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Thursday, March 10, 2011 06:24 am

A school by any other name

The perils of naming public buildings in a fastidious age

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The good people of Chatham have built themselves a second public elementary school, to give their young the skills they will need to someday leave Chatham. The usual sorts of names for the new school were submitted to the school board by townspeople and students and staff – those of local landmarks, of a local soldier whose name would thus be remembered for a lot longer than the war he died in, of the slow-rail system that once linked central Illinois towns. While none of the submitted names was brilliant, the worst was better than the most popular of the names, which is – drum roll, please – Glenwood Elementary School.

I can think of a good school nickname – the Glenwood Generics.

Perhaps it’s a phase that all young towns go through. In the Springfield of yore, the first public schools were given the number of the ward in which each stood. This is like naming your kids Child One, Child Two, and so on. And District 186 disdained naming its newest high after a person or local landmark, naming it Springfield Southeast. I mean, no one’s heard of Colonel John H. Wilson Jr., after whom the Postal Service named the main PO in Springfield, but that’s still better than calling it the Out Toward I-55 Building.

However, as Springfield grew, it acquired a roster of distinguished people who helped it do so. In 1881 school authorities decided to name all the grade schools for worthy citizens such as Jacob Bunn, serial entrepreneur, and Zimri Enos, professional Old Settler. More recent namees include a poet (Vachel Lindsay) who didn’t make enough money and developers (Fred W. Wanless and Charles S. Wanless) who made so much they gave away the land for a school.

The problem with naming schools after people worthy of emulation is that so few people are. Chatham could name its new grade school after Robert Pulliam, who, by building his cabin nearby, is thought to have become the first white settler in Sangamon County. Alas, Mr. Pulliam was not only a pioneer but a thief and swindler and gambler and maybe worse.  According to “Hero or Hellion,” a paper by David Brady and Bill Furry delivered before the Sangamon County Historical Society in 2005, Pulliam was charged in dozens of cases over three decades  with crimes ranging from assault and battery and counterfeiting to attempted rape.

District 186 has honored several people who might be considered dubious heroes. The Sac war chief Black Hawk was resurrected long ago as Illinois’ favorite Noble Redskin, but in his own time he was a frontier Fidel Castro. Jane Addams is remembered mainly as a nice lady; she also was a pacifist whose opposition to U.S. entry into World War I led many to damn her as un-American. Merchant Elijah Iles convinced state officials to select his home town of Springfield as the county seat through an act of fraud.  

Eager to not be caught endorsing anyone who might later be revealed as odious, public officials have simply ceased to name public buildings after public citizens. In 2007, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute surveyed several states and found that almost no town named schools for U.S. presidents any more, or indeed for people in general.

This is to abdicate one of the responsibilities of the public educator, that being to alert children to some of the makers of their world. I attended Springfield’s Matheny School as a boy. It was named to honor Judge James H. Matheny, judge of the Sangamon County Court for 17 years. Looking back, I realize that Mr. Matheny’s career might have been offered as a model to the unambitious, which certainly included me. His name meant nothing to me then, however, and no one ever explained to me why it should.

Back in the 1990s, kids at Graham School celebrated the birthday of its namesake, teacher Elizabeth Graham, and kids at Iles produced a play that recalled that patriarch’s role in Springfield’s founding. I suspect such projects are exceptions. A recent browse of the websites of two dozen District 186 grade schools found only three – Marsh and Dubois and Wanless, the last devoting one sentence to it – that posted anything explaining why each school bore the name it did.

Pity. The lessons to be drawn from the names above the door of many grade schools are among the most important a young person can learn. In the case of District 186 schools that lesson is, being an insider pays. The class of citizen most often thought worthy of commemoration by past school boards has been the people who run the schools – Hay, Lawrence and Feitshans in days past, and Graham, Marsh, Lee, Wilcox and Withrow in more recent times.

An even more important lesson is that people who achieve are seldom flawless. Pioneers tended to be social misfits, for example, ambitious business people tend to be ruthless, and much public virtue is practiced to mask private vices. Hiding such uncomfortable truths from children is not something that school districts ought to do. My advice is, name your buildings after problematic characters by all means – and make certain to explain to the kids what made them problematic.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.
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