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A Memorable and Happy Occasion

I pass up a chance to be 17 again

Illinois Times

May 23, 1991

Kids used to grow up at home. Beginning with my parents' generation, more or less, we began to grow up in high school. That high school is not the best place to do this is plain enough. Most of the people who look back fondly on their high schools years were fond of being 17, not of high school.


I was not fond of being 17, either. I wasn't very good at it and the prospect of a reunion celebrating our youth did not enthrall. This piece seems harmless enough, but more than a couple of my classmates (I was told later) took offense at it. I understand now that it is the party-ness of such events that bothers me; how much better if a venue could be invented at which we could just meet and talk.

“Second and last notice" read the invitation. I struggled for perhaps ten minutes before marking the box that reads, "I will not be able to attend." It was a lie—I am able to attend, just not interested—but then pretending is what high school was all about.


Yes, it is time for the twenty-fifth reunion of my high school class. The Senators of the Springfield High School's Class of 1966 will be gathering in July at the Renaissance, as befits a group of our age and accomplishments. (The twenty- year reunion was held at Knight's Action Park, a venue that must have appealed to the ironic sensibility of the organizers.) A "warm-up party" is planned for the Friday night; if my classmates have aged no better than I have, that event would be more accurately billed as a wake-up party.


My reunion committee is promising "a memorable and happy occasion," which would make it an improvement over high school. One's twenty-fifth high school reunion is, I realize, widely held to be a "very special" event. One reason is that one is old enough by then to have discovered that life really is like high school. (I, for example, haven't had a hot date in more than twenty years.) Another reason is that after twenty-five years most people are far enough away from their adolescence to have forgotten the embarrassment but not so far away that they forget what caused it.


It's hard to say which is more frightening: the prospect of being in a room with several hundred people who remember what you did in high school, or being in a room with several hundred people who've forgotten what you did in high school. (Worst of all, I guess, is being in a room with several hundred people who never noticed you were in their high school.) Being at Springfield wasn't traumatic or exciting, it was just stupid.  I have no old scores to settle (although there are a few apologies I ought to make) and no interrupted seductions I wish to consummate (ditto). Asked once by a classmate what was the one thing I'd do if I had high school to do all over again, I answered, "transfer."


Someone who was at the twentieth anniversary reunion assured me that the old cliques quickly break down at these get-togethers. Springfield High in those days had cliques the way schools today have dropouts. I remember them as one of the best things about school life. I breathe a sigh of relief whenever I think about all those really horrible girls I was prevented from dating because I lived on the wrong side of MacArthur, or went to the wrong junior high, or brushed my teeth sideways instead of up and down. Dealing with SHS's social cliques was wonderful preparation for an adult world in which access to privilege requires a college degree or a union card or the right party affiliation.


I'd go anyway if I thought the conversations were likely to range beyond day care centers and divorce. The odds are not in my favor. I wrote in 1979 about the brain drain from Springfield caused by talented young people making their adult lives in other cities. Ten years after graduation, roughly 80 percent of the class officers, academic achievers, indeed all the bright young things of my class had left the Springfield area. All the senior student council members from that year had left, for example, as had the football co-captains, the homecoming king and queen, etc.


They did not, by and large, go on to make exceptional lives for themselves. One taught Latin and Greek at a university out west, making him the only obvious intellectual among those who confessed their occupations to the reunion organizers; District 186 did not exactly excite us about the possibilities in a life of the mind. What SHS was set up to do was produce hundreds of dutiful citizens content to spend themselves in those dull pastimes necessary to the maintenance of a middle-class consumer economy.


I had assumed that my classmates had left after college because they found the prospect of life in the old home town stultifying after the stimulations of Charleston and Carbondale and Iowa City. I think today that I had it wrong. What happens was that dozens of my classmates fled Springfield to lead very Springfield lives elsewhere. Their flight was more a function of Springfield's small size and economic stagnation than their yearning for freedom. In order to be the good Springfield burghers they were raised to be, they had to move to places like Dallas and DuPage County.


Apart from its paucity of opportunity, Springfield's gravest flaw in the eyes of the Class of 1966 was that their parents lived in it. As a generation we were indulged and thus dependent; as young people we craved an independence we weren't prepared for. Most of the classmates I've talked to confess to having troubled relationships with their parents to this day, as they and the folks are trapped in essentially adolescent struggles over self-determination. “Breaking up is hard to do," went the refrain of a song popular in our day, but we didn't know then that it would apply more to your relationship with your parents than to your lovers.


Of course, not everyone keeps reunion organizing committees informed about their subsequent lives. Only a journalist would dare draw conclusions from such a self-selected sample. But I must note that no fewer than 180 members of my class are on the "lost sheep" list, out of a total membership of roughly 700. This actually compares favorably with some other SHS classes. A member of the Class of 1971 reports that half of that class have held themselves incommunicado and presumably will not be attending their twentieth reunion this year. My guess is that the half that will be attending is the half that didn't have pimples in high school.


I count myself among the underachievers of my class, of course—had we held such contests I might have been voted the boy most likely to disappoint himself before forty—but even the best of us compare poorly to the Class 1969. There was a bunch of go-getters. Their student council officers included a future bilingual Peace Corps volunteer- turned-inner-city-teacher, a Montessori teacher and lecturer, a governor’s operations director, a singer-songwriter whose play will soon will be produced in New York City; I hear that their homecoming king owns a restaurant in the north of France. Now that's a reunion I'd like to go to. Maybe if I get a copy of their list I could go as one of their lost sheep. Who'd recognize me after twenty-five years? Better yet, I could borrow a girl's name and tell them I had a sex change operation in order to get into the Israeli Air Force after that scandal at the convent.

I bet those 1969s wouldn't even bat an eye. ●




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.

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The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

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Journal of Illinois HIstory

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

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Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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