top of page

Memories of a Jungle Gym

My Matheny, 'tis of thee

Illinois Times

October 21, 1977

Asked about old school experiences, I reply that grade school, not high school or college, was my favorite. I could walk from home—my first adventure in a wider world—I had some fine teachers, and I grew to feel about the building in ways I never felt about my house.


Matheny Elementary School was closed not many years after I wrote this piece.  A local entrepreneur bought the building with grand hopes to convert it into some kind of community facility but those plans came to naught. So it stands still. How I would love to enter it again.


They tore down the jungle gym sets at my old grade school a few weeks ago, leaving a gap in the landscape thereabouts as conspicuous as the absence of a tooth in the smile of a friend. The school is Matheny Elementary, which, for those readers who do not know it, is located at 2200 East Jackson across the street from Washington junior-high-turned-middle- school-turned-seventh-grade-attendance-center. It’s a two-winged (one old, one newer) three-story brick school of the type customary in the early years of this century. It was not a small school, not like the ones my parents attended anyway; the principal, for example, who was expected to sign the report cards of all the students under his care, did so with a rubber stamp. It was, however, small enough that every kid there knew every other kid his or her age.


I’d been bicycling by recently when I noticed the playground demolition and stopped for a few minutes. 1 was five years old when I first set foot in the building and eleven when I left it, though it seemed longer.

The teaching staff—in accordance with the times mostly women, working under a male principal—were figures of Dickensian dimensions. The principal was Louis McFadden, who wore double-breasted suits and looked like a farm town banker who’d just heard that the crops had failed. With him were Elsie Rogge, a towering woman (this is no child’s refraction of memory; she stood at least six feet tall) whose stockings always sagged. Every week she’d ask her pupils if they’d gone to church the previous Sunday, and the kids always said they had even if they hadn’t, because it was safer to lie and face God than to tell the truth and face Miss Rogge. Also there was Thelma Spratt, art teacher, who wielded a wooden paddle with as much artistry as she wielded a paint brush; Miss McBride, kindergarten, whose habit of taking misbehavers behind the piano for punishment ruined the taste for music of more than a couple of five-year-olds; and Ruth Leka, a gently and endlessly solicitous woman who gave her students an idea of what a teacher should be like that her successors rarely lived up to.


I parked my bicycle and walked around the school yard. Across Jackson Street to the north is the field used for gym classes. I still carry the scars from a spill I took on the cinder track that circles it, a track which, because there is a better track elsewhere now, has been surrendered to weeds. On the south side of the school is a much smaller asphalt playground. I’d left something of myself there when I advanced to junior high—literally, because I knocked off part of a front tooth when I ran into a fire escape while chasing a girl my fifth grade year. I’d fought the only fist fight I ever won on the playground, though as I stood there I couldn’t remember exactly who I'd fought or why, which proved that I'd managed to put that event into perspective at least.


At the rear of the school is the all-purpose room. Parents used to get involved in school activities with an exuberance that’s hard to credit nowadays. Dad's Night, I remembered, was an annual event. One year my father, who was then a warrant officer in the Illinois National Guard, arranged by some secret corruption of the regulations for the ING’s 33rd Infantry Division Band to assemble for their weekly drill and rehearsal in Matheny’s gym. Also on the crowded bill that night were skits in which otherwise sane and sober men were persuaded to clump, embarrassed, around the stage with their trousers on backwards, doing pantomime imitations of Jerry Lee Lewis, and dragging frogs around on leashes. Rarely, one suspects, did the obligations of fatherhood weigh so heavily as they did that night.


The gym was the scene of triumphs and defeats that were magnified beyond all proportion by their having happened in such a small place. Like the night Robbie W. failed after three tries to hit a concluding low note in a clarinet solo during a PTA show and ran in tears to the kitchen at the back of the gym like a rabbit darting for the protection of his burrow. Or the sixth-grade basketball game in which Dave R. closed his eyes and flung a hook shot through the hoop from the right corner, a shot so extravagantly successful that the memory of it sustained him through several subsequent seasons of defeat.


I left the gym and walked back to the front of the school. This year District 186 has had to convert Matheny into an attendance center for kindergarten, first and second grades. Because state law prohibits housing kids that age on the third floor (in case of fire), and since the lower floor classrooms cannot accommodate all the students, the district had to truck in six temporary, trailer-like classrooms. They squat on the school yard like giant sleeping dogs, tied to the school by leashes of black electrical cable. As I walked by one of them I stopped and gave it a kick, hoping it might get up and walk away. It didn't so I left. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

bottom of page