By Steve Robinson | September 29, 2013 - 10:08 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

Steve RobinsonPrior to the start of the new school year, Normal’s Unit 5 School District officials announced the format for how the district’s two high schools would celebrate their respective homecomings would change.

But in order to understand the changes that were made, one must remember how it used to be done: Unit 5 schools would be dismissed in the early afternoon in time for kids to make it to a parade that would start, usually around 2:30 or so. That would be followed by the evening’s big event – the homecoming football game. I have no doubt that, when I was in high school, at a time when Normal only had one high school, this was a simple process to deal with.

When Normal Community West High came into being in the mid-1990s, the district adjusted to doing this routine twice a year. It is my understanding that, even back then, the neighbors living around the schools were troubled by traffic issues that surrounded getting into or out of their neighborhoods in the late afternoon as a result of the parade format.

Most importantly, the changes put into effect as of this year were made to alleviate disruptions to students’ learning time in the classroom caused by the early dismissal, which in turn, led to disruptions in how the district’s tiered bus service got kids home from their day.

“When we had parades on Friday so that everyone could get prepared for the game, it was very difficult for the children and their families that wanted to participate to get released to do so,” explained Dr. Sandy Wilson, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for the district.

What Unit 5 chose to do to replace the long-standing same-day parades was allow the high schools to create their own alternative celebration plans for the big event. And from hearing about what those plans were once they were rolled out, they turned out to be as different as a Wildcat is from a huddle of Ironmen.

Normal West gets to step forward and show off their new tradition first this weekend. By the time you read this, it will have already begun, as the Wildcats faithful will have had their parade and annual “Powder Puff” football game on Wednesday, Oct. 2. The Wildcats will play Urbana at Wildcat Field Friday at 7p.m.

Two West seniors, Casey Spence and Shelby McBurney, are not just Cheer Squad members, but also are on the school’s homecoming committee that developed the new format for the celebration. “Our committee thought Wednesday was probably just the easiest day to do the parade,” explained Spence. McBurney added combining the parade and the Powder Puff event on the same night would make for what she called a “larger start” to the homecoming festivities.

At Normal Community High School, where homecoming will be celebrated Oct. 18, a “Red Wagon Parade” will take place around the track at Ironmen Field at halftime of the game between NCHS and Decatur Eisenhower. Before the game, there will be a family-oriented tailgate event held just outside the stadium’s front gate. Adam Woodside and Melissa Guevara, both NCHS seniors, are on the Planning Committee for the event.

Woodside said he thinks “the tailgate is going to be much better than the parade, just because of how involved we can get the local community.”

“We’ll get them to get out and play games and really have a good time with the students and interact with the students,” Woodside explained.

At the tailgate, students representing the 80 clubs within Normal West will be running booths at the tailgate. He said students from all four class years will be involved with the activity.

Guevara admits she has talked to people at school “who are disappointed” about the parade in its traditional form not being held as it had for so many years. But, she said, there are also many people “who are extremely excited about having the new tailgate before the game.”

“I’ve been hearing from people the tailgate is going to be a much better option and it’s going to be awesome, and even bigger than what the parade was,” Guevara added. She said she has heard from fellow students and community members alike that having an event that brings fans out beforehand has been a well-received notion.

Guevara said she believes “we’re dealing with the change in an awesome way, and I think it’ll be even better than what the parade was last year.”

“Is the change a little bit of a shock? Yes,” Woodside asks and answers rhetorically, but it quick to add, “But just because something’s new and is a shock doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a bad thing.”

“There have been several venues for communication about Homecoming plans, including class sponsor meetings at NCHS, Iron Pride PTO meetings, the Alumni Association, and our Principal’s Advisory Committee made up of almost 70 students representative of all groups in the building,” explained David Bollman, principal of NCHS to me in an email. I was not able to get in contact with Normal West administrators, but one can pretty much believe the same concerned groups were contacted by administrators there, too, for input.

