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A royal half-century

Michael R. Schmidt~For Sun-Times Media
LarkHigh School principal JTuholds 4 yearbooks from varius decades school's gymnasium Thursday afternoon. LarkH.S. is celebrating

Michael R. Schmidt~For Sun-Times Media Larkin High School principal Jon Tuin holds 4 yearbooks from varius decades in the school's gymnasium Thursday afternoon. Larkin H.S. is celebrating it's 50th anniversary this year.

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Only about half the present Larkin building actually dates back to 1962. Other major additions:

1966: 16 classrooms

1968: A girls gym, offices and classrooms

1976: A swimming pool and more industrial-arts space

1982: A new library is built and the original library converted to classrooms, as the school changes from a three-year “senior high school” to a four-year school

2001: District U46 Academy of Visual and Performing Arts opens in a new western wing, with a new auditorium for plays and concerts

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Updated: September 20, 2012 10:00AM

ELGIN — In 50 years, Larkin High School has more than doubled in physical size and enrollment.

Its entire original teaching staff — most of whom began as enthusiastic, eager-to-experiment 20-somethings and 30-somethings, some just out of teachers’ college — have retired. Half or so have died.

It has grown from two grade levels to four and has added a magnet academy.

Some 25,000 teenagers — equal to one-fourth the current population of Elgin, and equal to half the city’s population when the school was built — have started their adult lives by receiving Larkin diplomas.

Both its outside classroom walls and the majority of its students’ skins have changed color, to brown.

It has gone from being the newest, most-modern of two high school buildings in School District U46 to being the oldest of five high schools.

Yet some things have remained eternal as the Larkin Royals prepare to celebrate the end of their first half century with an open house on Sept. 15.

The grumpy-looking, scepter-toting king known as the Larkin Royal continues to symbolize the school’s successful sports teams.

Elgin High School remains the ultimate sports rival — like what the Packers are to the Bears, what the Cardinals are to the Cubs. The graphic arts teachers inside the District U46 Academy of Visual and Performing Arts may not tell you so, but inside these halls the opposite color to royal blue remains EHS maroon.

And “the Larkin Rock,” which has been joined over the decades by two more large stones, remains outside the school, to be painted and repainted and re-repainted by each new generation of students in the middle of the night.

Born in the boom

The Elgin area was growing in 1962, and its population of children was swelling even more quickly. Larkin High School was born into a pre-Beatles Elgin in which teenage boys wore crew cuts and went to shop class, teenage girls wore skirts and took “home economics.” Most dads had served in World War II, and most moms stayed home to raise lots and lots of kids. Those veterans had come home in 1946, had gotten married and had started making babies. And most of this postwar baby boom was now in the public schools.

Making matters even worse for District U46, some big, empty, tax-producing farm areas the district had annexed decades before were now exploding with new child-packed subdivisions in the fast-growing villages of Streamwood, Hanover Park and Bartlett.

How serious was the crunch? A Courier-News story in September 1962 observed that the number of children entering U46 kindergartens that fall (1,627) was three times as big as the number of kids (525) who had graduated from Elgin High School the previous June.

For as long as anyone could remember, Elgin High — then located in the aging, castle-like brick building at East Chicago and Gifford streets that now houses the U46 offices — had handled all the high school needs in District U46. But in 1955, the U46 Citizens Advisory Council warned that a second high school would have to be added by the early 1960s. On Oct. 17, 1959, voters approved a $3 million bond referendum to pay for such a school.

At a time when McLean Boulevard pretty much marked the west edge of Elgin’s developed area, negotiations began with the Burnidge family to buy 43 acres of farm and orchard land at the southwest corner of McLean and Larkin Avenue.

In a 1962 condemnation proceeding, the school district paid the Burnidges $270,000 for the land. The building construction would cost another $2,589,000.

Elgin West High?

But what would the new school be called?

When similar situations have arisen in other school districts, “directions” often get attached to both old and new high schools’ names. For example, when Glenbard High School in Glen Ellyn got a sister school in Lombard, the original became Glenbard West and the new one Glenbard East. Now there is also a Glenbard North and a Glenbard South. More recently, St. Charles High School became St. Charles East as a new St. Charles North High opened.

So some in 1962 suggested naming the new building “Elgin West High School” and renaming that venerable institution on Chicago Street “Elgin East High School.”

But that appalled many Maroon alums for whom “Elgin High” was a magical, sacred phrase. So the school board, chaired by Union National Bank President Ashley Arnold and including Elgin High sports fanatic Dr. Richard Powers, voted to name the new school after Cyrus H. Larkin (1830-1902), a pioneer who at one time owned 500 acres of farmland just west of Elgin, including the future school site.

Opening day was set for Wednesday, Sept. 5, 1962, two days after Labor Day that year. In those days, the U46 school year didn’t begin until after Labor Day and didn’t end until the second week of June.

An open house for the new building drew 11,000 visitors, equal to one-fifth the population of Elgin. The planners for this year’s anniversary open house hope they don’t draw quite that many people.

