Naperville alumni share diverging paths to fitting careers

  • Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico congratulates Arlene Staffeldt on recognition they both received Friday as distinguished alumni of Naperville Central High School.

      Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico congratulates Arlene Staffeldt on recognition they both received Friday as distinguished alumni of Naperville Central High School. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Arthur Zards a member of the Naperville Central High School Class of 1987, speaks to students about trying new experiences in their personal and professional lives.

      Arthur Zards a member of the Naperville Central High School Class of 1987, speaks to students about trying new experiences in their personal and professional lives. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Arlene Staffeldt a member of the Naperville Central High School Class of 1961, speaks to students about her experiences growing up on a family farm and teaching at Naperville Central for 21 years.

      Arlene Staffeldt a member of the Naperville Central High School Class of 1961, speaks to students about her experiences growing up on a family farm and teaching at Naperville Central for 21 years. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Naperville Central High School distinguished alum Andrew Lardner speaks to seniors Friday about his experiences as a sergeant and nuclear, biological and chemical warfare specialist in the Army Reserves.

      Naperville Central High School distinguished alum Andrew Lardner speaks to seniors Friday about his experiences as a sergeant and nuclear, biological and chemical warfare specialist in the Army Reserves. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico became one of four people honored Friday as a distinguished alum of Naperville Central High School. Chirico graduated in 1978.

      Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico became one of four people honored Friday as a distinguished alum of Naperville Central High School. Chirico graduated in 1978. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 4/28/2017 5:04 PM

Seniors preparing to head out into the world heard from four former students at Naperville Central Friday as the high school recognized its 21st class of distinguished alumni.

Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico joked it was about time he got some recognition for his high school wrestling career, which culminated in a fourth-place finish at state when he was a senior.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But Chirico and teacher Arlene Staffeldt, entrepreneur Arthur Zards and engineer Andrew Lardner primarily focused on their post-high school experiences, for which they were honored.

The alumni offered four stories that demonstrate in some ways that success doesn't only come from attending a prestigious college or pursuing a corporate career.

Retired teacher Staffeldt was two years ahead in school, but then dropped out her senior year to get married -- only to finish six years and six kids later. She then got bachelor's and master's degrees from North Central College and National Louis University and spent a 21-year career teaching biology at Naperville Central.

"Strive to do your best -- only you can do that -- and let your inner light shine," Staffeldt, Class of 1961, advised seniors. "Provide a path for others to follow."

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While Staffeldt's path led her to delay college, Chirico didn't finish.

He told seniors he decided to attend Northern Illinois University three weeks before the fall term was to start.

"At that time there wasn't the pressure that you guys have to go to college," Chirico said of his high school graduation year in 1978. "At that time it was like, 'Just find your way.' So I didn't really have my course set for after high school. I had to figure that out."

By the time Chirico was accepted to Northern, it was too late to get into the dorms.

So he lived off campus with his dog and a friend and left after three years to start a small tile company that eventually became Great Western Flooring. Chirico ran the company until two of his daughters took over in 2015, when he became Naperville's mayor.

Distinguished alum Andrew Lardner has a microbiology degree from the University of Illinois and has served as a sergeant and nuclear, biological and chemical warfare specialist in the Army Reserves. So Lardner, a 1996 graduate who has served in Iraq and worked for the U.S. State Department, promoted his path in the military.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"If college isn't necessarily your thing, the military is a fantastic way to find some direction and get some skills and get paid the whole time," Lardner said. "It's a great way to learn and grow."

Even students who don't find a niche during high school can use that to their advantage, distinguished alum Arthur Zards said. When Zards, a 1987 graduate, came to Central after moving from Maryland, he said he couldn't find his place among crowds of kids into sports, punk music or computers.

He went on to co-found Xnet Information Systems, Inc. in 1991 as one of the Chicago area's first internet service providers, and to start the TEDx Naperville speakers conference in 2009, promoting "ideas worth spreading."

"I never fit in with pretty much anybody. I was kind of that loaner that drifted about," Zards said. "I figured out that being able to relate to different groups, and maybe not fitting in with one specifically, makes for a good entrepreneur."

Members of the committee who chose Chirico, Lardner, Staffeldt and Zards as this year's distinguished alumni praised the honorees for finding joy in their various paths and encouraged soon-to-be graduates to do the same.

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