“None of those groups has expressed any concern about the lack of a Homecoming Parade,” Bollman continued. “They have understood the rational regarding the change in the school calendar that no longer allowed us to support a parade in the traditional format at Normal Community, and have been supportive of the new activity of tailgating with activities and a limited parade at halftime.”

It is also a pretty safe bet the various groups of students and parents there also pitched in ideas and suggestions and lent input leading to West’s finished product.

“Both schools have come up with a new tradition,” Wilson said. “This situation has allowed each school to come up with a plan, and they came up with two different plans.” Wilson reminded that while parents and teachers provided input on what they thought might work, it was the students who put the plans into motion.

“This is still involving the community,” Wilson said. “It’s a win-win for the schools and the community.”

Sometimes, such changes don’t always come or get accepted very easily. But in this case, no one is losing out, but rather, they are preparing for the beginning of a new tradition. Considering the way it developed, it sounds like a winning circumstance all around.

FootballNORMAL – If you look at who earns the bragging rights in the annual football showdown between Normal Community High School and Normal Community West High, you discover that which team earns those rights tends to lean all to one side or the other for a consecutive number of years.

Up through 2009’s meeting between the two sides, NCHS held the upper hand for a number of years, but for three years beginning in 2010 Normal West streaked in the number of victories. So when NCHS came from behind to beat the Wildcats, 35-21 in their annual Big 12 matchup at Ironmen Field on Sept. 27, some NCHS fans probably thought the momentum was reversing course yet again.

The annual “Chili Bowl” game winner is presented with a traveling trophy inside of which is a bowl of chili for players to sample. Ranked 6th in Illinois High School Association Class 6A, West (4-1 overall and in Big 12) got off to a fast start, scoring on an 18 yard run by junior running back Genia Fuss at 10:47 in the first quarter, followed by a successful point after by senior Zach Breen, giving the Wildcats a 7-0 lead.

On their ensuing possession, NCHS (4-1 overall and 4-0 in Big 12) responded marching to the Wildcats’ 6 yard line, but a stingy Wildcats defense forced the Ironmen to settle for a 23 yard field goal by senior Grant Donath, cutting West’s lead, 7-3, after a drive that lasted 80 yards in 12 plays.

West increased their lead, 14-3, on a 21 yard pass from sophomore quarterback Mitch Fairfield to senior receiver Darin Bethke, with 2:58 left in the opening quarter, followed by another Breen extra point.

NCHS’ ensuing drive – 71 yards over 8 plays – was capped off by a one yard running touchdown by sophomore running back Alec Bozarth with 1:01 left in the opening quarter. Donath’s successful extra point help cut West’s lead, 14-10 going into the second quarter.

But West’s efforts to advance on that lead were stopped when their next drive ended in a fumble – the first turnover for West on the night – which was recovered by NCHS senior defensive lineman Jaiden Snodgrass at the West 18 yard line. Three plays later, Donat kicked a 40 yard field goal, cutting West’s lead to one, 14-13, with 11:19 in the second quarter.

NCHS FootballNCHS gained its grip on the lead, 20-14, as a result of a tricky 10 yard touchdown pass from Bozarth to senior wide receiver Easton Schaber with 4:14 left in the fourth quarter, followed by another successful Donat extra point.

West’s next possession, however, was brief, starting at their own 20 but ending in an interception by NCHS senior linebacker D. J. Frank, who put his team at West’s 36 yard line to try for another score. Five plays later, Bozarth scored his second rushing touchdown of the night from 28 yards out, followed by starring in a two-point conversion play. That allowed NCHS to double-up on the Wildcats, 28-14, with 1:26 until halftime.

When West got the ball back on the next possession, they only had 65 seconds until halftime. They made good use of the clock, putting the ball in the hands of junior running back Genia Fuss, who dashed 63 yards into the end zone just as the clock registered all zeroes. Breen’s extra point cut NCHS’ lead going into the second half, 28-21.

