Honoring Oncken: A bench outside Willard School in River Forest was dedicated to former first-grade teacher Harriet Oncken on Monday. Oncken taught at the school from 1945-1982, in a single first-grade classroom that can be seen from the bench. Anthony Cozzi, a school administrator, and Lynne Graves, a former student of Oncken's, remove the wrap over the bench as part of a short dedication ceremony.Photos by J. GEIL/Staff Photographer

Back in the mid-1970s, Lynne Graves’ first-grade son was squirmy, rambunctious and had trouble even writing his name. But today, her son is 40 years old and a successful lawyer, and Graves thinks his first-grade teacher gets some of the credit.

“She had the patience to calm him down and get him started,” Graves said. “She was just an amazing person. I remember crying when she showed me how he wrote his name.”

Mrs. Harriet Oncken taught at River Forest’s Willard School for 37 years before leaving in 1982. Graves estimates that the teacher touched some 700 students during that time span.

Oncken died in June 2009 at the age of 87. After hearing the news, Graves — herself a former Oncken student, attending first grade in 1948 — set about looking for a way to honor her former teacher, with the help of Diane Schaaf, another former student.

Graves wanted to erect something to memorialize Oncken, settling on the idea of a park bench. She sent a letter to other Willard alumni, and was able to raise enough money to pay for the tribute (money poured in from all over the country, from 24 former students). But then came the hard part.

Erecting a bench proved to be more complicated than first thought. Graves, a retiree in her 60s who still lives in River Forest, had to seek competitive bids for the installation, come up with a plan for the bench and get approval for the monument from the District 90 school board. The final hurdle was leapt in October.

“This kind of thing doesn’t happen overnight,” Graves said.

On Monday afternoon, District 90 unveiled the new bench, which looks out toward Franklin Avenue, and is emblazoned with a plaque that reads, “In memory of our beloved first grade teacher.” The school hosted a small dedication ceremony for the new bench, attended by a few former students, along with Willard’s principal, the school superintendent and other staffers.

“I remember Mrs. Oncken, pretty lady, and wanted to see some old friends,” said Bill Snyder, a 66-year-old former student who lives in Elmhurst.

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