Stevenson High reaches its 50th year after a chaotic start

When the Stevenson High School varsity football team won the Class 8A state title last fall, students and faculty celebrated by donning green and gold at a campus rally.

Few of them probably knew those bold school colors hadn't been selected when coaches prepared to field the first Stevenson High gridiron team 50 years earlier.

Tom Baumann, the school's first football coach, remembers buying uniforms at a sporting goods store and being stymied by the question, "What are the colors?"

"We said we didn't know, just give us black and white," Baumann recalled.

Colors weren't the only thing Stevenson was missing when classes began at the Lincolnshire campus in September 1965. The school also didn't have enough desks, chairs or textbooks.

"It made for an interesting year," said Baumann, who also taught social studies.

Five decades later, Stevenson has built a reputation as one of the top high schools in the nation. And this year, in addition to the football title, the Patriots have scored state championships in basketball, gymnastics, tennis and girls water polo.

With those and other accomplishments in mind, Stevenson High community members will gather Saturday, May 30, to celebrate the school's golden anniversary. A pancake breakfast and the dedication of a special stained-glass window are among the events planned.

"Stevenson has been on an incredible journey for the past 50 years, and it's really gratifying to see the school reach the heights that were envisioned by the pioneers of this place," school spokesman Jim Conrey said. "I would like to hope that even they would be impressed at how the school has turned out."

Chaotic origins

Located on Route 22 west of Milwaukee Avenue, Stevenson serves students from Lincolnshire, Buffalo Grove, Long Grove and other towns in central and southern Lake County.

Before the school was founded, area teenagers attended Ela-Vernon High School in Lake Zurich.

In 1964, Ela-Vernon High School District 125 residents voted to build a second school for students living in the eastern half of the district. Political strife between the two halves led to a second vote, in June 1965, that saw homes in the Lake Zurich area secede and create a new district - Lake Zurich Unit District 95.

That move left the then-unnamed Stevenson with an unfinished building and without a school board, administration or faculty.

And all with just a few months until school was supposed to begin.

Fortunately, a school board quickly formed, teachers were hired and the building was completed.

"Chaos can be a conduit to cohesiveness, and that was certainly the case for Stevenson," Conrey said.

Why 'Stevenson?'

Officials initially considered naming the school Tamarack High, after a type of local tree.

But when former governor, ambassador and presidential candidate Adlai E. Stevenson II - who lived in nearby Mettawa - died in July 1965, the board opted to name the school in his honor.

"I think it's very fitting that we should be named for someone who is considered one of the smartest and most civic-minded people in American history," Conrey said. "He was a great patriot, and I think he would be pleased to be associated with this school of Patriots."

The first year was a tough one for Stevenson's 467 students and 31 teachers.

Perhaps most embarrassingly, much of the furniture that had been ordered for the school was mistakenly sent to Texas.

"If a student came in late to class, it was likely he or she would sit on the floor or on a windowsill," Baumann said.

Greg Mercier was among the students at Stevenson in the 1965-66 term. He started as a junior, having spent his freshman and sophomore years at Ela-Vernon High.

He was a multisport athlete, too. But the split from Ela-Vernon meant many of his teammates stayed behind at the older school.

Inexperienced players were recruited to fill rosters.

"(We) got clobbered," said Mercier, 65, a retired FBI agent now living in California.

Growth, accolades

As the district's population grew, so did Stevenson High.

The first expansion came in 1970. The school grew from 113,000 square feet to 191,000 square feet, acquiring more classrooms, a swimming pool and other new facilities.

Seven additional construction projects between 1975 and 2001 brought the school to its current size, 720,000 square feet on 77 acres.

Enrollment peaked in the 2005-06 school year, when nearly 4,600 students were on campus. But it's dropped steadily since then. This year, Stevenson had about 3,900 students.

It isn't just the building that has grown. Stevenson's academic reputation has swelled through the decades, too.

Stevenson is the only public high school in Illinois to receive four Blue Ribbon Awards for Excellence in Education from the U.S. Department of Education, having seized the prizes in 1987, 1991, 1998 and 2002.

Stevenson also regularly is ranked one of the nation's top high schools by Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report.

Lately, however, the school's athletic programs have been garnering media attention. The Patriots have won five state titles this year, an unprecedented total for the school.

"Years ago, people in this area called us the 'Patsies' because we weren't very competitive athletically," Conrey said. "Times have certainly changed."

Birthday bash

In contrast to Stevenson's immense size, the 50th anniversary celebration is relatively low-key.

Activities will run from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday. The schedule includes:

• A free pancake breakfast.

• A 9:30 a.m. ceremony honoring former Stevenson teacher and coach Paul Swan. He'll receive the 2015 Heritage Award, the school's top prize.

• The dedication of a stained-glass window, inspired by student Sabrina Zhang's design. That's set for 10:45 a.m. near the sports center entrance.

• Pickup football and basketball games with members of the school's two state-champion teams.

• Student-guided tours of the campus.

The party was organized by the Stevenson Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes the school and leads public programs.

"We're very proud of everything Stevenson and our students have accomplished over our history, and we're especially proud to have had such a stellar 50th year," said Greg Diethrich, the foundation's executive director. "We know the next 50 years will be even better."

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  A bust of Adlai Stevenson in the hallway at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire. The school celebrates its 50th anniversary with a special celebration Saturday, May 30, at 9 a.m., hosted by the Stevenson Foundation. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
  Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire celebrates its 50th anniversary with a special celebration is set for Saturday, May 30 at 9 a.m., hosted by the Stevenson Foundation. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
  Stevenson Foundation Executive Director Greg Diethrich discusses the history of the school as Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire celebrates its 50th anniversary. A special celebration will be held on Saturday, May 30, at 9 a.m. hosted by the Stevenson Foundation. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
Stevenson High School under construction in Lincolnshire in 1964. courtesy of Stevenson High School
File photo of students attending class at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire in 1967. courtesy of Stevenson High School
A rendering of the stained glass window that will be dedicated at Stevenson's 50th anniversary celebration. courtesy of Stevenson High School
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