NCHS received the second half kickoff and quickly took advantage of the opportunity, scoring 8 plays later on a 20 yard run by senior running back Jerry Patton III with 8:54 left in the third quarter, followed by another Donat extra point, putting NCHS up, 35-21.

“We came out of the gates and faced a little bit of adversity we hadn’t faced previously,” said NCHS head coach Wes Temples following the victory. “It was good to see from our young men how they handled that. They have learned they need to play for four quarters which we try to preach and preach. Our kids believed in it and they did it. All phases of our game were good tonight.”

Normal West FootballTemples credited the seniors on his roster with showing the younger players that remaining calm when the Ironmen got behind demonstrated those players “were ‘we’ guys and not ‘me’ guys, and that showed because our defense has never been in that position this year.” That calm, Temples said, aided in NCHS being able to regroup when needed to earn the victory.

“We left some points on the field offensively,” Temples added. “Defensively, we gave up big plays which we usually don’t do, so, those are two things right there that we need to work on. We’ve got bigger goals than beating Bloomington and Normal West. I know that.”

“My hat’s off to Normal Community,” West head coach Darren Hess said afterward. “They did a great job It came down to execution and I thought, up front, they did an excellent job and made more plays than we did.

“It came down to turnovers killing us and we didn’t tackle when we should have tackled,” Hess added. He added that the mistakes made are fixable and that the team’s record still has them “in a good place and that this loss isn’t the end of the world.”

“I know our kids will respond, and hopefully, come out with a victory next week,” Hess concluded. “Next week” for the Wildcats means hosting Urbana, while NCHS hosts their last meeting against Decatur Eisenhower, as the Panthers will be leaving for another conference after this season.

By Steve Robinson | September 26, 2013 - 10:28 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

Unit 5NORMAL – Board members of Normal-based Unit 5 School District voted unanimously to adopt a resolution approving a budget for the 2013-14 school year at their regular meeting held at district headquarters on Sept.25. The budget totals $149.14 million, an increase of nearly 2.5 percent compared with the district’s budget for the previous school year. The total amount of the budget is an increase of $3.16 million. A public hearing, required by law, was held prior to the budget being adopted. No members of the public present addressed the hearing.

According to a report prepared for Board members by Erik Bush, the district’s business manager, salary and benefits costs make up 74 percent of the total budget and almost 86 percent of the district’s principal operating fund, its education fund budget.

Unit 5 needed to address a budget shortfall in 2014, prompting the district to make reductions totaling $2.2 million, according to Bush. Among the items receiving reductions were: Costs in funding for task force work; Specific reductions in non-curriculum training expenses; Reducing costs related to use of substitutes when lead teachers are involved in professional development activities; and a reduction in district-supported professional development. The district has sought to find funds for this last item by seeking more development opportunities which could be funded through grants.

“We recognize the challenge of coming up with a balanced budget,” said Board member Meta Mickens-Baker during the meeting prior to the vote approving the budget.

Unit 5 mapAFSCME Bus Drivers’ Rep Speaks: Prior to the budget vote, Board members heard from Kent Beauchamp, regional director for American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 31. AFSCME represents about 120 bus drivers and 50 bus monitors. AFSCME-represented drivers received a ruling in their favor by an Illinois Education Labor Relations Board Administrative Law Judge in January, stating Unit 5 did not negotiate in good faith with its unionized drivers before opting to outsource its bus services before the 2011-12 school year.

After making her ruling at that time, Judge Colleen Harvey ordered to cancel its contract with Cincinnati, Ohio-based First Student Bus Co. and again take up negotiations with its union drivers. At the Board meeting, Beauchamp reminded Board members of the ruling.

At the Board meeting, Beauchamp countered district claims for wanting to outsource its busing operation, saying none of the district claims “turned out to be valid.” Among Unit 5’s reasons for outsourcing included that doing so would save the district $1.5 million over the life of the contract.

“Your savings is starting to shrink,” Beauchamp began. He reminded Board members First Student asked the district for an attendance bonus for drivers and monitors.

