History Fair | Our Town | Chicago Reader

History Fair 

The seventh- and eighth-graders at DeWitt Clinton Elementary School on the northwest side are a lively bunch, gregarious and gawky, as are most early teens on the threshold of that social and academic mine field otherwise known as high school; but like prisoners in the dock, they stiffened and eyed me cautiously as I entered the school gymnasium, knowing that I was one of the guests invited to judge the seventh- and eighth-grade history fair.

Betsy Foxwell, a teacher at Clinton, welcomed me at the door and thrust a bundle of evaluation forms into my hand, pointing to a cul-de-sac of lunch tables covered with models, posters, and display panels, each meant to demonstrate "a working knowledge about some aspect of Chicago-area or Illinois history." As a former high school teacher, I knew the game and relished my role as Grand Inquisitor, someone whose questions could mean success or failure in the competitors' attempts to advance to the citywide competition. Foxwell's checklist asked me to evaluate projects on four counts--historical knowledge, quality of analysis, source material, and presentation. The students stood in twos and threes, nervously shifting from one foot to the other, hands folded behind their backs, some hastily reviewing note cards.

The project at the end of the table next to the door focused on the history of the Chicago Bears, consisting of a two-by-three-foot poster board painted with the Bears emblem and pictures of Walter Payton and Mike Ditka, as well as a white cardboard model of Soldier Field (I recognized its scoreboard and rounded end) with a 1988 Bears roster on the 50-yard line. I asked the student, who looked like a Future Fullback of America, why he picked the Bears. He told me he's been watching the Bears since their Super Bowl season and liked them. I asked about some players on the team, and he supplied ready evaluations. Did he know George Halas? Gale Sayers? Red Grange? He furrowed his brow for a moment and told me that Halas was the old owner of the Bears, but admitted not knowing who the other two guys were. He got points for honesty.

The next project was on the late Chicago architect C.F. Murphy Jr. When I told the student that my father had worked for Murphy, he rolled his eyes but pressed bravely on, pointing to pictures, plans, and his own Polaroids of such Murphy edifices as the IBM building, the First National Bank, O'Hare International Airport, and McCormick Place, and explaining the architectural merits of each. Going by numbers, architects won the fair's popularity contest by a mile, covering 100 years of Chicago's architectural history from Daniel "Make No Small Plans" Burnham to Mies "Less Is More" van der Rohe. Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies each rated two projects, with one each to Murphy, Louis Sullivan, William Holabird, and engineer Isham Randolph, the man who reversed the flow of the Chicago River by building the Sanitary and Ship Canal.

During one architecture presentation, a student crept up behind and put a party hat on the head of the speaker. With admirable restraint, the project owner--I wish I'd shaken his hand--re-moved the hat and continued his talk. After I thanked him and proceeded to the next project, he strode angrily to the end of the aisle, saying, "What the hell's the matter with you, putting this thing on my head while I'm trying to talk to the judge?"

I found a lot of projects on Chicago and Illinois politicians, each with a smiling portrait and newspaper articles taped to large panels. Students sang the praises of at least four Chicago mayors--William Butler Ogden (Chicago's first), Anton Cermak (Chicago's martyr), Richard J. Daley (Chicago's boss), and Harold Washington (Chicago's first black)--and turned a blind eye to any shady dealings. Cari, who picked Cermak, had heard the rumor that Cermak's assassin, who is thought to have been aiming for President Franklin Roosevelt, really got his man when he shot Cermak in 1933.

I made my way to a portrait of Mayor Richard J. Daley pasted above a chronology of Chicago history during his 21 years in office. I asked the presenter, a precocious sixth-grader who wanted to compete with the older students, whether the Richard Daley who is running for mayor in 1989 is any relation to the Mayor Daley of her project.

"He's his son?" she offered tentatively, adding that the Daleys lived in Bridgeport, although she could not say exactly where the neighborhood was.

"What's Mayor Daley famous for?" I asked.

