Saturday, there were tours of the school and a sock-hop followed by a party at the Abbey Pub.

I hadn’t set foot in the building for nearly fifty years. Here are some reactions.
  • Much has not changed. I went in the main entrance and everything seemed to be in place. On the other hand, I can’t remember what door I usually used when I was a student. It was probably a door toward the train station, since I used the old Milwaukee Road commuter trains to go to and from school.
  • The place is really clean. I couldn’t find any graffiti except for a few scratches on the backs of some ancient bathroom stall doors. Lockers are all new looking. Not a mark on them.
  • I walked through the halls, almost all of them, and could hardly remember where I took any classes. I couldn’t even find my home room with certainty. It was probably one of the first two just as you go into the triangle on the North end of the building. Everything was like a distant vision through a fog. Where did I take Harry Lassen’s chemistry classes? Where did I spend many hilarious days in Frank Ulveling’s physics classes? It’s all long gone in my past memories.
  • I did stand in the pit in Slocum Hall, the assembly hall. I remember spending many hours there playing for various musical events under Arthur Clark’s baton. I climbed up to the band room, but it was locked. Their band director must weigh 800 pounds. How does he get up there?
  • Nobody was in socks and nobody hopped. The DJ’s played a lot of oldies. People sat and talked.
  • I met a few old classmates. Marcia Hawk and a couple of others. I spoke with some others from nearby class years but who weren’t involved in music. I do recall that my whole existence revolved around band and those are the strongest memories.
  • By the end of the first day, I was stunned and don’t know why. You can never go home again, they say, but this was no home that I could remember. What was my life like way back then?
  • Then, on to the Abbey Pub, one of Chicago’s sleazier Northwest Side bars. Poorly organized and poorly executed best describes the huge lines and long wait in order to just get into the door to drink three-dollar Millers from plastic cups. A typical bar buffet was served with more interminable lines. What is so damned difficult about serving yourself some lukewarm pasta from a tray? People seem to stand and examine every hunk of Italian sausage, every strand of spaghetti, every salad olive. Then they discuss it with their neighbor. I finally got some food, had another beer, and watched old photos projected on a huge screen while the DJ’s played more oldies.
  • The Abbey Pub looks like it should be torn down before it falls down. The entire event should have been held at the Irish Cultural Center, not too far away. The Irish Cultural Center has a great ballroom with its own bar and kitchen. Further, the paint isn’t peeling from all the walls and the plaster isn’t crumbling. Besides the private ballroom there is a (great) public bar and restaurant. There is also a huge parking lot, another plus.

Sunday was the “The Great Ceremony” at 1:00 pm.