“Good News” About Pratt Music Foundation Scholarships: Board members received information concerning 11 students attending Unit 5 schools who are the winners of the 2013-14 scholarships given by the Pratt Music Foundation. A total of 27 scholarships were awarded to students from throughout the Bloomington-Normal community

The Unit 5 students who received the scholarships (and the schools they attend) are: J. D. Martin and Marquise Bonaparte (Normal Community High); Shelby Bays and Emma Papineau (Normal West); Savannah Shelton and Sianna Xu; (Chiddix Junior High); Dana Bays and Michelle Fields (Kingsley Junior High); Kennede Haynes (George L. Evans Junior High); Kean Jones (Fox Creek Elementary); and Justin Jacobs (Colene Hoose Elementary).

By Steve Robinson | September 22, 2013 - 10:54 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, U-High

Steve RobinsonDuring the football seasons of 1949 and 1950, University High School’s squads from those years entered the record books, winning an impressive 22 consecutive games without a loss. Back then, I’m sure the local daily paper and this one made some mention of that, but probably not to the extent today’s reporters, columnists, and editors would. But still, I’m sure they were given their due.

As it turns out, someone else at the time was keeping a record of the achievement in the form of a pair of big scrapbooks he assembled at the time. Richard “Gabby” Wachter, now 80 and a retired junior high school teacher of 33 years from Dubuque, Iowa, played left guard for the Pioneers of that era and is a 1951 U-High graduate.

Wachter and other U-High students of that era attended school when it was located in what is now Moulton Hall, located on Illinois State University campus. The football team played their games at McCormick Field, now long gone, near McCormick Hall toward the campus’ south edge.

Being a teacher and with time and possibly some limitations gaining on his ability to access his scrapbooks, Wachter decided they ought to be given their rightful place in history, and he got a little help doing that. Lou Williams, a friend of Wachter’s, contacted ISU’s Department of Development, making contact with Gail Lamb, who at the time was ISU’s senior director of development when Williams contacted her. Lamb has since retired.

Williams made Lamb aware of Wachter’s desire to donate his scrapbooks to U-High and thus, to the University. Lamb and Dr. Jeff Hill, superintendent for ISU’s Lab School system which includes U-High and Thomas Metcalf Elementary School, began talking to Wachter about bringing his volumes to be donated.

When U-High celebrated its homecoming this past weekend, Wachter brought his books, perusing through them one last time and alongside him was Hill, gaining the perspective Wachter could provide about them.

Hill will hand over the scrapbooks to April Anderson, an archivist at ISU, who will see to it they are properly cataloged and added to the school’s and the University’s historical record.

“We’re just humbled that Gabby is willing to share his memories with us and really help draw that connection,” Hill said.

As it turns out, that is only half the story here. The connection Wachter has to U-High has an added element to it. You see, Wachter lived at the Illinois Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s School (ISSCS), an orphanage established initially in 1865 by the state legislature for indigent children of Civil War veterans.

The orphanage ran from the mid-1860’s until 1979, when due to increased costs and building deterioration among other causes, the state closed ISSCS after 114 years of operation. Wachter came to live at ISSCS when he and his mother came from Chicago, unable to continue caring for him. “A lot of us from ISSCS were at U-High,” Wachter said. “We had kids there who had athletic ability.”

“When the State closed ISSCS, that was a sad mistake,” Wachter said. “The State didn’t want the financial responsibility.”

But for the children and teens who lived at ISSCS, regardless of when they were residents, Wachter said, “those kids needed a place like ISSCS most of the time because they had been living in homes where they did not have either a mom or a dad.”

ISSCS, Wachter explained, was run like a “Boys Town” – a non-profit organization that works to provide care for children and families founded in 1917 by Father Edward J. Flanagan, a Roman Catholic priest from Omaha, Neb. Some folks might recall Spencer Tracy playing Father Flanagan in the movie “Boys Town” made in 1938.

