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By Ken Trainor
"Life's been good to me," says Neil Sheehan, enthusiastically, as he seems to say everything, and some of his best years were spent as a District 97 principal from 1967 to 1987. The man from Libertyville became principal at Whittier School in 1967 ("Being a principal in Oak Park was a real feather in your cap," he recalls).
Over the weekend, he and his wife were back in Oak Park to attend the reunion of the class of 1969. He remembers them well.
"I have great memories of that class," he says. "It was only my second year at Whittier. They were good kids, really bright."
Life was simpler then — for principals and for teachers.
"It was easy to recruit new teachers," he recalls. "I'd tell them, 'There's no lunch program, no buses. All you do is teach the kids.'" Teachers often spent their noon hour playing bridge. And when you called a student's home, mom would answer the phone.
"Was life simpler?" he asked rhetorically. "You'd better believe it."
Lots of other issues, of course, were swirling all around this bastion of innocence — Vietnam, civil rights, Woodstock. In Oak Park it was Fair Housing and integration. At District 97, the main controversy was whether to switch to a junior high system. To do so would require retrofitting several of the buildings, including Whittier, which the school board and superintendent favored, but they had to go to referendum — twice — and were twice trounced.
"Parents liked the neighborhood schools," Sheehan says, "and so did I." In fact, he still prefers the K-8 model, "without a doubt — but I'm an old guy."
He enjoyed seventh- and eighth-graders, he recalls, in small numbers. But a collection of several hundred in a single school? "Forget it," he says.
After six years at Whittier, he was asked to take the reins at Hawthorne (now Percy Julian Middle School) because the district wanted a steady hand as the school's minority enrollment increased. Galen Gockel, a school board member at the time, led the recruitment. Sheehan's first reaction when asked was, why walk into a potential headache? "Then my social conscience got the best of me. It was an opportunity to get involved in school integration."
But he didn't want any part of the new junior high that Hawthorne would become four years later. "I was working on my doctorate [from the University of Chicago] at the time," he recalls. He could have pushed for the position, but he wanted to stay with the neighborhood concept. So he spent the next 10 years as principal at Holmes School, then retired. They sold the big house on Ridgeland Avenue (where they raised seven kids), and or the past 10 years, he and his wife have lived in Michigan City, Ind. They also have a place in Sarasota.
His memories of Whittier are both vivid and fond. Three things impressed him most when he arrived in Oak Park. At PTO meetings, most of the parents had grown up in Oak Park and stayed, or they came back here to live. Each of the 10 schools in the system had their own auditorium and gymnasium. That was unheard of elsewhere. And when he walked into the supply room, he found 25 basketballs.
"This is my kind of school," he thought. "I'm going to like this. It was an indication of how much the community supported their schools."
The teachers at Whittier, he said, "were the best group I ever worked with." One in particular stood out, Dick Gillogly, a social studies teacher and innovator who had his students put on a non-partisan political convention. "It was really well organized," Sheehan recalls.
He also organized a school-wide effort to sell a cleaning product, Swipe, so they could raise funds to build Vitale School in the Philippines through the School Partnership Program. He had everyone selling the stuff door to door, even Sheehan.
"We were the first school to raise $1,000."
Gillogly eventually went overseas himself to teach and ended up as headmaster of an international school in Moscow. When Sheehan retired (at the age of 55), he ended up in Torino, Italy, for two years, teaching for Gillogly.
Later he became a baggage handler at Eastern Airlines (for the travel benefits) and trained student teachers at Illinois State University. Eventually he went full time at I.S.U. and retired a second time.
Being a principal today, he says, sounds like a much more difficult job than in his era. The emphasis on testing with No Child Left Behind, he thinks, is "ridiculous. Schools are doing away with recess. It's all oriented to academics. That's not all bad, but it's not all good."
By way of contrast, "in the late '60s, early '70s," he says, "everything was very traditional. Anything you did that was different was really revolutionary. But we worked very hard to make school fun, and we were pretty successful. There was plenty of teaching going on, but we tried to make school a place they wanted to come to. To learn, you have to be motivated."
Sheehan's educational philosophy would not be considered mainstream today. As a teacher, he rarely gave homework. "I always thought school should be like a job. You work hard while you're there, then forget about it. That ran against the grain."
One program at Whittier that also ran against the grain was "Home Arts." The first half of the year, students — girls and boys — learned to cook and sew and master other domestic tasks. In the second half of the year, they worked in wood shop — boys and girls. Some parents, and the superintendent, didn't like the boys cooking or the girls hammering nails.
"It was really unique," Sheehan says. "I supported that."
Apparently it was controversial enough to make the local paper. "When I was an eighth-grader," says Karen Doty, one of the reunion organizers, "I didn't know that was a controversy. However, I was always pleased that all members of our Whittier Junior High worked side by side in the baking of cakes, sewing of buttons and hammering of nails."
Last Saturday during the Whittier reunion, Sheehan met with a dozen former teachers and spouses at Maya del Sol on Oak Park Avenue for lunch, then boarded a trolley with former students for the nostalgia tour. One of those classmates, Bob Johnson, hosted the class dinner at his house in the evening.
Johnson is one of 10 classmates (out of a graduating class of 76) who still live in Oak Park or River Forest (or who moved back).
Sheehan met with a smaller group of Whittier grads from another year the weekend before last. These are the first two Whittier reunions he has attended and he feels honored to be asked.
"Those were the good old days," he says. "That's for sure."
And he isn't the only one who thinks so. "I have very fond memories," says Doty, "of Mr. Sheehan (I don't think I'm ready to call him 'Neil'). Not sure all former students can say that of their principal."