  • The program started more or less on time at 1:00 pm and went until about 4:45 pm—with no intermissions what-so-ever. Most people wandered in and out when the urge to urinate became more than a slight discomfort.
  • The auditorium is as clean as the rest of the school, recently painted and quite pleasant. The seats appear to be original 1924 seats, but amazingly, were wide and comfortable enough for even my considerable ass. I can’t say that for most auditoriums and public seating I frequent. The only thing more ample than these seats are the outdoor seats at the Jay Pritzger Pavilion in Millennium Park.
  • The program started with a lot of music, from the Orchestra, from the Chorus, from the Band. Now, this is the Chicago Public Schools, not New Trier. He kids try, but they are far from the best. I can only say that I personally appreciated all of their sincerity and efforts. It was actually pretty good.
  • The chorus was fascinating. There are only three boys in the chorus. (Don’t these guys know that joining the chorus is a good way to meet chicks?) Two tenors and one bass was it. The chorus director made up for this by miking the boys to give their voices a boost. In my mind, it takes a boy with some cojones to know that he is the only one singing bass and his voice is the only one that will be heard and still sing well. Likewise, the two tenors carried their part with calm professionalism. As the chorus filed up the center aisle the last member was the boy singing bass. I was reminded of the old Seventy-six Trombones lyric: “Then I modestly took my place as the one and only bass/and I oompahed up and down the square.” Sitting on the aisle, I flashed him a thumbs-up. He looked at me and I could see his lips form “Thank you.”
  • The JROTC posted the colors. They obviously take this very seriously and did a first-class job with the ceremony. This was followed by the Pledge to the Flag and then, to my amazement, the entire assemblage sang the National Anthem a capella. And they sang well.
  • Then there were a series of endless speeches from the Centennial Committee, the new president of the Alumni Association, the current principal and three past principals.
  • Sandwiched in there were some politicians. This is Chicago, after all. They all read proclamations of some sort, and probably hoped you would vote for them for writing such flowery stuff. But I think there is a whole, highly-paid department of politicians aids somewhere that write those things.
  • The principal guest speaker was Chicago Tribune columnist, Rick Kogan. He told lots of Studs Terkel stories and some were quite good.
  • There were ten inductees into the Schurz High School Hall of Fame. From George Devine, Class of 1933, Professor of Music for many years at the University of Tennessee, to Annie Crawley, Class of 1986, Underwater Videographer, Photographer, Author, they each accepted their award and made a speech (unless they were dead, of course, and then sometimes the surviving spouse gave the speech instead). There were ten, in all, including the current 35th Ward Alderman, Rey Colon (this is Chicago, after all).
  • The most interesting was probably Annie Crawley, who has enough energy for ten women. To see some of her spectacular work, visit her website http://www.anniecrawley.com/index.htm or her new venture, http://www.diveintoyourimagination.com/.
  • Also inducted was someone many here will fondly remember: Dr. Nicholas Valenziano was inducted into the Schurz Hall of Fame. I spoke briefly with him after the ceremony. He and his wife are doing well and he sends his regards to all.
  • A longish section of singing by the Schurz Player Drama Group followed. This “tradition” lasted 26 years from 1974 until the retirement of Jeffrey S. Berke, the faculty member who helped students produce musicals ranging from Fiddler on the Roof, to Guys and Dolls. If I recall correctly, the Slocum Hall stage is now the Jeffrey S. Berke Stage.
  • Finally, the Schurz Sports Hall of Fame Induction emceed by Bob Dekas, Class of 1969. The inductee was Todd Van Horn, a Professional Baseball Player. They both made long speeches.
  • Next up, a demonstration of the M.P. Moller Pipe Organ, only about a quarter restored. It sounded terrific. They continue to raise money to restore this instrument and if you have a few pennies to spare, by all means this is a good cause. I’d like to see someone like Cameron Carpenter play this instrument when it is finally restored. They don’t make it easy for you to donate, but I’d suggest joining the Alumni Association as a starting point. How do you do that? Your guess is as good as mine. My membership came with the ticket I bought for the Centennial Celebration. There doesn’t seem to be anything on any website I can find about how to join.
  • We ended up by singing a few rounds of the Schurz Victory March, Alma Mater and “Deep in My Heart Schurz.”

Well, what to make of all of this.

  • The first day was spooky. After all, here was a place where I spent four years of my life, and then, one day in January of 1961, I walked away from it and never went back—for nearly fifty years. It wasn’t like meeting up with an old friend; it was like meeting a completely new friend.
  • Day two was different. First of all, I gained a greater appreciation for the students at Schurz who actually participate in music. Also, the JROTC kids who posted the colors were serious and professional. Not everything you hear about high school students in Chicago is true. Some are actually there to learn, and are doing their best to improve themselves.
  • I found myself examining my own life in light of what I was seeing and hearing during the Hall of Fame Induction. I didn’t compare very favorably in the sense of I haven’t lived up to my own expectations. I knew this at least ten years ago when I set about making some radical changes in my life, getting advanced degrees, working for organizations that represented at least partially my ideals, and so forth. Regardless, events like this cause me to become introspective and strengthen my own resolve to achieve more of my own goal set.
  • Schurz deserves to be nurtured and encouraged. Yes, it’s a part of the Chicago Public Schools and we all know what a reputation that school system has. But consider this, during its first 100 years it educated 50,000 students. During its next 100 years it will educate another 50,000. Doesn’t it make sense for you and me to try to ensure that this next 50,000 have as great an opportunity to achieve the American Dream as you and I had? After all, we are going to be handing down our civilization to the generation of students that today walk the halls of Schurz, tomorrow the halls of our great Universities, and ultimately the board rooms of our great corporations and chambers of our great political bodies. Some will be pipe-fitters or carpenters; some will be musicians and actors; some will be educators; some will be preachers and ministers; some will be lawyers and politicians; all of them will be citizens of this society. We need to ensure that the foundations for continuing our great traditions are firmly planted in this generation of youth.
  • I arrived skeptical and came away encouraged. I hope I have communicated a little of that hope for the future that I found when I spent a couple of days at Carl Schurz High School on a May weekend in 2010.

Best regards,
Milan Vydareny