Niles West classmates recall Garland as overachiever

 
 
Updated 3/17/2016 4:59 AM
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  • Merrick Garland, center, valedictorian in 1970 at Niles West High School, was active in many school activities, as is reflected in yearbook photos.

      Merrick Garland, center, valedictorian in 1970 at Niles West High School, was active in many school activities, as is reflected in yearbook photos. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Niles West Principal Jason Ness talks Wednesday about the excitement over Merrick Garland, Niles West High School valedictorian in 1970, being selected by President Obama as his nominee to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court.

      Niles West Principal Jason Ness talks Wednesday about the excitement over Merrick Garland, Niles West High School valedictorian in 1970, being selected by President Obama as his nominee to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

The crowd was growing disgruntled. A graduating senior elected by his classmates to speak at the Niles West High School commencement had just used his pulpit to make an argument against the Vietnam War.

The year was 1970. The war was of intense interest to the gowned graduates in front of him, but parents in the audience did not approve, and someone pulled the plug on the sound system as the student delivered his speech.

"I do remember parents being pretty upset about it," said Mike Wallach, a 1970 graduate now living in San Francisco. "It was an anti-war speech, it was 1970, everyone in our graduating class was at the risk of getting drafted."

Next up was Niles West valedictorian Merrick Garland. Beginning his speech at the school's football stadium in Skokie, Garland defended his classmate.

"Merrick stood up for his right to give the speech that he was elected to give," Wallach said.

On Wednesday, as President Barack Obama introduced Merrick as his nominee to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, he brought up that 1970 speech, stunning Wallach and probably quite a few others.

"Merrick didn't necessarily agree with the tone of his classmate's remarks, nor his choice of topic for that day," Obama recounted, "but stirred by the sight of a fellow student's voice being silenced, he ... delivered, on the spot, a passionate, impromptu defense of our First Amendment rights."

Another former classmate, David Igasaki, remembers Garland, who grew up in Lincolnwood, as "very much an overachiever."

"Everyone assumed he would run for president someday," said Igasaki, who now lives in Chicago.

Merrick Garland, center, valedictorian in 1970 at Niles West High School, was active in many school activities, as is reflected in yearbook photos.
  Merrick Garland, center, valedictorian in 1970 at Niles West High School, was active in many school activities, as is reflected in yearbook photos. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Garland and Igasaki were, at one point, political adversaries in a class election, Igasaki recalls.

"I actually withdrew from the election and supported another candidate," Igasaki said.

But there are no hard feelings now, and Igasaki says Garland sought him out to talk during their 30-year class reunion.

Brandon Leavitt grew up on the same street as Garland and has known him since kindergarten.

"He's always been very reserved, and very modest," said Leavitt, who lives in Chicago and owns a solar installation company in Niles.

He says one of his most poignant memories of Garland is when their high school music assistant, who had played piano for Frank Sinatra, wanted students to form a pop singing group. Leavitt and Garland both joined the group, which was looking for a name.

"Since we were from Niles West, Merrick came up with the name 'The West Tones,'" Leavitt said.

The group would sing Simon & Garfunkel and Frank Sinatra songs at nursing homes.

Leavitt says he and Garland also both had parts in the school's performance of the musical "Oliver."

Merrick Garland in his senior yearbook picture at Niles West High School
  Merrick Garland in his senior yearbook picture at Niles West High School - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Flip through the 1970 "Spectrum," Niles West's yearbook, and Garland appears in photos with the debate team, theater club, forensic club and student council. He was also a National Merit Scholar.

"One of the things we've learned is that he was involved in everything," current Niles West Principal Jason Ness said.

And Ness says the building was buzzing Wednesday with news of Obama's appointment of Garland, which fittingly came shortly after the school held its "You Make a Difference" leadership breakfast.

"It caught us a little bit by surprise, but it was a good surprise," Ness said.

Merrick Garland grew up in the Lincolnwood house on the left, where his mother still lives. She was out of town Wednesday.
  Merrick Garland grew up in the Lincolnwood house on the left, where his mother still lives. She was out of town Wednesday. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Former classmates say Garland, whose mom still lives in the house where he grew up, hasn't forgotten his roots.

"He seems to make it to every reunion," Igasaki said.

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