By Dan Haley
The visits to the historical society began as something of a trivia search for an organizer of an upcoming school reunion for the Whittier School Class of 1969. But in paging through Oak Leaves of that time, the organizer discovered that her quiet, happy elementary school, tucked up in northeast Oak Park, was deeply involved in an extraordinarily divisive community debate over ditching the traditional K-8 neighborhood schools and creating three new middle schools.
Whittier would have been expanded and converted into a middle school; two brand new middle schools would have been built as well.
But middle schools were just one of the heady topics consuming Oak Parkers in the watershed year of 1968, arguably the most remarkable and proudest year in this town's history.
As we exchanged e-mails planning the Journal's print and web coverage of the Whittier reunion, which came off splendidly over the weekend (See page 8 and OakPark.com), we shared some thoughts about the Oak Park we both grew up in during that remarkable era.
She was astounded at how little she knew about the school debates swirling around her. And I wrote back about how the debate over middle schools, while it had multiple aspects (including an unexpected surge in enrollment), was also deeply entwined with the village's courageous embrace of open housing during that same year.
Schools and race were linked then, and they are linked still.
She sent along a thick batch of photocopied pages from Oak Leaves, and I've spent some time with them over the past few evenings.
First, under the editorship of Don Heine, a man I got to know a little bit in later years, the Oak Leaves did a better job covering the tumult than I recalled.
Second, in the dozen ways a newspaper reflects back its moment and its place, Oak Park stood in 1968 at this spectacular crossroads between its Eisenhower past and its brave, unknowable future as a national leader in racial integration.
There, amidst the stories about 10,000 signatures on an anti-open housing petition and 600 people protesting middle schools and shouting down school board members, are the pieces about fire prevention week and the police chief musing about whether the price of eggs will rise after 100 local kids were hauled into the police station for a Halloween egg-throwing/teen rebellion extravaganza — Don't worry, some of the kids were reportedly from River Grove.
Third, as notably different as 2010 is from 1968, some things never, ever change. The president of the VMA is defending his group from criticism that it is monolithic. A letter writer says "parents of teens should collaborate on youth problems," and then delineates the decline of civilization she has seen between her first, and perfect, daughter attending OPRF and her fourth daughter, who seems to have been a first-rate hooligan, always wanting to "hang out at a hamburger joint on Lake Street."
Also, the high school was beginning to face up to drug abuse. An administrator is quoted that in 40 years there had been one drug arrest in Oak Park, but that since February 1968 there had been 24 such arrests and all had been high school students.
And, finally, cable TV was just about to arrive in Oak Park promising "a much sharper picture," and all for $5 per month. Well, I guess some things do change.