This column will delve into Gary Koca's book about old, forgotten movie stars and how he still carries a bit of a torch for the beautiful Gene Tierney -- right after we get to the bottom of these other stories the 67-year-old Pingree Grove man casually drops into the conversation.
• He composed the melody and lyrics to the Maine South High School fight song, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary next month.
• He broadcast sporting events during high school with radio partner Steve Goodman, who became the iconic folk singer whose hits include "Go, Cubs, Go."
• He went on one date with a classmate who grew up to be first lady, U.S. senator, secretary of state and potential 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Not to quash his book's enthusiasm for swashbuckling actor Louis Hayward, whom Koca calls "the poor man's Errol Flynn," but it's impossible to discuss the merits of Hayward's performance in "The Man in the Iron Mask" with that Hillary story hanging in the air.
"She was pretty attractive," Koca says as he points to Hillary Rodham's flattering photo in the Class of 1965 section of his old yearbook from Maine South in Park Ridge. They were in the same honor classes, such as history and English. Koca always made the honor roll, but Rodham got a little better grades.
"She wasn't the valedictorian, but she was the salutatorian," Koca says.
She was elected to student council and class offices including vice president, was selected as a National Honor Society member her junior year, was in a spring musical and a variety show, won a science award, participated in debate, served as chairman for two years on the organizations committee and was a gym leader her junior and senior years. The popular Hillary probably was a bit higher in the high school pecking order, "but I wasn't a nerd, either," Koca says.
"She didn't date much and I didn't date much, so I asked her out," Koca recalls.
"We went to see 'Bye Bye Birdie' at the old Melody Top Theatre in Hillside," Koca says.
The show starred Van Johnson, an actor best known for his movie role in "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," who didn't make it into Koca's "Forgotten Movie Stars of the 30's, 40's and 50's" book, which is what this column is about.
Koca and Rodham both ended up working for the federal government. After graduating from Northern Illinois University with a degree in English, Koca went on to a career with the federal office of personnel management in Chicago. He retired from that job and worked another 18 years as a contractor before his second retirement. He figures that he and Hillary probably had a decent time on that first date, but not swell enough for either of them to be interested in a second date.
That August gave him a much more lasting memory. Half his junior class at the overcrowded Maine East High School, where he teamed with Goodman ("a nice guy") for radio broadcasts of high school sporting events on WMTH, became the first senior class at the new Maine South High School.
"It was modern," remembers Koca, who enjoyed one of the perks given to honor students. "I had my own personal carrel in the library."
He also gave the school its fight song. While he was on the losing side in the vote that declared "Hawks" the new mascot ("I voted for Vikings"), he won a contest to come up with a fight song. Judges weren't allowed to know who submitted the songs, so he made up the name Greg Castle, a character still credited on some documents.
"I wrote the melody, the lyrics and the chords," says Koca, who had learned music from his days of playing oboe and piano. As an adult, he wrote tunes for a musical about the life of Mark Twain, "but it never went anywhere," he says. His "Hail to the Hawks" remains an iconic part of the high school.
"The words are displayed on a big sign at one end of the gym, and freshmen learn it as soon as they arrive," says David Beery, director of communications for Maine Township High School District 207. "Everyone likes to sing it at assemblies. And after every game they win, the guys on the football team sprint to the sideline to raise their helmets and shout out the fight song, along with the fans."
Koca's current musical outlet is his role as a vocalist and "miscellaneous percussionist" playing cowbell and such with "The Vintage People" band, which is made up of similarly aged guitarists, drummers, keyboardists and singers from his adult community. He used to do some community theater in Schaumburg and Palatine and even won an award for his portrayal of a class nerd in one PTA fundraiser production.
Married to his college sweetheart, Patricia, a retired teacher's aide from Schaumburg High School, Koca isn't the only author in his family. The couple's 39-year-old daughter, Julie James, is an attorney who has become one of the nation's top romance authors. Their daughter Karen Schmidt, 34, is director of psychiatric research at Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in Hoffman Estates.
As the only child of Albert and Arline Koca, Gary Koca moved from a Bohemian neighborhood in Cicero to Park Ridge as a child with his mom and grandparents while his father was in the Navy fighting the Korean War. He remembers seeing his first movie in 1952 -- a rerelease of the classic "King Kong."
"I was 5 years old and just was fascinated by it. I've always liked old movies," he says.
An avid Cubs fan, he was listening to a sports talk radio program in 2006 when on-air personality Mike North, who now writes a sports column for the Daily Herald, talked about the death of Glen Ford.
"Anybody who called up who was 40 years old or younger said, 'Who is Glen Ford?'" remembers Koca, who decided to write a book highlighting the careers of his favorite movie stars from that era.
Encouraged and helped by members of the writers' club in his housing development, Koca researched the movie stars and added his own insights and opinions.
"When people say Angelina Jolie is the most beautiful movie star ever, I say, 'Are you kidding me? Have you ever seen Gene Tierney?'" Koca says.
The book profiles Robert Taylor, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Victor Mature, Paulette Goddard, Barbara Stanwyck, Ray Milland and others. Koca says he's already sold 650 copies of the self-published book, mostly online through Amazon.com, and has made six times as much money as he spent producing it.
Coincidentally, you may have heard, his old classmate and one-time date Hillary Clinton also has a book out.