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Sheridan School may be renamed

Edward H. Abbott was rewarded for being well-known Elgphysician school board member by having his name attached new Abbott

Edward H. Abbott was rewarded for being a well-known Elgin physician and school board member by having his name attached to the new Abbott Junior High School (now Abbott Middle School) in 1932. | Dave Gathman ~ Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 16, 2014 6:25AM

On Jan. 13 the School District U46 Board of Education is expected to step up and courageously do something no other U46 board has dared do for half a century: name a school after a local human being.

The board is considering a proposal to change the name of Sheridan Elementary School on Elgin’s northeast side to “Ronald D. O’Neal Elementary School.” O’Neal, who died in 2009 at age 68, was the current Sheridan building’s first principal. He had been U46’s first African-American administrator and would go on to become the principal at Elgin High.

But the road to reach that decision has been long, perhaps shedding light on why U46 repeatedly has stuck to generic, sound-alike geographic or subdivision-style names since it named Tefft Middle School in Streamwood after Elgin’s first mayor way back in the 1960s.

The original Sheridan School was built in 1888 at Ann and Hill streets. At first it was named Hill Street School, but 10 years later it was renamed in honor of Civil War Gen. Philip “Little Phil” Sheridan.

According to researchers for the school district and Elgin Area Historical Society, it is unclear why Elginites felt such affection for the general. He was from Ohio, not Illinois, and has no known connections to Elgin, though he did oversee relief efforts after the Great Chicago Fire and he spearheaded development of the North Shore Army camp later named Fort Sheridan.

A modest proposal

Ron O’Neal, meanwhile, went to work for District U46 in 1970 after working for a district in Centralia, Ill. He was hired to be principal at Sheridan, and he was still there when a brand new building was built for the school a block away, which opened in 1973 and kept the name “Sheridan.”

In 1974 O’Neal left to become principal at Larsen Middle School, and after 20 years there he was promoted to one of the district’s plum principal posts, the top job at Elgin High School. He retired in 2001, though he came back for awhile to serve as the interim principal for the new Gifford Street (alternative) High School.

Last August, retired U46 administrator Gus Vaughan submitted a formal proposal to rename the new Sheridan building after O’Neal.

A step-by-step procedure for choosing any school’s name is carefully spelled out in U46’s policies handbook. The process includes holding a “town hall meeting”-style hearing in the neighborhood; inviting written comments; researching the proposed honoree’s background; and having someone from the administration (in this case, Chief of Staff Tony Sanders) report on all that to the school board.

Among other conditions, the policy states that in no case may a school may be named after a living person, whether local or world-famous.

Sanders said that in the Sheridan/O’Neal case, the hearing held on Oct. 15 drew 60 commenters, and another 85 submitted written opinions. Of those, 118 endorsed the name change, three were neutral and just 24 argued for keeping the Sheridan name.

In his nomination, Vaughan cited many civic and charitable groups in which O’Neal had been involved.

Commenting in writing, local resident Susan Fortner wrote, “He made a difference every day, and we could all take lessons from him on his total commitment to his job and the community.” During the town hall meeting, Elgin Police Sgt. Gary Neal said O’Neal changed his life by serving as a role model and encouraging him to continue his education. “I cannot think of a better way to honor and recognize a man who contributed so much to Elgin,” said Sheridan alumna Kecia Wilson Rowan.

‘Elephant in the room’

On Monday, Sanders and Sheridan Principal Nita White presented the school board with the administration’s recommendation: rename the school.

Discussing the issue, board member Maria Bidelman noted there was “an elephant in the room” — the fact that board member Traci O’Neal Ellis is the proposed honoree’s daughter.

“My preference would be that Ron O’Neal was not eligible” — because those who are eligible must be dead, O’Neal Ellis said.

“I did not initiate this, nor did my family,” O’Neal Ellis said. “I came from a school board meeting one night last summer and found out from my mother that someone he had worked with was going to start this process unless she had an objection.”

