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By Terry Dean
Sitting in OPRF's attic, buried in a box underneath some other dusty books was a 1969 first edition copy of an Ernest Hemingway biography signed by its author, Carlos Baker.
How it ended up in the school's attic — a treasure trove of discarded tables, chairs, books, file cabinets and other old items — is unknown.
But a recent tour of the attic, and the school's maze-like basement, by school staff uncovered Baker's Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. Kay Foran, the school's community relations director, and Robert Zummallen, OPRF's buildings and grounds director wondered what other treasures might turn up. Zummallen actually found the autographed book while digging through a box in search of an autographed book by Hemingway himself.
Baker, a renowned Princeton University professor and biographer, was the foremost expert on the life of Oak Park's Hemingway, who is an OPRF alum, explained Foran. While she's familiar with many parts of the building, this was Foran's first time ever in the attic. She beamed with surprise and delight when Zummallen plucked the book from its dusty bin.
"You might want to take this and lock it up in your office," Zummallen joked. In fact, the book will likely end up on public display or in the school's archives, Foran said.
Recently, Zummallen and Foran led Wednesday Journal on a tour of OPRF's hidden areas rarely seen by the general public. The attic, a large, winding space that also houses pipes and ducts, is just above the fourth floor. Over the years, it has become, well, just like a home's attic.
School desks going as far back as the 1930s are among the items up there. Student records, school board meeting minutes from decades ago, are also housed there. Anything that's no longer used or needed in the main building goes in the attic, Zummallen explained.
But he says he'll have to clear out much of that stuff before the Village's Fire Department tells him to because of fire safety codes. The discovery of the Hemingway biography prompted Zummallen and Foran to consider doing an excavation of the area in hopes of finding other historical items.
The biography, along with student records and other files, are in a section of the attic fenced off with a lock and chain. Inside were old paintings and other artwork that may have been produced by students, like an undated, unframed painting of Woodrow Wilson sitting on a file cabinet. Stacks of blueprints of the school can also be found in this area. Zummallen said that info is now stored in school computers.
Rummaging and traversing the attic was like something out of the American Pickers reality show on the History cable channel. Zummallen joked that the show's stars — two Midwest antique dealers — would love digging through OPRF's piles of dusty potential gold.
In another area of the attic, Zummallen pointed out a sealed-off portion of a large air vent. Pigeons use to fly in and find their way all the way down to the first floor.
"They could get into the ducts, the vents; wherever they wanted to go," he said.
Down in the school's basement — an equally massive, winding area — we come across another interesting find.
Along a long corridor in the "west tunnel" is a batting cage, with netting and a green turf. Zummallen said student baseball players use this area for practice only when the weather's bad outside. Foran, snapping away with her camera, said she had no idea this was down here.
There's also an east tunnel, accessible to the Little Theater and student dressing room area. Up until the late 1960s, the east tunnel was used by students to walk from the field house to the main building. The field house was connected to the main building during an extensive renovation in the late '60s, which greatly expanded the school.
Zummallen led us to a large room now used for storage but which a couple of years ago housed a large fan used to cool a section of the building. The school has since installed more modern cooling units. Zummallen said the fan and blades were so large that engineers had to cut them in small pieces just to remove them from the room.
The basement area has other large and small tunnels that B&G staff have access to. Zummallen, who's been the director for five years, said it took him some time to become familiar with all of OPRF's nooks and crannies.
"About two years," he recalled. "It's a lot in one building."
Answer Book 2019
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