Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Going Home Again: Returning to Rich South

The Return of the Native

The author Thomas Wolfe once titled one of his novels "You Can't Go Home Again." In many ways, you can't return to the past, reclaim your youth or inhabit a body that has changed over time. But when I came back to Rich South for its 35th anniversary, I felt as if I had come home, but to a place that had changed in myriad ways. I had graduated from high school there in 1975, the first graduating class of that campus.

When I first received the invitation from Betsy Williams, the organizer of this splendid event, I had a vague sense of dread. What if no one recognized me? Like many people my age, my hair is now gray and I've not been able to push away far too many plates of mashed potatoes and french fries. What if Rich South was so different that I didn't recognize it? What if my favorite teachers didn't recognize me? After all, I hadn't set foot in the school since I graduated in 1975. That's a long time to be away.

When I toured the building, I noticed how small the corridors seemed to be. When you're 17 years old, hallways seem infinite because that's the center of your world. Then I visited the relatively new auditorium, which not only featured sound acoustics, it had a large stage. As a performer in school plays, speech club member and musician during my high school days, I would have relished the idea of playing in a real auditorium. Instead, we settled for the cafeteria, which we affectionately dubbed the "cafetorium." Then my anxiety dissipated as I heard the joyous sounds coming from the new performance space. The band played Count Basie and Stevie Wonder with delightful verve. I can still hear "Sir Duke" in my head. As if that weren't enough to raise my spirits -- we would've loved to play jazz and swing during my days in the band -- the Gospel Choir raised the roof with several energetic conductors.

Then it struck me. I was feeling the same thing that those young men and women were experiencing. The pure joy of performing. Getting people to clap, to dance, to sing. The power of this emotion can't be underestimated because it lasts the rest of your life. Unlike an ipod or MP3 player, it doesn't need batteries. You can turn it on anytime from now until the time you shuffle off this mortal coil.

Rich South immersed me in music, theatre, speech, English, math and a host of other things. Most of those passions I still carry with me. Perhaps I was always interested in these things and high school merely reinforced my love of them. More importantly these experiences created an indelible image that shaped my soul.

Another fear that I had was that I would have this overpowering sense of being disconnected to a place that gave me so much. Frankly that was the worst emotion, since I hadn't been there for so long. I felt somewhat ashamed that I had done nothing to give back to my alma mater and I couldn't exactly explain why. Then I got reconnected fast. Before the concert began, I wandered through the halls to the bandroom, where I met Yolandus Douglas.

"Are you related to Art Wasik?" Yolandus asked me.
"He's my Dad," I replied.
"I was there the last year he was at Thornidge High School. Tell him I said hi."

My father had taught the Rich South band director! The circle was complete. Where we could once boast our band went to Ireland for St. Patrick's Day, the current band was going to Beijing for the Olympics. I'd be lying if I didn't feel a surge of pride welling up within me.

But I wasn't grounded yet. I had to see for myself how the universe of my youth had changed. Before the banquet on Saturday evening, I drove into what used to be the Park Forest Plaza, where my Mom worked at Marshall Fields, one of her favorite jobs. The long-abanoned department store looked like a neglected country club with its green and white awnings and elegant window spaces. It will soon be torn down to make way for homes in another effort to revive what was one of America's model post-war suburbs.

The Plaza, where I saw movies, bought books at Maeyama's Book store, bought underwear at Sears and frango mints at Fields, was not there anymore. In its place was something that was evolving on its own terms. I toured some of the new homes in "Legacy Square," literally built in the Plaza parking lot. They are affordable, efficient and in keeping in the spirit of Park Forest. Also capturing the soul of this remarkable suburb is the Illinois Theatre Center, which used to reside in the library's basement, an art gallery and several small shops. While most of the storefronts were vacant, I think if more people buy homes in Park Forest, the merchants will return.

Then I hit the road, driving down Western Avenue to Route 30 into Chicago Heights. Just past St. James Hospital, where I was born more than 50 years ago, I took a right into Chicago Heights' downtown. I looked for the Star Publications building, where I got my first job as a cub reporter with the Star right out of college. The building was there, but occupied by the police department's youth program. The center of "the Heights" was mostly gutted except for the police station and a few other government buildings. I drove down as far as Beecher, seeing where I first carried the banner of the high school band (one of my Dad's first jobs) in a Fourth of July parade -- one of my earliest memories.

Then, driving through Crete and Monee, I saw the tremendous building going on in what had been endless cornfields. This was the edge of my known universe. Nearly driving all the way to Joliet, encompassing Frankfort, New Lenox and Mokena, I saw even more building. The homes just kept getting bigger the more I headed west. Driving back to Rich South for the banquet, my grand tour of the Southland was nearly complete.

The banquet was a humbling event. Donald Trimble, our first principal, thanked scores of staff members -- alive and now gone -- who had contributed to the high school in some way. George Egoske, our first athletic director, ever the volcano of school spirit, cited the accomplishments of the many teams that have played at Rich South, including the first state championship girl's softball team. Then I had to speak, nervous that I was following some great acts.

I recalled the time I had a lead in a play and a ketchup bottle cap accidentally came off and squirted all over me. The unintentional slapstick produced roars from the crowd and we had to repeat the apparent mishap the following night for our epic two-performance run. All I had to do was step back in time to the concert of the previous evening to know what I really needed to say.

Education was more than reading, writing and arithmetic. It was about shaping your soul. The triumph of the spirit is that it endures no matter what happens to you. I recalled principal Dr. Roudell Kirkwood invoking the motto "learners today - leaders tomorrow -Stars for life." I also had to apologize for not being involved in helping such a seminal place -- something I hope to remedy in the future.

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