“I am taking this situation in stride because 1) I had nothing to do with it and 2) my father was well deserving,” she told the other board members. “You can vote your consciences on this and it will not affect our working relationship because my dad’s standing in the community is not dependent on this.”

A hot potato

As Courier-News history columnist E.C. “Mike” Alft noted in one column years ago, “fashions in Elgin school names have varied over the years. The first public school building was at DuPage and Chapel Streets. Built of brick, it became known as Old Brick when a New Brick school opened on Kimball Street.

“Other early schools were identified for a time by their ward, such as the Third Ward and Fifth Ward Schools,” Alft wrote. “The Colored School, abandoned when enrollments were integrated, was the only school named after the students who attended.”

As Elgin’s population swelled with European immigrants in the 1880s, a squadron of new two-story, stone and brick elementary schools was built, including what would become the first Sheridan School. And like that “Hill Street School,” most at first were named after the streets on which they fronted.

But in the 1890s, the school board apparently decided they wanted to honor people — especially national Republican politicians. All three assassinated presidents had their names attached to an Elgin elementary school — Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. Other schools were renamed for Ulysses S. Grant, George Washington and Ben Franklin.

Political correctness clearly was not a big concern then. Alft wrote that Elginites in the early 1900s mostly referred to the Oak Street School as “Dutch Flats School” because of all the German (“Deutsch”) immigrants who lived around it. And many called Grant School the “Slop Hill School,” after the many pig pens that immigrants around there had in their yards.

Going local

Finally what was then the Elgin Public Schools began naming some schools after local people — but usually only if they had some connection to the local schools.

“The name of a local person was first adopted in 1899 when the Abby C. Wing School opened,” Alft wrote. “Wing was an early academy and public school teacher who had recently died in a fire.” That building is now the Burnham Schoolhouse Apartments.

In 1913, Oak Street School became Lowrie School. Namesake A.H. Lowrie had been senior publisher of the Elgin Daily News, a predecessor of The Courier-News. But he probably got the honor because he also was president of the school board.

In 1932 the first “junior high school” (now a middle school) was named after that era’s school board president, physician Edward H. Abbott. Built in the 1950s, the other Elgin junior highs were named after beloved teachers T.A. Larsen and Emmie U. Ellis, and after the Kimball family who had been the first settlers on Elgin’s west side.

In the 1940s an elementary school was named after Harriet S. Gifford, the ummarried sister of city founder James Gifford, because she had become Elgin’s first teacher.

James Gifford is arguably the most important personage in Elgin history but no school ever was named after him, unless you count the Gifford Street High School for problem teenagers that opened inside the “old Elgin High building” in the 1980s. But that was really named after a street that had been named after James Gifford.

Elementary schools in the 1950s got their names from school board president Vincent Coleman and teacher Myrtle Huff. And in the 1960s the first junior high in the Streamwood part of District U46 was named after Joseph Tefft, an early farmer in the area who had become Elgin’s first mayor.

But then the use of local people’s names stopped for some 50 years, probably because choosing someone had become too much of a hot potato. If you named a new school after a creek or a meadow, no other creek or meadow would feel slighted.

Some schools were named after the subdivisions around them — Illinois Park, Century Oaks, Parkwood, Glenbrook, Fox Meadow (whose name actually takes ”Fox” from the name of one nearby subdivision and ”Meadow” from the name of another one).

Highland was named after a street and Lords Park after — well, that’s obvious.

In 1967, Alft wrote, students in the Airlite Street area were allowed to name their new school. They chose “Hillcrest” over such other candidates as High Point, Towercrest, Knollwood and Hawthorne.

Names of new U46 schools began to sound like what you might find on a developer’s for-sale sign — Spring Trail, Nature Ridge, Sunnydale, Timber Trails.

And sometimes they became confusing. Was that meeting scheduled for Hilltop Elementary or Hillcrest Elementary? Was the game scheduled for Harriet Gifford School or Gifford Street High School? Was that supposed to be Nature Ridge or Ridge Circle? Creekside Elementary or Otter Creek Elementary? Spring Trail, Timber Trails or Sycamore Trails?

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