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McGrath: A reunion lesson: Encourage kids to pursue passions

David McGrath (bottom row second from left) played St. Bernadette School eighth-grade basketball team.  |  Supplied photo

David McGrath (bottom row, second from left) played on the St. Bernadette School eighth-grade basketball team. | Supplied photo

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Updated: May 15, 2013 6:38AM



Legends abound of geniuses who were surprisingly poor students in elementary school, such as Thomas Edison or Isaac Newton. My wife, Marianne, did not exactly have an A average at Mother McAuley High School but today is the smartest person I know (and I’m no dummy for saying so).

All of which may lead some to conclude that early life indicators are unreliable. That the strengths and weaknesses of, say, an adolescent, seldom reveal what their future portends.

I was able to personally evaluate that theory this past year after attending my reunion for the Class of 1963 at St. Bernadette Elementary School in Evergreen Park. What better test tube, after all, than a room filled with men and women of the same age, all of whom I had known as children?

Approximately 70 men and women gathered at the American Legion Post 854 hall in the village to tell how their lives turned out and whether the outcomes were what might have been predicted when we were 13 or 14.

And I can report with confidence that the notion that early life indicators are unreliable does not hold up. For while there may be exceptions such as Edison and Newton, for the most part you can pretty confidently forecast a person’s future from the proclivities he manifests in eighth grade.

Two of my chums (the term for BFFs in the 1950s), Edward Stampf and Tom Booth, serve as perfect examples. Somewhere around third grade, I gave Eddie the nickname of “The Great Scientist.” Eddie used to bring his Christmas chemistry set to school, and he knew all the answers to questions asked during our science lesson.

And I used to think of Tom as Thurston Howell III, the wealthy castaway on the TV comedy “Gilligan’s Island.” For Tom had ambition and paying jobs before any of the rest of us — including the newspaper concession at Little Company of Mary Hospital, from which he lugged home a money sack full of nickels, dimes and quarters every day.

Fast forward about 40 years down the road. Tom built a commercial real estate empire, while Eddie earned a doctorate and became a college chemistry professor.

But their stories weren’t the only ones proving the connection between adolescent inclination and future career. For many others at the reunion offered anecdotal proof that their careers were foretold early on, such as Caryn Crane.

“Sister Pius called me the Pied Piper since I would take the first graders out during recess and organize games for them,” Crane said. “They all followed behind me in a long line. Little did I know that this was an omen for my future career as a first-grade teacher.”

Or Joe Doyle, the pal I used to walk home with from school, even though it sometimes took an hour to go a single mile. That’s because Joe always wanted to take the alleys, where he could comb for junk such as broken toys and lighters and transistor radios, all of which he’d take home and clean up and get working again. Joe would become a Sears appliance master repairman.

And though the connection may prove a little more obscure, Mike Fratto said his favorite grade school memory was lining up on the playground during fire and air raid drills, when he would count heads and try to figure out which classmates exploited the drill to illegally cut school. Less than 10 years later, Mike was a Chicago police officer.

More obvious were the links between Victoria Malacina’s inner and outer beauty, her 25-year career as a purveyor of Avon Products and as the stunningly beautiful woman at the reunion ball.

Some causal connections might be made about my entire group of classmates. Many of the nerdy guys — known as fudds then, after cartoon character Elmer Fudd who wore a hat with earflaps — became lawyers, the movers and shakers in American society: Paul Jennen, Michael Hanson, Robert Williams. Chuck Richards was the exception, a star athlete and Big Man on Campus at St. Bernadette, and a successful litigator in Phoenix today.

And the quiet folks, the ones who observed the rest of us from the periphery, who were absorbed not in themselves but in what the teachers had to say, were destined for the ranks of society’s thinkers as chemists, scientists and geologists: Robert Remiasz, Ken Christie, Rich Kaner and Al May.

Those who were generous and always at the ready to help Sister after school or assist a struggling student with his studies became the doctors (Don Raddatz, Denise Wojciechowski and John Cassiani), nurses and health care workers (Sheila Coyne, Patty Mallin, Eileen O’Donnell and Tom Santucci) and teachers (Maryjane Milnes, Teresa Peterson, Mary Ellen Bernoski, James Cozzolino, Loretta Eiler, Mary Therese Hinton) from the Class of ’63.

The lesson here, one that many educators and parents already know, is that the activities and interests of children are precursors of their destiny — parental support and encouragement of those inclinations are vital for children’s success.

Granted, not all my conclusions were scientifically borne out. For example, I inferred a logical connection about my basketball teammate, Jack, who on occasion stole Popsicles from the freezer at Jerozol Drugs and became a political conservative.

But then I remembered that I’m the one who schooled him in shoplifting, and I became a moderate.

David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage



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