"Well," the girl drawled as she tried to buy time, "he ran an effective political machine," though she shrugged and said she didn't know exactly what a political machine was; she probably thought it was some kind of vote tabulator. Points for a refreshing political naivete, which I didn't give to the owner of the Adlai Stevenson project, who thought Lyndon Johnson was a Republican.

There were more sports projects across the aisle from Daley; two on George Halas, one of which referred to him as "Pappa Bear," and two on the Cubs. I asked the owner of the "Pappa Bear" project whether Halas had played any other professional sports. She said basketball. I couldn't bring myself to tell her about Halas's days in the New York Yankees outfield. Both Cubs projects came with models of Wrigley Field, creative despite their bearing little or no resemblance to the Friendly Confines. One Wrigley Field had thin strips of green construction paper and little pieces of yarn for ivy; the other, which was 90 percent infield, had photo cutouts from the program manning each position. Neither Wrigley Field model had lights, which begged the question.

Twelve-year-old Joey was progressive and pragmatic. Joey was all for adding lights to the park, he told me, "because if you work in the daytime you can go to games at night." When I asked why he didn't just go to Sox games, he frowned as if I was crazy. The second Wrigley Field belonged to 13-year-old Priscilla and 13-year-old Jennifer, both of whom were against lights. Said Priscilla, "Ballparks need to be unique, and no lights was unique about Wrigley Field." Points for agreeing with the judge.

Next to the ballparks, appropriately enough, stood eighth-grader Michael with his project on William Wrigley Jr., which emphasized chewing gum more than the Cubs. Michael, a tall, friendly fellow, offered me a piece of Wrigley gum from the bowl of various Wrigley brands (points for bribing the judge). His project had a wealth of Wrigley trivia, with pictures of Wrigley and his products through the decades glued on a large poster. Michael told me that after Wrigley inherited his father's soap manufacturing business, he moved to Chicago from Philadelphia. As an advertising gimmick, Wrigley gave away a piece of gum with each bar of soap, but the chewing gum became more popular so he went strictly with gum. Wrigley bought the Cubs in 1916 not for any great love of the game but primarily to promote his chewing gum.

I also liked the presentation on real estate magnate Conrad Sulzer, "the Father of Lakeview," although I'm not sure whether it was the project itself or the charm of its 12-year-old creators, Steven and Robert, that won me over. Steve answered my questions so eagerly that Robert couldn't get a word in edgewise; Robert showed his frustration with histrionic shrugs and sighs when Steve would jump in. A 19th-century Arthur Rubloff, Sulzer owned and developed much of what is now Lakeview, including the parcel where Wrigley Field was built. Steve and Robert did exhaustive research on Sulzer, well above and beyond the call of duty, delving into old city maps and real estate records. "Primary sources!" Steve reminded me.

Other 19th-century notables included John Jones, a free black who came to Chicago and worked as a tailor, holding $100,000 in assets shortly before the fire; Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, a social crusader who worked with the city's impoverished for decades; and Bertha "Queen of Chicago Society" Palmer, although she was noted in the project as a crusader for women's rights ("She discussed women's rights with the president!"). Ernest Hemingway and Chicago's poet laureate Gwendolyn Brooks represented literature.

Not all of the projects I judged covered historical personages. Other projects included the Indians of Chicago, Abraham Lincoln's home in Springfield, the Joliet state penitentiary (two Popsicle-stick cellblocks with GI Joe figures as both inmates and guards), and my favorite, the history of Lord & Taylor. Cathy's model of the Lord & Taylor store in Water Tower had marble contact paper and the signature L&T rose. She said she picked Lord & Taylor for her project because "I thought that this project would be interesting, and I knew that I can get a lot of information on it. I've been there many times." No doubt.

My favorite projects belonged to the competition for grades one through six--not my domain. One dealt with the history of World War II. I didn't have the chance to query the creator on what battle he portrayed, but his soldiers--all GIs, some shooting at one another--were painstakingly placed on construction-paper terrain. Next to that was the Battle of Gettysburg, and unlike what I was taught in school, soldiers from both north and south wore helmets and khaki uniforms and carried weapons that looked curiously 20th-century. Points for creative use of anachronism.

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