Helena Boumgarden, a kindergartener at Irving Elementary School, says Principal John Hodge is kind. Third-grader Malia Vasquez says Hodge is caring and makes everyone at their school feel special. And, Ruby Gerace, a fifth grader, says her principal is incredible and just amazing.
“He built such a family, such a community,” said Gerace, 10, her smile widening before diving into a quick story. She told Wednesday Journal that Hodge recently popped in on one of her classes and joined her and her friends, as they recited bits from poems.
“We had like a mini poetry slam. What other principal would do that?” Gerace said.
On April 29, Gerace joined Boumgarden, 6; Vasquez, 9, and dozens of students, staff and families on Irving’s front lawn, 1125 S. Cuyler Ave., to celebrate Hodge, who is set to retire at the end of this school year. That Friday afternoon they helped plant a white oak tree to honor Hodge and celebrate his 31-year career as an educator in Oak Park District 97, 18 of which were dedicated to Irving and the South Oak Park community. Members of the South East Oak Park Community Organization (SEOPCO) also attended the event to present Hodge with a plaque, which was later placed near the tree.
Doug Chien, one of the event organizers and whose daughter attended Irving Elementary years ago, said the white oak embodies Hodge in many ways. Oak trees are tall and sturdy, their crowns lush with leaves and long branches, and they are seen as pillars of their community just like Hodge, he said.
“It speaks to a place – that I belong here,” said Chien, as he looked at Hodge who stood beside him. But, Chien said, there’s something about white oak trees that mirror Hodge’s personality and leadership.
“There’s a softness, a tenderness that you see out of a large white oak that you don’t see on other oaks,” he continued. “To me, that speaks to Mr. Hodge. He’s got some softness. He cares, and he helps our community that we’re all a part of.”
Denise Frank, the event’s main organizer, shared Chien’s sentiments. Frank, a mother of three and co-chair of the school’s garden club, said she has gotten to know Hodge throughout the years and seen his impact firsthand.
Frank said Hodge is friendly, outgoing.
“When I first met him, I’m like, ‘Oh, this is ‘the principal,’” she said in an interview with the Journal ahead of the tree planting ceremony. “My principal when I was growing up was stern and scary. I was automatically like, ‘Stand up straight.’ And he’s so funny and puts you at ease so quickly.”
Frank said Hodge was open to people’s ideas and had a “yes” attitude, allowing others to lead the way. The school traditions such as the annual slam poetry showcase and the Irving Sleepover where families, students and staff would come together for games, movies and snacks and sleep at the school for one night are part of Hodge’s efforts to create a tight-knit community.
“All of these things that make Irving such a great community are driven by the parents’ ideas, the teachers’ ideas and him just saying ‘yes.’ And I haven’t seen that in any larger institution ever,” Frank said.
Other parents like Lauren Vandenberg, Christy Bonstell and Sinead Aylward also had a string of memories to share. Vandenberg, co-president of Irving’s PTO, said that Hodge attends the meetings and even stopped by recently to play a trivia game with them. For Bonstell and Aylward, they saw Hodge as an advocate for their children, someone who made them feel welcomed, included.
Talley Hann, founder of the Oak Park Friends School and a former Irving parent, said she still remembered when her now teenage son was a young boy and Hodge would walk with him to class.
Hann, who sits on SEOPCO’s board, said her son then had a “lackadaisical” attitude when walking to school, and when Hodge would spot him walking down the sidewalk, he’d come beside him, ushering him to the building.
“He would never make him feel bad about getting to school late, but he would always up [my son’s] pace a little bit,” she said, laughing.
That’s just who Hodge is, Hann added.
During the tree planting ceremony, Hodge helped Chien carry a small white oak tree and place it into a hole in the ground. A group of students surrounded Hodge, using hand shovels to fill the hole with dirt and keep the tree in its spot. Those standing nearby pulled out their cellphones, recording the moment.
In a brief interview with the Journal, Hodge said he felt proud about the work he’s done at Irving and the people he’s met along the way.
“I just have always known after working in this community for so long that you make connections, and it’s just nice to hear how strong those connections are, how our community members are feeling,” he said.
Parents give departing principal a warm sendoff
Wednesday Journal asked Irving parents for their thoughts on John Hodge’s tenure at Irving. Here’s what they had to say: