Desegregation, diversity from the start: Elgin High marking 150 years with all-class reunion

  • Demolition of the original Elgin High School building, on the left, was delayed in 1910 because students were continually throwing snowballs at the workers. Plans called for an expansion of the new wing on the right, now Elgin Area School District U-46's administration headquarters.

    Demolition of the original Elgin High School building, on the left, was delayed in 1910 because students were continually throwing snowballs at the workers. Plans called for an expansion of the new wing on the right, now Elgin Area School District U-46's administration headquarters. Courtesy of Elgin Area Historical Society

  • Elgin High School this year marks its 150th anniversary with an alumni reunion.

      Elgin High School this year marks its 150th anniversary with an alumni reunion. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • The original Elgin High School building, left, with a newer addition to the right. The older structure was demolished in 1910 and the addition became the new high school building.

    The original Elgin High School building, left, with a newer addition to the right. The older structure was demolished in 1910 and the addition became the new high school building. Courtesy of Elgin Area Historical Society

  • The second Elgin High School building in 1921. The building now serves as Elgin Area School District U-46's administrative headquarters.

    The second Elgin High School building in 1921. The building now serves as Elgin Area School District U-46's administrative headquarters. Courtesy of Elgin Area School District U-46

  • Elgin High School students outside the gymnasium addition in 1953.

    Elgin High School students outside the gymnasium addition in 1953. Courtesy of Elgin Area School District U-46

  • A picture of the first Elgin High School building taken around 1898. The building served EHS students between 1884 and 1910.

    A picture of the first Elgin High School building taken around 1898. The building served EHS students between 1884 and 1910. Courtesy of Elgin Area School District U-46

  • The "Old Brick" building at Kimball and Center streets is where Elgin High School classes were held before the first school was built in 1884.

    The "Old Brick" building at Kimball and Center streets is where Elgin High School classes were held before the first school was built in 1884. Courtesy of Elgin Area School District U-46

 
 
Updated 4/11/2019 4:45 PM

In 150 years, Elgin High School has earned many distinctions, including embracing desegregation early on and educating a former Nobel Prize winner.

Elgin's first public high school, formed in the fall of 1869, is among Illinois' three oldest public schools and the nation's 100 oldest public high schools. Alumni, retired and current employees, and students will mark the school's anniversary with a "Sesquicentennial Celebration" Saturday.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Attendees will take a walk down memory lane during an "All-Class Reunion" and tour the former high school building at 355 E. Chicago St. -- now Elgin Area School District U-46's administrative headquarters -- and the current school at 1200 Maroon Drive, followed by a program in the school's auditorium.

Highlights include unveiling a granite marker commemorating the school's history and a special NASA presentation in the school's honor.

Education for all

Since its inception, inclusivity has been a hallmark of the school, said John Devine, Elgin High history teacher and 150th Committee chairman.

Elgin High School started with makeshift classrooms in what was known as the "Old Brick" building at Kimball and Center streets. Since then, three dedicated schools were built to house students.

The first class comprised 12 girls its first year. A rising women's movement and demand for women's education drove enrollment. Its first graduating class of 1872 had only three graduates -- all were women. The student population didn't balance out gender-wise until the 1890s.

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A growing industrial economy offered jobs without a high school diploma and there was no clear four-year high school plan until 1869, Devine said.

"We've had a graduating class every year since, except 1880," Devine said. "Now, we are over 43,000 graduates since it opened."

Initially, Elgin schools were segregated after the first African Americans arrived out of slavery in 1862. A decade later, segregation ended at Elgin High.

In 1879, school staff members and students would choose Maddie Oates, who arrived with the initial group of former slaves, to be the valedictorian.

"This inclusive spirit at EHS finally worked its way into 'education for all' as the school motto in 1913," Devine said. "EHS has worked continuously to make that aspiration a reality. It's just a welcoming place."

Today, Elgin High's student population is among the most diverse within Elgin Area School District U-46 -- the state's second-largest school district.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Of its nearly 2,600 students, 74 percent are Hispanic, 10 percent are white, nearly 7 percent are black, and 5 percent are Asian. Seventy-five percent of students come from low-income backgrounds and 20 percent are English language learners, according to the 2018 Illinois Report Card.

Notable alumni

Inventors, novelists, actors, scientists, athletes, former Elgin public servants, and heads of prominent local and national corporations count among Elgin High's notable alumni with new names added every few years to the school's Hall of Fame.

Among them is Paul Flory, a 1927 graduate and polymer chemist who went on to earn the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1974. Flory is credited with inventing nylon and other innovative work in the field of chemistry, Devine said.

Yet, during his Elgin High days, Flory worked on the school's yearbook covering boys athletics and wasn't even among the Top 10 percent of his class. Classmates joked in the yearbook they expected him to become a "Chevy dealer," Devine said.

"He was just a teenager finding his way," said Devine, adding high school students "perhaps are distracted by the life, culture of school, and their friends and dating relationships. This doesn't spell doom for their academic futures.

"Keep in mind that these young people have a long ways to go to find their way. Graduates who have gone on to be good neighbors and good citizens are just as important as the inventors."

150: Classmates joked graduate who became a Nobel winner would be a Chevy dealer

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