Former parents, students, teachers and staff members of the old Hawthorne Elementary School will reunite, 30 years after the school shifted to being a junior high, to reminisce about the period of their lives spent there.

Neil Sheehan, principal at Hawthorne from 1972 to 1976, is at the forefront in arranging the event. He hopes for an informal gathering that would bring together all the parties involved, prior to 1976, in what he believed was a wonderful, unified environment at Hawthorne.

“There is no doubt in my mind that those four years were the most memorable of my [20-year] career,” said Sheehan. “The teachers at the school and the parents at the school came together with one goal in mind: to develop the best programs that would benefit students. There were no hidden agendas.”

A change in population at Hawthorne

Hawthorne Elementary School, which taught kindergarten through eighth grade, changed with the advent of integration. According to Sheehan, the year before he was named as Hawthorne principal, black students made up less than 1 percent of the student body. However, four years later that number rose to 17 percent, the highest of any Oak Park elementary school in 1975.

With the metamorphosis of the village into a racially diverse body, the Oak Park Elementary School District 97 Board of Education made moves with the intention of helping integration to succeed in Oak Park. One of those decisions was to change Hawthorne Elementary School into a junior high school, with the goal of spreading the Hawthorne neighborhood’s diverse population into other schools in Oak Park.

Sheehan feels this move took away some of the unity that came with a smaller school containing only children from the neighborhood.

“We worked hard at making racial integration work at Hawthorne School,” he said. “I think we were successful. When the District 97 School Board made the decision to reorganize the schools to achieve racial balance, the parents at Hawthorne were not strong proponents of the change. They indicated they were happy with the school situation they were experiencing at the time.”

Sheehan hopes the event will be an opportunity for students, teachers and parents to come together and recall the wonderful time they spent together at Hawthorne.

“Those were really remarkable, memorable years. The programs and everything just came together so well,” he said.

Others feel the same

David Gray, a first and second grade teacher at Hawthorne for six years, is excited to revisit his past.

“It’ll be nice for us all to get together and connect and find out what everyone’s been doing all these years,” Gray said. “The older you get, the more you want to reminisce.”

He calls Hawthorne a “special place” where things just seemed to gel.

Polly Shafer, who had five children at Hawthorne and volunteered at the school for 13 years, also has the school ingrained in her memories. “I remember those years very fondly,” she recalled. “They had an excellent principal and a very dedicated staff… . They were a group of people that seemed to really care about the education of the children.”

Roberta Heirich started her career at Hawthorne in 1973 when she was 24 years old and just recently retired in 2003 from Percy Julian Middle School (what Hawthorne is known as today).

“I was very lucky to start my career with the faculty and staff there,” she said. “The rhythm of things just seemed to be working together so beautifully… . What was so cool about it was that everybody continued to learn and grow, which I guess was the Camelot of it.”

Working as principal of Hawthorne taught Sheehan some valuable lessons. “Personally, the experience of working with the teachers and parents at Hawthorne School convinced me that given enough time for a thorough discussion, people of good will who all have the same goal in mind will eventually make the best decision.”

The “Hawthorne Elementary School Gathering” is slated for 7 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 14, at the Avenue Ale House, 825 S. Oak Park Ave.

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