“What do you celebrate when you celebrate 150 years?”
That’s the question top of mind for Don Vogel, a former Oak Park and River Forest High School teacher and principal who remains tied to the school and has been tasked to help honor the school’s 150th anniversary set to take place in 2023.
“There’s the building, the championships – all sorts of things out there,” said Vogel, who carved out a 30-plus year career as an educator at OPRF and is now one of about nine members of the Sesquicentennial Steering Committee. “But to me, Oak Park has always been about the people who have worked there and who’ve gone to school there, the families that have been touched, the community that’s been touched by what the graduates have done.”
The committee, which is made up of OPRF alumni, school employees and local leaders, is still in its planning stages and looking for volunteers who may have ideas on how to display the public high school’s long history. An online form for people interested in participating and planning activities around the anniversary is on the school website at www.oprfhs.org.
OPRF was founded in 1873, and its first batch of high school students shared classrooms with young children from Central School, an elementary school located at Lake Street and Forest Avenue, according to the site. Decades later, in 1892, a building designated for only high school students was constructed on the southwest corner of Lake Street and East Avenue. Soon after, in 1905, school officials eyed and purchased land between East and Scoville avenues, constructing a larger building, the site stated.
Since then, OPRF, which remains at 201 N. Scoville Ave., has expanded, drawing in thousands of students from Oak Park and River Forest.
In the online form, volunteers can choose to help with plans for community outreach, launch events, collect stories from alumni or coordinate anniversary merchandise and swag. The committee is also planning to partner with the Oak Park River Forest Museum to display a historical exhibit. Vogel also came up with an idea to record 150,000 hours of community service; for that one, Vogel said he’s looking for graduates around the world to share, promote and document their service hours that would hopefully reach that whopping number.
“It’s a really ambitious goal, but it’s such a cool idea,” Karin Sullivan, OPRF’s spokesperson, told Wednesday Journal. “If we can get alumni – no matter where they are in the world – to do even one hour of service wherever they live in their local community, that’s a really powerful effort.”
But Vogel knows OPRF will step up to the challenge. It already has in the past.
“I’ve always described OPRF as a tapestry where you blend together all of the stories of these 70,000-plus graduates, along with staff and faculty that have worked there, and you have an amazing story to tell,” he added. “… There’s lots of people who have done lots of things. There’s been the scientists at the Smithsonian, and there’s ballerinas, and there’s been state legislators and congressmen and whatever, each making an impact in a different way.”
As Vogel and Sullivan look ahead to the coming months and build a larger team to home in on next year’s festivities, the two spoke of excitement – and at times pressure – to create something memorable. Vogel, who joined OPRF as a teacher soon after graduating college in 1974, said he came to the school around its centennial anniversary and recalled there wasn’t much of a celebration. Now, he’s excited to have the chance to do something.
“It’s not all about how great we are or what we do or whatever. There’s been challenges; there’s been ups and downs. There’s been times when things happen that we probably shouldn’t be very proud of. But like in any family, you accept the good and the bad, and you have to tell the whole story,” Vogel said. “You recognize all those different parts and pieces. Oak Park High School was clearly a reflection of the changing community.”
“It’s a story worth telling,” he said.