Last Sunday, the stadium at Oak Park and River Forest High School was filled with parents anxiously straining to see their sons and daughters in the throng of seniors lined up to receive their diplomas.
One parent had an easier time than others; she has seen the dress her daughter was wearing at four other OPRF graduations. In fact, Mary (Pigoni) Herner wore the dress herself in 1980. Her sisters, Nancy and Peggy, wore it in 1976 and 1977, respectively. Mary's daughter, Maranda, wore the dress in 2007, and last Sunday, Eleanor (Elle), Class of 2013, became the fifth female to don the flowing gauze creation with delicate lace and ribbon trim.
"In our class, we voted whether or not to keep the tradition of the white dress for girl grads. I think it's a lovely tradition, especially when it's outdoors with the green grass," Mary said. "It's just such a dramatic entrance … the girls in white with the red roses and the boys in their dark suits and red ties. I'd be disappointed if they stopped it."
Mary enjoyed her time at OPRF. "I just adored my high school education. I took advantage of all the classes," she recalled. Her favorite subject was science, but she fondly remembers a class she took on etymology, the study of the history of words. After college, Mary fell in love with Tony, a 1978 OPRF graduate, whom she did not know when they were part of a student body that numbered 4,000. They married and raised their family of four children in Oak Park.
In June 2007, Mary and Tony watched their eldest, Maranda, accept her diploma at the stadium. "It was definitely a flashback. … It's really a warm feeling to see your daughter wearing your dress," Mary explained. Though separated by 27 years, the photos of Mary and Maranda on graduation day look nearly identical.
Maranda inherited her mother's love of science and will start medical school in Oregon this fall. But she had mixed feelings about her heirloom graduation dress.
"In high school, I thought that dress was ugly, but I loved wearing it," she said. "It's like a grandmother's gaudy necklace, a great aunt's stained handkerchief, or a father's worn-out leather wallet … special hand-me-downs … items you would never yourself purchase. However, the sentimental value and feeling of familial connection make them beautiful."
Nancy, the eldest Pigoni sister, was the first to wear the dress.
"I loved wearing the white dress for graduation. It's an OPRF tradition that I was happy to carry on. I am glad today's students are still honoring it," she said. "My mom and I went to Wieboldt's department store to pick it out. Mom worked there, so we got a discount. I remember how beautiful all the girls looked in their white dresses with the red roses. The guys looked great in their dark suits as well. I was also glad to be going away to college."
Nancy recalls a busy four years at OPRF that were "both joyful and painful."
"I had a lot of fun with my Emerson grade school [now Brooks Middle School] friends, and made some new friends from other grade schools. Many OPRF teachers encouraged me and set great examples for success (Mr. Kinnear, Ms. Brown, Mrs. Carlson, Mr. Silver to name a few). I played field hockey, basketball and softball and wrote for the Trapeze and Tabula. Experiences in all these activities helped to prepare me for life as an adult.
"The painful part was just 'growing up' with other kids and learning who you really are. The student body had different groups, the geeks, potheads, jocks, cheerleaders, etc. It was very much like the movie, 'The Breakfast Club.' However, in 1976 OPRF had a great boys' basketball season and regardless of our differences, the whole school pulled together to cheer the Huskies to a third place finish in the state."
A year after Nancy graduated, Peggy had her turn.
"I liked the dress," she said. "It was simple and fit well. Nancy and I had very different styles growing up. She was more of a tomboy and I was more the girly-girl. Nancy did not like dresses, so we did not share dresses growing up.
"I love the tradition of the white dresses. … I think it looks so beautiful compared to the traditional cap and gown."
Peggy doesn't remember much about the student body at OPRF but, like her sisters, enjoyed her four years there in her own way.
"I loved high school. I was not involved with any activities. I just hung out with two real close friends. We did everything together. We often said we were going to a play or football game and then we would go hang out at some other friend's house," she recalled.
Final fitting, for now
Like her aunt Nancy, Elle is an athlete as well as a scholar. She is headed to Colorado State University in the fall.
"I remember hearing about the dress and how it has been worn by many of my family members, so I am honestly thrilled and extremely proud to wear the dress as well," Elle said. "I find it amazing that it has been passed down in my family for so long and it still looks very well-kept. I have seen the pictures of each of my family members wearing it, and I cannot wait to be included in those pictures. It almost feels as if it is a 'rite of passage' to wear that dress."
While some students (and their parents) find the "white dress" tradition archaic and inconvenient, Elle echoed her mom, sister and aunts when asked her opinion.
"I find the tradition of the white dress to be unique and original. A lot of schools just do the simple and stereotypical cap and gown type of graduation ceremony, but at OPRF, each student gets to pick out a certain white dress that says something about them," she explained.
Elle admitted her feelings about finishing are mixed. "Ending high school is definitely bittersweet," she noted. "As excited as I am to leave high school, the concept of college is terrifying, yet exciting. High school for me had its ups and downs. I had a very interesting time, that's for sure, but I am ready to put high school behind me and move on to bigger and better things."
The Pigoni/Herner dress cannot speak for itself, but on June 9, it stood with hundreds of other white dresses, worn by young women as complex, thoughtful and enthusiastic as Nancy, Peggy, Mary, Maranda and Elle, each facing the future clothed in something unifying, yet unique. It is a tradition that OPRF, and all its graduates, can be proud of.
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