Alum finds Larkin, and he, have changed in 42 years
By Dave Gathman firstname.lastname@example.org September 16, 2012 9:16PM
Dave Gathman -- ca. 1970
Updated: October 18, 2012 6:10AM
When I first spent time at Larkin High School in the days of Vietnam battles, Monkees music and Richard Nixon, my life ahead seemed so much different from how it turned out to be.
But then, so did Larkin High School.
When I studied there in the last three years of those tumultuous ’60s, I was going to be a criminal lawyer, or maybe a chemist, and write books about World War I and naval warfare in my spare time. In a mock jury trial during Social Problems class, I was the defense attorney representing the mass-murdering Manson Clan — and except for Charlie, I got all but one of them found innocent.
I figured I would eventually marry a certain girl whom I had adored more or less from afar since we were in the third grade.
When I studied there, Elgin’s Larkin was the newest and spiffiest of the two high schools in District U46. It was easy to find our way around. It was also, embarrassingly, as white as bleached long johns. Our class president was an African American, but he was one of only three in the entire class of some 700. Hispanics were barely more visible. If you were black or Hispanic and you lived in Elgin or Streamwood, you attended that older high school on the other side of town.
And like all teenagers, most of us felt like we could live forever. Unless, that is, the Russians finally launched their missiles or we got sent to that endless jungle war in Vietnam. When my randomly drawn draft priority number turned out to be 334, out of a possible 365, I breathed easily on the latter count, but I considered joining the Navy after college.
By the time I joined 1,000 other alums at Saturday’s 50th anniversary open house, at least 40 members of the Class of 1970 had died, none from combat wounds or Soviet H-bombs. One was stabbed to death by a jealous husband; her daughter survived and had become the girlfriend of one of my son’s best friends. One football star died in a car wreck, another from a heart attack while running in a foot race at age 30. A guy I hung with a lot in grade school days had become an alcoholic and died living under a bridge. St. Charles Police Sgt. Dan Figgins had been all set to become one of the first of us to retire but decided to stay on duty and died of a heart attack while wrestling with a suspect — a teenager committing vandalism at another high school.
I was in my 35th year as a full-time reporter, editor, columnist and movie critic. I had never even considered that kind of job back in the Larkin days. But I had stumbled into it after volunteering for our college newspaper. To be honest, the field fits my talents better than being a lawyer and is probably way more interesting than being a chemist. But another classmate bound for the field of law, John Walters, became a Kane County judge this year.
As I interviewed two couples who married 41 years ago after dating through their Larkin days, I thought back to the 1970 prom they had attended. I had gone there, too, with that girl I adored from afar, after somehow screwing up enough courage to walk up to her at her locker and ask if she would be willing to go with me. (Her answer was, “I thought you’d never ask!”) After just one more date a few weeks later, my paralyzing shyness with the other sex caused me to drop that ball again, as we went off to different colleges.
She soon met and married another guy. I encountered my own true soulmate at our college, and finally developed some courage. Now we have been married for 38 years and have two grown children, one of whom also graduated from Larkin.
By Saturday, Larkin was the oldest of five high schools in District U46. As retired gymnastics coach Bob Todd led 30 of us on a building tour, I was soon lost. Twice as big as it was in our day, Larkin has become a confusing maze of corridors and pasted-on new wings. We visited a new library, a new swimming pool, a new auxiliary gym, and a whole new arts academy wing and theater (new in 1997, that is, though it’s already older than the freshmen entering the academy this year).
That auditorium where the 1970 band played under the direction of my favorite teacher, the down-to-Earth, fatherly Joe Ciontea, is now a weight-lifting room. Those books about Field Marshal Haig and the Russian Navy, which I checked out of the school library and read while sucking up chocolate malts down at the McLean Boulevard Tastee Freeze, are no longer in the Larkin library. Those big classroom windows, whose view of cars bustling by on Larkin Avenue made us feel cooped-up, had mostly been replaced by solid walls to conserve heating fuel.
The outside of that wall had been repainted from the happy royal blue of the ’60s to a dull 21st century brown. By coincidence, I knew, a parallel color change had gone on in the student body. What had been so lily white is now 60 percent Hispanic, 12 percent black and 3 percent Asian. Only one in four of today’s Royals are white non-Hispanics, as almost all of us were in 1970.
But one thing remains as constant at Larkin as it did 40 years ago, as former Latin teacher and longtime Elgin Community College board member John Duffy noted Saturday: What makes education work is the interaction between a student who wants to learn and a teacher with the skill and ambition to teach.
Duffy recalled being visited in 1962 by Frieda Simon, the mother of one of his first students. “I said, ‘Mrs. Simon, it’s really a lovely building.’ And she said, ‘Yes, Mr. Duffy. But it isn’t the building that counts.’ ”