The Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park recently named Oak Park and River Forest High School senior Tamsen Cronin (class of 2017, which will be the centennial of Hemingway’s graduating class) the winner of the inaugural Hemingway Foundation student writing competition. Held this past spring in conjunction with the English Division at the high school, Tamsen’s essay, “At Home in Oak Park/River Forest,” earned her a $1,000 college scholarship, administrated through the Oak Park and River Forest High School Scholarship Foundation, and a writing mentorship with the Hemingway Foundation’s Writer in Residence during her senior year at OPRF. The award will be presented during the Hemingway Birthday Benefit on July 23 at the Oak Park Public Library.

Megan Carraher and Fiona Casper-Strauss won second and third place respectively. All three students will have their essays published in Hemingway Shorts, a journal celebrating new voices in creative writing. The publication will coincide with the International Hemingway Society Conference taking place in the Oak Park-area, July 17-22.

Here is Ms. Cronin’s winning essay:

The evening air blew through the car windows and ruffled a paper that jutted from the package I held. I looked up as we passed my high school. The orange brick was muted in the night, warmly inviting the bustle and excitement that would come Monday morning. Right here though, it was nice to lose myself in the pattern of clay tiles covering the roof. 

When we pulled into my driveway a few minutes later, I held the brown package tighter and walked to the family room. Right here on the couch, the string untied stiffly with a puff of dust. The paper unfolded crinkly. Pictures and a foreign handwriting spilled out. I began my exploration! After examining several letters and a wedding photo, I understood why my Grammie had left this bundle of foxed papers to me: This collection of papers belonged to my great-grandfather — Thomas Cusack — for whom I am named. 

One hundred years ago, Thomas Cusack grew up in this community and attended OPRF High School just like me. As I fingered the old papers, one thicker item leapt at me. It was both strange and familiar. I smiled as I discovered a thin volume with the words “Senior Tabula,” burned across the top in blue and orange lettering and a “’17” scrawled in ink just below. I carefully lifted the cover and let it fall open in my lap. I impatiently flipped to the C’s. At the top of the lefthand page, right here, is the picture of my great-grandfather, staring out with all the wonder and promise of any 17-year-old OPRF student! 

I learned that Thomas Cusack was a member of the Boys’ Rifle Club, Class Football, and the Burke Club. I continued turning pages. I stopped again at another familiar name. But this name was familiar not for its place in family history but for its place in Oak Park history and in American literature itself. 

Ernest Hemingway’s picture, it turns out, has the same, wonderful eagerness of an OPRF senior. Like Thomas Cusack, he was a member of the Rifle Club, Class Football, and the Burke Club. His connections to our community in Oak Park have been celebrated for years, but it never quite hit me until now. He was great-grandfather’s classmate and friend, members of the same clubs and whose friendship is enshrined in Thomas Cusack’s 1917 yearbook with Ernie’s warm smiles and child-like signature. 

I put down the Tabula and pick up a few old photographs. I saw throngs of young men, eager to enter the world, standing arm in arm before the high school entrance. I now recognized two faces standing together. I have read that Hemingway may have felt more at home abroad than he did right here. But I believe he would find the Oak Park of today more than ever his home — its character, its charm and, above all, its celebration of every living soul. 

As I head into my senior year, I share deeply that sense of connectedness, and I feel more alive than ever, more than ever joined to my classmates and community. Somewhere deep inside me I even feel a connection over the generations to those two boys smiling in the Burke Club and Rifle Club photographs from 1917. I am part of it and I love it. To me, it is — simply and wonderfully — my home.

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