The best “classrooms” in Forest Park are our sprawling cemeteries. So when middle-school teacher Joseph Almaoui asked me to lead his students on a tour of Forest Home Cemetery (FHC), I was delighted. Mr. Almaoui was joined by colleagues Steven Elfinger and Joy Kibir and about a dozen eighth-graders.
We met at Forest Park Middle School and walked to FHC. We first visited the Roma graves and discussed their practice of leaving gifts on the graves of loved ones. One grave had two cans of beer and a bottle of whiskey.
We then strolled down Radical Row, armed with literature about FHC, including “The Day Will Come” a book honoring working-class heroes, by Mark Rogovin. The first working-class hero we encountered was Eddie Balchowsky.
Eddie was a concert pianist who fought against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Although he lost his right arm, he continued to enjoy a successful career as a pianist. The students didn’t know about the Spanish Civil War, nor did they recognize the band Eddie played with, The Mamas and The Papas. They were also distracted by a fawn that was scampering among the headstones. FHC isn’t just rich in history, it has flora and fauna and fawns.
We continued down Radical Row and lingered at the Haymarket Martyrs Monument to talk about the struggle for the eight-hour workday. The students were shocked that the martyrs had been branded as terrorists. It showed them that FHC will accept anyone for interment.
The students admired the monument and were equally impressed by the tiny headstone of Lucy Parsons, who was the driving force behind the monument’s creation. She was the African-American widow of Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons and carried on his work.
We discussed other prominent African Americans buried in Forest Home, like Professor Joseph Corbin, who founded the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. On a sadder note, we discussed a 13-year-old girl named Schanna Gayden, who was killed by a stray bullet in 2007. Schanna’s mom couldn’t afford a funeral, so FHC paid for everything. The cemetery also created a shrine to Schanna with the inscription, “In memory of all the loved ones who have been lost to violent crime.”
The students wanted to see Schanna’s shrine but I couldn’t find it. We did locate the grave of a little girl named May, for whom Maywood was named. We also visited the grave of Ferdinand Haase, the founder of Forest Park and described how the site had originally been a Native-American village and burial ground until the Potawatomi were forcibly removed to a reservation.
We found the headstone of Edward Roos, and I had difficulty explaining what a hope chest is. We also viewed the monument honoring Frank Troost. If nothing else, the students learned why we have streets named Ferdinand, Hannah and Troost. They also learned the town was originally called Harlem and combined the names of two neighboring suburbs, River Forest and Oak Park, to become Forest Park.
Our final stop was the Druid monument. Some students were familiar with the figure of Merlin from stories about King Arthur. They didn’t know the Druids originated Halloween and that their idea of a “trick” involved human sacrifice.
The tour took two hours and we walked over four miles. No one complained. Teachers and students alike felt liberated after a year of confinement. We proposed doing more tours in the fall. There are so many more landmarks to see.
The students later sent me a thoughtful card. One thanked me for telling him everything about Forest Park and the people who changed the world.
John Rice grew up in Oak Park and now lives in Forest Park, where he writes a weekly column for our sister publication, the Forest Park Review.