Lombard truck driver Mike Hough has lived all over the country, but he still thinks of Forest Park as “home.” That’s because his middle school years in Forest Park were magical, he said. “It’s just a unique little town.”
Visiting during Grooving in the Grove last year, he felt a sudden desire to see many of his middle-school buddies again. Although he’d never planned a big public event before, Hough and girlfriend Judy Koepp brainstormed with Community Center Director Karen Dylewski and hatched a plan to recreate the old middle school “Coke dances” held in Forest Park during the 1970s.
“We had Coke dances for Valentine’s Day, for Sadie Hawkins,” said Hough. “The chaperones would hand out Coke in little Dixie cups.”
Back then, of course the dances were socially awkward. “As a kid, I never danced. The guys would stand on one side of the room and the girls on the other and look at each other. We’re all grown up now and not afraid to talk to girls anymore,” he said.
Last year’s Coke Dance for members of the classes 1970-75 in early November drew 45 attendees – a fact that amazed Hough and that he attributes to Internet social networking. “If it weren’t for Facebook,” he said, “we could never have pulled this off.” This year, the dance will feature pizza and beverages other than Coke. “That’s all I’ll say about that.”
This year, Hough has expanded the timespan to 10 years – 1965 to ’75 – and he’s already got a band booked, Claremont Drive, which plays “Baby Boomer Rock” according to their website. “These guys are it,” he said. “They’re all our age and a good time. They’re good at getting the crowd involved.”
Hough said he ran with a group of “troublemakers” during middle school, but he made close friendships. “We grew up in the cemeteries. Every day you were with your friends – a clique of troublemakers. We all got in trouble and it was all good. Every day we asked, what can we do and get away with?” Surprisingly a lot of classmates are still in the area, he said.
Hough got in touch with some old teachers and a former principal from the era – for whom student mischief was presumably left in the past – and former Betsy Ross teachers Janet and Gary Fink attended the dance.
“They were the unofficial chaperones,” joked Hough.
Other Coke dancers last year included Lori Onesti, Randy Howard (who came in from Arizona), Bill Lindel, and Donna (Barone) Petrey.
Hough said the two houses he grew up in were torn down, and the middle school is the only building still left in Forest Park that holds his memories although he doesn’t like the current remodel.
“It looks like a prison now,” he said. “It used to look like a school.”
At last year’s dance, Koepp blew up large prints of yearbook pages from the era and hung them on the walls.
“People took their picture with the old photo from the yearbook,” she said. “Some people you immediately recognized when they walked in and some you didn’t know who the heck they were.”
Coke dances in Forest Park actually started just after World War II. The first dances were held in 1946. The Women’s Club of Forest Park sponsored the bi-monthly dances, which were limited to high school students at the time. Around 420 “jive artists” attended the first dance on May 3, 1946, according to published accounts. The first Coke Dance was held in the Park District building and lit with “old fashioned kerosene lanterns” during a village-wide “dim-out,” a reference to nighttime electric-light bans during the war. Admission was 25 cents. By 1950, the middle school was holding Coke dances organized by the school with help from local teens.
Hough said he’s hoping everyone who might be interested will hear about the event. He spread the word at the Hall of Fame softball tournament this summer.
“At the old-timers ballgame, everyone agreed to tell two friends who aren’t on Facebook.”
The reunion takes place Nov. 3, 2012, starting at 7 p.m. The event website is www.forestparkcokedance.com.