The same editions of The Courier-News that bragged about the spiffy new schools carried ominous foreshadowings of what would grow into the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which mankind would almost burn itself up in a worldwide nuclear war just four weeks after the school opened.

Closer to home, the Crocker Theater in downtown Elgin was showing “Bird Man of Alcatraz.” The Dundale Drive-in boasted a triple feature starring Elvis Presley.


The Larkin building incorporated several features considered cutting-edge in education. For example, many of the classrooms were “flexible.” A folding barrier between two regular-sized classrooms could be rolled back to create one big classroom. The first Larkin teachers took advantage by creating big classes taught by teams of two teachers in topics such as literature and social problems.

The campus also was designed to have separate wings for classrooms, industrial arts and music, so that noise from circle saws and trombones didn’t interfere with lectures about chemical valences and the War of 1812.

At the center of the academic wing, the two-story library had so many skylights that one writer said sitting in it felt like being outdoors.

With energy still cheap, the classrooms’ exterior walls consisted mostly of window, with some metal panels painted in the school’s royal blue.

The “Commons,” where students would eat lunch, could double at night as the lobby for concerts and plays being held in the adjoining auditorium.

To avoid disrupting teenagers’ social lives in their last year at Elgin High, Larkin at first got only the sophomores and juniors from its attendance area. A senior class was added at Larkin in its second year, 1963-64, and the new school held its first commencement in June 1964.

The opening enrollment was just 850. That jumped to more than 1,200 the second year, with the seniors added. Construction of more classrooms during the later 1960s pushed enrollment to about 2,000, where it still stands today.

In 2001, a new wing was added to house District U46’s Academy of Visual and Performing Arts, which ever since then has drawn talented students from all over the school district.

Despite hundreds of yards of empty ground to the south, Larkin was built without a football stadium. But the same month the school opened, U46 opened Memorial Field along Route 19 on Elgin’s far east side, for use by both the Elgin Maroons and the Larkin Royals.

Despite not having any seniors that first year, Larkin established a winning athletic tradition from the beginning. The 1962 varsity football team went 4-4, which was officially increased to 6-2 when a team that had defeated Larkin twice was disqualified for cheating. Most importantly, the football Royals defeated Elgin High in the first of many Elgin-Larkin games, by a dramatic 27-26.

The head football coach was a young P.E. teacher named Ray Haley. Haley would go on to coach the Royals for 28 years, pile up a won-loss record of 147-95-3 and become one of the most legendary figures in Fox Valley athletics. And “he came with the building,” joked Larkin’s second principal, Paul Green.

Changing colors

When built, metal panels along the academic wing’s windows and other exterior trim were colored a hearty blue.

After all, the yearbook is named the Cerulean, from the Latin word for “blue.” Larkin teams are called the Royals, not the Adobes.

But sometime in the 1980s, painters unceremoniously covered the fading blue with brown paint. And when Larkin’s turn to be renovated came in the 1990s, with most of the glass in the windows being converted to more energy-efficient insulated metal, a committee of teachers, administrators, parents and students picked from several earth-tone hues offered by the project’s architects, blue not even among their possible choices. The panel chose dark brown for some areas and a brown/red called “cinnamon” for others.

The original Larkin blue “was very ’60s,” explained architect Steve Wright. Restoring that color “would really date the building,” he said.

More significantly, the student body also was drastically changing color.

Reflecting how few minority families lived on Elgin’s west side or in Streamwood, one can look through the student photos in that first 1962-63 yearbook without spotting a single black or brown face. By 1967, there was one black student and one Hispanic.

Two factors changed all that beginning in the 1970s. Facing pressure to end this de facto segregation, District U46 shifted attendance boundaries so that Larkin would draw some students from Elgin’s near east side. By the 1990s, more blacks and (especially) Hispanics were moving into the “old west side.” And students in some more white-dominated areas of the school district began attending the new Bartlett, Streamwood and South Elgin high schools.

Today, says Principal Jon Tuin, the student body is 60 percent Hispanic, 25 percent non-Hispanic white, 12 percent African-American and 3 percent “other.”

“The racial makeup has really flipped over just the last 10 years,” Tuin said.

What’s more, he said, at this place that once was seen as the school for the richer side of town, 70 percent of students now are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, a yardstick commonly used by administrators to gauge the incidence of poverty in a school.

“They’re mostly very sweet kids. But the poverty poses many challenges,” Tuin said.

And the new ethnicity has brought another new problem, he added.

“Our students are highly mobile now. Kids come and go all the time as their families move. We trade kids back and forth with Elgin High School now almost daily.”

So now a student might wear Larkin blue one day, switch to EHS maroon the next, and go back to Royals blue a couple months later. Tuin says this has somewhat lowered the intensity of that 50-year-old Larkin-Elgin rivalry.

“Unquestionably, we’re still rivals with Elgin High,” he said. “But now the relationship between our schools feels more and more like brother and sister.”

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