A school building that stood out on the barren landscape of Normal when it was constructed as part of the Works Progress Administration will be celebrated as Unit Five marks the building's 80th anniversary.
In part, the anniversary celebration will not only honor the building's past but also its re-birth as a place where students with special needs get individualized help with life skills and career training. Eugene Field Elementary saw its last graduating class as a traditional school in 2004. The building was constructed for $45,000 and was named for St. Louis native, writer and children's poet Eugene Field who has numerous schools named for him across the Midwest.
Development Training Coordinator Susie Zink serves on the 80th Anniversary Committee and has been going over former students’ memories submitted via Facebook. "The common themes was [sic] that it wasn't just a school it was a safe place and everybody felt like family here and they all became extended family," Zink recalled from the memories she's been reading. "It was a great place to be and a fun place to be," she said.
Other posts mention long time Kindergarten Teacher Melba Jean Frink who holds the distinction of having taught at the school for 31 years, the most of any teacher. Frink, who just turned 90 last October, has also been a part of the anniversary committee. All of the memories about her and many other beloved teachers will be included memory books that can be ordered at the celebration.
Eugene Field's current Administrator Jane Collins has been pouring over memorabilia from scrapbooks that were stored in an attic of the school's last secretary, Twila Eickhorst who wrote on the Facebook group page, "It was a special place. I still miss being there every day." Eickhorst was given the treasure trove when the school closed and she recently turned it all over to the current staff. Collins says she has been most inspired by going through the journal of the school's first Principal Margaret Conlee. "She is someone who, wow, we could all only hope to be like her," she said.
Conlee's journal shows a copy of the first student newspaper, the Eugene Field Star and a permission slip from a teacher who paid to take her class on a field trip to the Irwin Theater to see The Wizard of Oz. Mrs. Cade wrote, "They have been reading the book and I think they would enjoy seeing it as a group."
There are several special events planned on Friday, including a cook-out starting at noon and a 2.pm. ceremony to honor one of the first students at Eugene Field, Regionald Whittaker, who was a 5th grader the year the school opened. Whittaker is 92 and Collins describes him as "an incredible man, very humble and very kind." She said recognition of him is "long overdue."
Among the school's most celebrated alumni is Chicago Blackhawks Hockey Vice President Jay Blunk who is credited with reviving interest in the team by improving fan accessibility and other innovative marketing strategies. Blunk is providing two baskets for a silent auction that will be part of the open house from 5-7 p.m. Friday.
Money raised will support a Field of Dreams project that will also be unveiled. Collins says it will include a wheelchair walk, sensory garden and potentially an outdoor classroom. A barn quilt that will hang on a shed in the center of the grounds will also be revealed.
A full schedule of events Friday and Saturday are available on this event flyer.
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