A 1917 Oak Park High School yearbook shows the grinning photo of a future Pulitzer and Nobel prize winner—a prankster, a self-described “class prophet,” and a storyteller like the world had never seen.
“None are found to be more clever than Ernie,” reads the tribute quote for Ernest Miller Hemingway, who (probably to no surprise of his classmates) went on to become one of the high school’s most famous alumni. His short stories and novels would redefine American literature and his reputation as a sportsman, a journalist, and key figure in Paris’s “Lost Generation” would become the stuff of legend.
The author himself became a character in his own right, a larger-than-life figure with personal escapades that many biographers trace to his alma mater. It was here that this young writer published his first articles, stories and poems on the pages of The Trapeze newspaper and in The Tabula. While some stuck to traditional journalism norms of the time, others were injected with Hemingway’s signature wit and sarcasm, such as sports stories he published under the fictitious byline of Ring Lardner Jr.—an homage to the iconic, real-life Chicago sports writer Ringgold Wilmer Lardner.
He also created a fake Shotgun Club at Oak Park High, gathering his pals around for photographs with rifles (which apparently only he owned) and then fabricating entertaining stories about it in The Trapeze. Beyond his work on the school publications, he appeared in the senior play, played on the football team, and joined the “debating society.”
The wood-paneled, fireplace-laden room where young Hemingway tackled the debates of the day more than a century ago has since been officially designated the Hemingway room, preserved in his honor and as a testament to his legacy.
Glynis Kinnan, an Oak Park River Forest High School alumna who taught honors and AP English Literature to sophomores and seniors in the Hemingway room for 18 years, says while she didn’t teach the actual works of Hemingway often, his spirit was often invoked within those walls—especially when engaged in the art of crafting sentences.
“Like the author for whom the room is named, the room has a style and a character that makes it stand out. Students find the room itself inspiring. It makes them feel cherished, that they are individuals deserving of lovely surroundings,” Kinnan explains, adding:
“The students take particular delight in noting that the room reminds them of Hogwarts. In an era when so many public buildings—and, indeed, many of the other classrooms in the school—feature bland, lifeless design based on efficiency, the Hemingway room, with its oak and tile, its stained-glass windows, its built-in wood bookshelves, offers a haven of attractiveness and distinctiveness that speaks to students’ deep need to have their aesthetic sensibilities nourished.”
She says her favorite Hemingway novel is The Sun Also Rises and the favorite story she likes to teach is “Hills Like White Elephants,” but that what happened during her time teaching in that room transcends words on a page. “We turn to literature to refine our imagination,” she says. “Engagement with literature provides inner wealth that is not susceptible to quantification. In this respect, the room is like literature itself, beautiful and profoundly meaningful in ways that exceed the understanding of the merely practical or functional.”
One of Hemingway’s final works at Oak Park High was a class speech aptly titled “Class Prophecy,” filled with the future novelist’s prognostications of his classmates’ destiny.
His own destiny after graduation is well-documented, as a reporting job at the Kansas City Star opened the door for all the adventures and accolades to follow.
He never wrote under the fictitious Ring Lardner Jr. byline again. However, about a decade later, while living in Spain (and allegedly hating his real name), our ever-clever “Ernie” Hemingway gave himself a new nickname that stuck—Papa.