ISSCS “had our own bakery, gym, and living cottages,” Wachter recalled. A number of boys attending U-High and living at ISSCS were on the Pioneers football team with Wachter. Through an agreement between ISSCS and the Lab School, ISSCS residents of high school age attended U-High.

Those students, Hill pointed out, earned a somewhat affectionate nickname. They were called “Homers.” It was a term that was never seen as derogatory, Hill explained. “What Gabby has done here is really helping to draw the connection between ISSCS and ISU.”

But it was on the gridiron where the memories seemed the clearest for Wachter, even with so many decades having passed by.

The Pioneers, then as now, belonged to the Corn Belt Conference for sports, but it’s most likely not a conference we would recognize today. Back then, Wachter recalled, Normal Community High School, Bloomington High School, as well as Morton and Monticello, belonged to it.

“Everybody was trying to beat us,” said Wachter of the teams making a go at ending the Pioneers’ consecutive winning streak. “Everybody.” One of the biggest poundings the Pioneers put on an opponent during the streak was against another Corn Belt foe, Urbana, winning, 27-2. It is a record that also includes achieving a 0-0 tie with Trinity High School, the predecessor to Bloomington Central Catholic.

“People would try to come in and beat us,” Wachter said. “But they couldn’t. We were a good bunch.”

Just three members of the 1949-51 U-High football team that holds the record survive to this day: Wachter; Johnny Anderson; and Joe Green. Of the 77 students who made up U-High’s “Class of ’51,” 45 are still around. They had a gathering in a second floor meeting room at the Bloomington-Normal Marriott in Uptown Normal last Saturday, in addition to attending a pre-game meal and watching the current Pioneers football team, under head coach Dusty Burk, beat Prairie Central to get homecoming off to the right note.

After high school, Wachter did what most young men of that era anticipated doing and entered the military, specifically the U. S. Navy, serving as a signalman on USS Agerholm (DD 826) a destroyer. After the military, his career path led to the 33 years of helping junior high school students understand science.

With his latest gift to U-High and the University, Wachter has continued a giving spirit that was developed from a life that had a mix of misfortune and joy. It also sounds as though he has been passing along his experiences to anyone he has touched, and his latest gift – his treasured scrapbooks from his youth – just adds to his legacy. We should all be that desirous to share such past events with those coming up behind us.

As a matter of fact, Wachter is still updating folks the modern way: He emails his classmates newspaper accounts of U-High football games.

By Steve Robinson | September 19, 2013 - 10:13 pm
Posted in Category: ISU Redbirds, The Normalite

FootballNORMAL – Having an updated set of stands for fans to sit and enjoy an Illinois State University Redbirds football game, not to mention the addition of club seating and updated media facilities had been a long-held dream of University administrators, football fans, alumni, and local residents. Hancock Stadium, at age 50, was in need of some sprucing.

For the past two years, as part of a $26 million renovation, given forward motion by former ISU President Al Bowman and then-Assistant Athletics Director Larry Lyons called a rushing play of their own and got approval for renovations to the stadium’s east side. Bowman’s original delivery of what the University was hoping for came in his “State of the University” address on Sept. 27, 2011. On Wednesday, Sept. 18, the University held a dedication ceremony for the updated facility which scored as an immediate hit with the nearly 200 invited guests who attended the dedication.

The project was paid for using bond revenue sources, private donations, and $2.75 million from ISU’s Athletic Department.

Among the guests invited to the ceremony were members of ISU’s Board of Trustees (BOT), University administrators, state legislators, former ISU President Bowman and Dr. David Strand, officials from the Town of Normal, and City of Bloomington.

ISU President Dr. Timothy Flanagan joked with those gathered for the ceremony that it “was a wonderful experience to be a a month and a half into a new job and already dedicating a $26 million athletic facility.” Then he added, “I could get used to this.” It was a line that produced laughter from those in attendance.

Among the invited guests for the dedication, introduced by Flanagan, was J. Russell Steele, who, when Hancock Stadium was first dedicated 50 years ago, was employed by the University to write news releases and take pictures of the original dedication of both the stadium and Horton Field House. Steele stood and waived to the crowd upon being introduced by Flanagan.

