Who would have thought that one of the most depressing conversations I ever had led indirectly to the biggest political miracle in my lifetime? Several months ago, Claudia Medina and Sarah Gasse asked for my historical perspective on District 209 and Proviso East High School. I brought a few cans of beer to Sarah’s kitchen because I couldn’t face discussing Proviso completely sober.
I told them how Proviso had once been on par with OPRF High School but was now one of the worst high schools in the state. I told them about how racial unrest in 1968 had led to white flight. I described how Forest Park was basically disconnected from its own public high school.
I mentioned how the eighth-graders cry at graduation, being split up to different high schools. Unlike almost every town in the U.S., there was no continuity from our elementary schools to our high school. I told them how many good families, people who would have been pillars of our community, fled Forest Park when their children reached high school age.
I also had to mention my worst regret as a journalist: allowing myself to be snowed by Chris Welch’s smooth manner into believing he would be the voice for reform at District 209. I endorsed Welch and watched the district steadily decline, as the level of paranoia rose. School resources were drained by sinister politicians, with no concern for the kids.
It was a story with no silver lining. I weakly offered that Claudia and Sarah could send their kids to St. Ignatius because they would likely receive a free ride to college. Private education is a tough sacrifice many Forest Parkers make to stay in the town they love. However, it is also a “me first” remedy that doesn’t help other kids in the community.
As much as Claudia and Sarah wanted to remain in Forest Park, I expected that we would lose these pillars. I never dreamed this would lead them to have a meeting at Brown Cow, where Claudia and Ned Wagner would bravely throw their hats in the ring. Frankly, I didn’t give them a chance. Two amateurs against entrenched, no-holds-barred, machine politicians.
On Election Day, I stood outside Garfield School in the bone-chilling breeze and handed out a few cards. I thought that even the weather was against “209 Together.” Still, I was impressed with their district-wide ground game. Their workers had told me how every town had been canvassed and that a grass roots movement was in full swing.
On election night I was stunned by their victory and hurried to Fat Duck. Campaign manager Connie Brown stood on a chair to talk about the political upset, getting choked up at least once. Ned stood on the chair to say he had almost cried at his first 209 meeting, seeing the calloused way the board treated students and parents. Claudia, the first Latina to be elected in a district that is 42% Hispanic, gave her usual force-of-nature speech.
The crowd in the tent was a rainbow: blacks, whites and Latinos, united to make sure kids in District 209 got a chance at a quality education. At the post-election party at Claudia’s, 250 guests consumed a 150-pound pig and drank and sang until 1 a.m.
I’ve always dreamed of a local “Fellowship of the Ring” to dismantle the devious inside power that corrupts. A selfless group of candidates, who weren’t seeking power for themselves but wanted to destroy the greed that ruins our communities and schools. The victory of “209 Together” proves that even the wildest dreams can come true.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.