Jonathan Ellwanger was 21 years old, had just graduated from Northwestern, when Susan Gibson, the principal of Beye School on Cuyler Avenue, offered him a job as a music teacher. When this school year comes to its unnatural end, Ellwanger will retire from Beye having served there for 34 years, the final 18 as its principal.
He agrees it is an unusual and rare accomplishment to work in one school for an entire career and to advance from teaching music to becoming principal of that school. Might be more unusual because he expected to be at Beye for just a year — “one and done,” he said — before finding a job in a high school as a choral director. High school jobs were hard to come by and he wound up at Beye only because an acquaintance noted he “was the only pale face in a student-led gospel choir” at school and thought Oak Park might just be for him.
Well Oak Park was for him, Beye School particularly. Ellwanger notes that in its more than 100-year history, Beye School has had only eight principals. That’s amazing, especially since it feels like some District 97 schools have had eight principals in the last decade.
Ellwanger believes longevity is in the DNA of the building and the Beye community. “It wasn’t just Susan or me. There is something palpably distinct about Beye. There’s just something,” he said.
His present crop of parents and students certainly agree and there is a palpable buzz about how to honor Ellwanger in the quarantined age of COVID-19. While secrets remain to be divulged about aspects of the recognition, an early June parade has been announced that will have the principal out and about — and socially distanced — on the streets of the Beye neighborhood.
Ellwanger says he is a bit of a procrastinator and that he has “never been a counter,” which, he says, explains why he hasn’t been overly focused on the milestones of his final year at Beye. But he says he doesn’t want to leave “all the emotional unloading” till the end and expects “to laugh a little and cry a little” as he wraps up.
He also acknowledges “that he has spent the last year getting Beye ready” for a new principal. Jenn Schmidt will arrive from an assistant principal’s role in Naperville. Ellwanger said the two have been working already on hiring and that she has “been very active meeting people.”
“My hope for Beye and for District 97 is that someone could come here and stay for 33 years. To be part of a place so wonderful, so life-giving, so challenging.”
He says the annual celebration of departing fifth-graders will be virtual, with the advantage that “we don’t have to sweat it out in the auditorium” but with the promise that every kid will get their moment when a teacher speaks about each child’s Beye connections.
There seems to be no way to recreate Olympic Day virtually. But Ellwanger remains a fan of Beye’s tradition of mixing children from every grade onto every team in competition. And he thinks the Bobcat Packs which blend all ages into groups that meet across the school year are a valuable place “to do our social-emotional work.”
And, almost, he allows, he will miss the annual goodbye party that gathers up Beye families across the decades for a good community celebration.
But in a later email, Ellwanger asks that no regrets be voiced as he wants every person who works on the odd finales to this year to know how much he appreciates each of them. “I’m not sad or downhearted. I’m enjoying every moment. Every micro-moment.”
Beye parents are touched by Ellwanger’s determined and generous efforts at connection even during the pandemic. He continues to send an audio version of the daily announcements, which include the Pledge of Allegiance, recitation of the Beye Laws, a joke from a student, and his exhortation to stay positive. And then there is the evening “read-along” with Ellwanger reading a book to his sheltered-at-home students.
Ellwanger, his wife and their daughter have plans, though COVID-19 has potentially altered the timing. At some point they will be moving to Vermont, his wife’s home state, as their OPRF graduating daughter hopefully heads to college.
Asked what he’ll do as a youthful 55-year-old in Vermont, Ellwanger says, “I’m a pretty simple person. I can be happy doing a lot of things. And principal skills apply to a lot of things. I’ll do something to help make the world a better place, little by little.”
Just as he has done at Beye School.