It is uncharacteristic of me to watch award shows, but for some reason, I saw a bit of the Grammys on Sunday night. The Glenn Campbell piece really struck a chord. Not because I am or was a big fan, but because for some reason, we have an odd family moment that connects with Campbell during his Rhinestone Cowboy phase. It was 1979, and I was in 7th grade (see photo). Because my mom was a high school friend of Fr. Joe Bowen, then the President of St. Ignatius College Prep, a financially beleaguered Jesuit Catholic High School, we went to see Campbell perform at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago at the second annual benefit concert. St. Ignatius was an all-boys school, located in a poor and crime ridden neighborhood, and threatened with closure. The school had been standing at 1076 W. Roosevelt Road in Chicago since before the Great Chicago Fire, and currently has landmark status. Back then, in 1979, Bowen was desperately trying to keep enrollment up and the money coming in. The school itself, a massive structure, was crumbling and physically in need of tons of work. When I was a freshman there, we sat in classrooms with broken windows while snow swirled across our desks. I’m getting ahead of the story.
Bowen decided to let girls in, and because he was desperate, asked my mom to let me take the entrance exam. I got in, even without his intervention, and I suppose that changes my attitude about my presence at the Campbell affair when I was in 7th grade. Bowen was still in the process of marketing to girls, and in 1980, there were virtually no coed Catholic schools in Chicago. He blazed a trail.
When Ignatius went coed, several factors collided to reverse the fate of St. Ignatius. Instead of going broke and closing, as some of the other single gender Catholic high schools in the city, Ignatius’s enrollment grew (and with the addition of girls, the entrance exam scores became more competitive, too). The City also embarked upon a gentrification strategy that made the land around the school valuable. Now, instead of being in the heart of a poor neighborhood anchored by high-rise housing projects, the school is in the center of highly desirable real estate, with brand new lofts and townhomes competing for the dollars of the urban elite.
I’m not sure where I am going with this St. Ignatius history lesson, but all I can say is that being part of the revitalization of the place was instrumental in my life. I remember folding, stuffing, and licking envelopes during the run up to the first Benefit — with Bob Hope as its guest. We completed the folding, stuffing, and licking in a hovel of a space, warmed only by our massive winters coats. Rodents scurried across the floors on at least one of the nights. My family didn’t get to go to that first benefit with Bob Hope, but I think my mom and dad went. I am still not sure how Bowen managed to pull of what seemed like a miracle. He saved a dying school, and now that school has a huge endowment ($34 million according to Wikipedia) and has been expanded and refurbished; it attracts some of the best students from around the City of Chicago.
I intended to write this post about my family attending the St. Ignatius Benefit with Glen Campbell, but somehow got sidetracked by the history of the school’s revival. I suppose the stories go together. My family, oddly enough, seemed instrumental in helping St. Ignatius in its moments of doubt, by stuffing envelopes, and attending perhaps a sparsely attended benefit (which is maybe why all of us had tickets for this one). I played my own part by going to St. Ignatius, and graduating in the first class of girls who had attended for four years. Now my husband is an English teacher and the head boys track and cross country coach at St. Ignatius. I also work with another former Ignatius graduate, and the son of one of my former teachers there. In strange ways, St. Ignatius has remained a part of my life since those far away days of Rhinestone cowboys.
As for the concert, I have vague memories of Campbell in a white suit, singing this song, but beyond that, it is hard to recall. I love the photograph of my family with Fr. Joe and his sister, Bonnie, though, and the memories of that time and place, when all of us were so young, looking ahead to our lives. Perhaps what I remember most is my feeling of awe when seated in the Auditorium Theater. Maybe it was that feeling that made me want to go to St. Ignatius.
Thanks, Glen, for reminding me of this story.