“Looking at this extraordinary structure, it’s difficult to believe that the Hancock renovation was proposed less than two years ago,” Flanagan said. Flanagan went on to thank Bowman, BOT members, and Athletic Director Larry Lyons for the efforts to get the renovation project started. He also thanked the Town of Normal, and Mayor Chris Koos for the partnership the community has shared with the University as the project continued to unfold.

Flanagan added the first thing ISU’s Athletics staffers and coaches wanted to talk about with him when he first arrived to his new post last month was the academic achievements of their student athletes. “I remember thinking to myself after that, ‘this is a Division I intercollegiate athletic program that has its priorities straight, and understands what the student-athlete concept means.” It was a line that brought applause from the crowd.

“The student athletes can be proud of the graduation rate that is far and above the National graduation rate,” Aaron Von Qualen, BOT Student Representative, told the gathering. “That makes me and others proud, and encourages student support of such projects such as the Hancock Stadium renovation.”

Hancock StadiumHead Coach Brock Spack recalled for the crowd being brought to his office once he become head coach by Bowman and Bowman telling him he would see that improvements would be made to the stadium. “You did that,” Spack said, looking at Bowman from the podium on a makeshift stage at the north end of the new digs. Spack said when he asks a future recruit to consider committing to ISU, he can point out the new facility, and let both future and current Redbirds know “that the entire community and the campus supports them. We now have a premier facility.”

Lyons, the 11th Athletic Director in school history, told the gathering, “From this day forward, when we talk about the far-reaching impact of gifts to our department, we will point to this building. The gifts associated with this project reached so much farther than beyond just football and Redbird Athletics. Hancock Stadium stands tall as the physical entrance to the campus from Main St. and Interstate 55. The presence of this new facility serves as a gateway to the University, but also to the Town of Normal.”

New Facility Shows “A Commitment To Football Here”: In individual interviews with media members, Lyons, Spack, and Flanagan each provided their own insights on what having the new facility up and running meant to them and the program. “It’s almost overwhelming tonight to see the joy on everyone’s face,” Lyons said. “It’s almost humbling. But, we’re very excited. We’re looking forward to a ball game on Saturday, and move forward, get a win, and get the football team on track.”

Lyons said student turnout is crucial because “we’ve allocated more student tickets than we have in the past, and we expect they’re excited about it.”

The renovation moved the student section of Hancock Stadium from the south end of the stadium to three sections at the south end of the original facility, tagged Sections A, B, and C.

Lyons said the University anticipates the general public “will use the Club space more than we will. It has unique views with those club spaces. We see people doing business luncheons or meetings, or wedding receptions if the bride agrees”to that. But Lyons was quick to add, “we don’t want to compete with the ballrooms and the hotels, but we think it’s a unique enough space” that people would consider using it. Lyons said the economic impact will be something that gets measured once the facility begins receiving regular use.

Having the new facility up and running “says a lot,” according to Spack. Having the new facility “says there is a commitment to football here.” The fourth-season head coach said he anticipates “seeing a vault of talent here that we haven’t seen here before” because of the improvements made to the stadium.

Flanagan said he has, since he assumed his duties on Aug. 15, been “privileged” to be able to see the completion of the new facility. “I’ve been struck how, almost daily, there has been a transformation and vision of the University as you come down Main St. So I think one of the most powerful impacts of this new building is that this is now a very large and beautiful physical presence that says, ‘Welcome to Illinois State University.’ And it communicates loud and clear you are now on a university campus and in the Town of Normal. We’re greeting you, we’re welcoming you, and we’re glad that you’re here.”

Flanagan added, “I think we should be very proud of it. We’re very grateful to the students and to others who have backed it financially.”

A crowd of 11,029 fans were happy to see Spack’s Redbirds enjoying the update to their roost, as they saw ISU defeat Abeline Christian University, 31-17.