Glen Ellyn resident Ken Marz figures he hadn't visited his old grammar school, Maternity B.V.M. in Chicago's Humboldt Park, in 40 years.
When he and his wife attended an alumni reunion at the Catholic elementary school, he was surprised and dismayed to learn the parish school had no library.
The retiree mentioned the situation to other students in a painting class he was taking at College of DuPage last spring. The students, along with the Knights of Columbus and suburban public libraries, were soon helping Marz collect 4,000 books to start a library at Maternity B.V.M. (Blessed Virgin Mary).
"Any number of suburban libraries have donated books to the cause," Marz said. "This school is really very poor."
Marz has delivered the books to the school and his daughter, Julie Marz Wood, an architect, has donated her services to work with B.V.M. students to convert a classroom into a library. Another local area couple has offered to donate $1,900 for shelving, he said.
The art students didn't stop with a library. Led by professor Jennifer Hereth, the students in her beginning and advanced painting classes are doing 36 portraits representative of students who have attended Maternity B.V.M. through the decades. The portraits will be hung in time for a visit by Cardinal Francis George to the school on June 2 to celebrate its 100th anniversary.
"Everyone has given their portraits, original paintings, as a gift," Hereth said.
Some of the portraits are of actual alumni and others are representative of the race, ethnicity, gender and dress of students who would have attended the school throughout its existence. Now almost entirely Hispanic, the student population in earlier years was of European descent, including German and Polish, followed by black Americans.
Hereth had her students research the decades to discover popular toys and cartoons of the times to make the portraits more interesting to today's students.
"They weren't to just be portraits. They were to be fun as well," she said. "There's a frog in someone's pocket. There's a 1930s cartoon character looking over someone's shoulder."
Some of the portraits are done to look like old-style photographs and others have a modern look.
Hereth said the portraits will be delivered on April 30 when she takes younger students at COD to Maternity B.V.M. to help the school's students brighten up the old building in another way.
"There'll be 200 handprints going up and down the staircases," she said.
Dan Fleming, principal of Maternity B.V.M., said the school's second through eighth grades meet on the third and four floors of the church building.
"It's a lot of stairs," he said. "The kids are going to love it. It's going to make the building look that much more beautiful."
A 1953 graduate of Maternity, Marz said he met his wife, Karen, at the school and served as president of its teen club. At least one other painting student is an Maternity B.V.M. alumnae and another has a daughter-in-law who graduated from Maternity and now serves as its volunteer librarian.
"It's amazing the number of people who live in the Western suburbs who come from this neighborhood," Marz said.
Although they have moved away, Marz said he is pleased to see they have not forgotten.
"There are a lot of generous people who when they become aware of the need are willing to help out," he said.
The gifts to the school go beyond material support, Fleming said.
"It shows that there are people out there who really care about my students," he said.
Fleming said Maternity's student body of just over 200 is the largest it has been in 10 years and he expects it to grow more. Marz said he is happy to see a parish school that is not just surviving, but thriving.
"It's nice to see something actually flourishing," he said.