If you have the fortune to live in the world’s richest and arguably most beautiful country and can open your door to a stunning view of the Alps, why would you ever miss an industrial, farm town on the Rock River in the flatlands of Illinois. But I do.
Creating a sense of community in Geneva, international hub of the world, is the like building the foundation of the Taj Mahal in quicksand. The nature of the typical expatriate is transient; due to job relocation, everyone you meet eventually moves on. Though my friends include people from around the globe, few call Switzerland home and plan to retire here.
Sterling, Illinois offered more stable roots. Yet, other than lying in the richest soil in the USA, my hometown didn’t have much of a calling card. Sterling is not so much about the place; it’s about the people.
Next Saturday, May 10, some of those people will be inducted into the Sterling High School Distinguished Alumni Class of 2014. The Distinguished Alumni Award honors former graduates for their outstanding contribution to society. It is a tribute to a small town, to public education and to a community that teaches its own to pay it forward in their fields.
Some of the award recipients I never knew as individuals, but I knew their people. I don’t remember meeting Ruth Cooperrider, but I remember her family.
Every member of David Schrader’s family graduated from SHS and though I never knew him, his sisters and my sisters’ lives intertwined every step of our school years.
This year the award also goes to three inductees that I am proud to call friends. In each case, their families, too, have been a stalwart part of the community and, like me, they dedicated their lives to looking out for the underdog.
Carol Fitzgerald ‘68, CEO of the YWCA of the Sauk Valley since 1985, advocates for the national YMCA’s mission “empowering women and eliminating racism.” Her siblings all attended SHS and her mom, Dian, was a beloved English teacher at the high school.
Amy Eshleman ‘80, was my surrogate little sister in basketball and a member of the SHS 1st state championship team in 1977. She became the Assistant Commissioner of Chicago Public Library and helped develop the resource sharing partnerships for the 79 public libraries in Chicago. The Eshleman family was a pillar in the community.
Phil Smith ‘67 and his family rose above the evil legacy of Jim Crow. Instead of succumbing to bitterness, he turned the other cheek and gave back to the community becoming the first African American coach in the conference. At SHS he inspired hundreds of athletes –including me- to believe in themselves. His loyalty to SHS is parallel to none. Like he always said, “I bleed Blue and Gold.”
During the turbulent 50s, 60s and 70s, at a time of civil unrest, gender inequity and social injustice, our community gave us stability. Through our families, our schools and athletic teams, we learned to work hard, demand excellence, advocate for equality, and give back to society. No matter if we moved to the opposite coast like David in California, or Ruth across the state border line, or regardless if we remained in the local area, like Amy in the greater Chicago land or Carol and Phil in the Sauk Valley Region, we carried the lessons from our community into our careers.
Unfortunately, I can’t be there on May 10th to shake their hands in person, but today I’m giving a special nod from abroad to our distinguished SHS alumni, to my hometown, and to the families that laid the foundation of our lives. Rock solid, Sterling.