Once In Love With Amy…

It was a song that was popular when I was a little girl – “Once in love with Amy, always in love with Amy. Ever and ever fascinated by her, set your heart on fire to stay…” One of my favorite childhood actors, Ray Bolger, introduced that song in the 1952 movie “Where’s Charley.” Growing up I remember constantly singing that song. I loved it. And never in a million years could I have imagined how significant the name of Amy would eventually become to me.

Amy entered my life when I was in my twenties. A beautiful and precocious child with a killer smile that melted the hearts of many. She decided to be in my after school drama program and from that point forward my life would never be the same. Beautiful, talented, conflicted, loving – a living angel that all too soon became one. I heard the news when I was out of town. A former student texted me and asked what happened to Amy. Her Facebook account was flooded with “rest in peace” messages and I became sick to my stomach and almost passed out. Such a beautiful young woman, so much life, so much promise and all of a sudden, in what seemed like an instant, gone… Amy touched my life in countless ways. She shared her hopes and dreams with me. We talked endlessly about the challenges in her life. We laughed together, cried together, we connected in the deepest way possible for two human beings that are not bound by blood. Amy was the first person to make me realize the importance of the after-school program at Hiawatha Park. Disparate lives bonding forever through the medium of theatre and dance, not recognizing at the time that our hearts and minds were creating lifetime connections that, try if we might, could never be broken. Day by day we went on laughing, loving and creating magic deep in our souls. We just didn’t know it at the time. I see it now so clearly, I feel it now so deeply. Maybe that is why mere words will never be able to express how lost I feel without her. In my head I know the reality of it, someone just needs to explain it to a body that has forever lost a piece of its heart.

Our Angel, Amy...

Our Angel, Amy…

Today I finally figured out why I’ve been feeling so compelled to write about Amy these past few days.  Today would have been Amy’s 48th birthday. Normally the candles would be lit, the cake would be cut, the traditional songs sung – all to celebrate another year of a special life on earth.  That will not happen today. Today we grieve, we cry and we try so hard to do what Amy would have wanted us to do – to rejoice in the memory of her and move on with our lives. Today I think of our many long talks, how we always spoke about our special bond and how much we both so appreciated our deep and powerful connection. Funny, but for some reason I don’t feel that she is gone. I truly believe for as long as I life she will never be gone. And that is how I cope… So Happy Birthday dear sweet Amy. I’ve felt your presence every day since you left us and I know you are watching over all of us from a much better place. Please believe these words as I say them, they haunt me and yet come straight from my heart… “Once in love with Amy – always in love with Amy…

The Hiawatha Park Dance Company…

The Hiawatha Park Dance Company Logo

The Hiawatha Park Dance Company Logo

In recent days I’ve been spending time trying to organize this blog. I’ve been blogging for a couple of years now, and part of the challenge I face is that I don’t blog about one specific subject. That can be confusing to potential visitors who, I think, look to blogs for very specific information. Within the past year, the greater part of my blog had dealt with a growing passion of mine, cooking and baking, and writing about the recipes I’ve tried, my opinions of them, and lessons learned while making them. I am not a natural cook learning much of my technique from the school of hard knocks and some strategic cooking classes and my thought was that my journey may help others like me who did not have anyone to mentor them in the culinary arts when they were growing up.

Ok, so what does all of this have to do with the Hiawatha Park Dance Company? Well there are two trains of thought that brought me about to the dance company. The first being that, early on, I was so career obsessed and my job became my total focus – one of the reasons I never really learned how to cook and that is something I’ve been thinking about recently. And second, as I was organizing the blog it occurred to me that I have written several blogs about my general memories about Hiawatha Park but none specifically about the dance company. So it’s time for that special group of ladies to get their due.

Me and some of the members...

Me and some of the members…

I taught in after school programs at Hiawatha Park for 14 years. My title was drama instructor and my job was to teach drama and to produce children’s plays (along with directing and working at Theatre On The Lake, but that’s an entirely different blog in itself). It became apparent early on in my days at Hiawatha Park that both the students and the audience liked musicals so I decided to add a few dance numbers to some of the early shows I produced. That soon became the glue that made many of the students return. They loved to dance (and so did I) and dancing as a part of the program grew by leaps and bounds until it got to the point the productions were more about dancing and less about acting. Although we continued to do plays (it was a must every December) we branched off and started to do dance recitals every Spring. And those took off like wild fire. Soon I was mostly teaching dance classes, with one play production class and the numbers of students in my program got larger and larger.

Being the type-A personality that I am, I wanted to make sure my students had quality instruction. I had taken dance classes in college and had some good basic knowledge but I wanted to provide classes that could challenge the abilities of the students as they began to excel. So off to dance studios I went. At one point in time I was taking classes 3-4 times a week with various choreographers I had worked with as well as instructors from the Hubbard Street Dance company, a renowned Chicago dance company.

The dancers, and me with their mom's...

The dancers, and me with their mom’s…

Now, I am not your typical dancer – I am way too tall and had never been super lean, but I had innate ability that got me pretty adept in the principles of jazz dancing. From there, what I learned they learned – sometimes even down to the routines that I learned in my classes. I saw students struggle, I saw students fail, I saw students excel but I made sure that each and every one of them always knew that they were positively challenging their abilities, and that to me is the true meaning of success.

After some time it became apparent that, as in many cases, some students were simply much better than others. In my mind that did not make them better it just made them more adept at learning certain principles of dance. So as I began to notice varying levels of expertise it became a challenge to figure out how to keep all of my students motivated and interested. Then one day during a dance class it came to me. I was being instructed by a dancer from the Hubbard Street Dance Company and I thought dance company… dance company. What a great idea – form a dance company. Create a venue for the dancers that excel and provide a tangible goal for the aspiring up-and-coming dancers. The idea took off.

Membership was basically up to me, we did not have a formal audition process and I did not stay at Hiawatha Park long enough to develop one. Basically I think I based it on whether a dancer could do a double turn – some could do triples. They also had to be able to perform every element of the more complex routines. I will never forget their first official number, and their simple introduction: Ladies and Gentleman, The Hiawatha Park Dance Company  — the black jackets with the company’s name on the back –  their backs to the audience, the lights go up, the surrealistic intro to Prince’s song “You’ve Got the Look” and then BAM, they turn and begin their bump and grinds. All I could think of was how fortuitous it was for them to be dancing to that song as the words “Sho nuff do be cookin’ in my book” certainly applied to them at that moment. It was all I could do to not reduce myself to a blubbering idiot as I watched them. They were proud, confident young women who found an identity that separated them from the pack. They knew it and I knew it. They were the ones all the other dancers in the program aspired to be. It was so fabulous to see them shine. And shine they did. They learned everything I learned. They were dedicated, competitive. They wanted to be the best they could be. What life lessons they learned through that program, life lessons they didn’t even realize they were learning at the time and I didn’t realize I was teaching.

They developed a great reputation so much so that they were asked to perform at Chicago Park District city-wide events. They were the main event at the city’a annual Arbor Day Celebration for a couple of years, an event that brought the mayor and a host of other city dignitaries to Daley Bicentennial Plaza on Chicago’s Lakefront.

Woodsmoke Ranch Program

Woodsmoke Ranch Program

They performed at Woodsmoke Ranch, a private RV park, for a couple of years (one of the parent’s owned some property there) and of course they performed at Hiawatha Park dance recitals and Christmas parties. I even had to institute a number in all of our shows where all the other dancers would have one number with the dance company which, at it’s highpoint, included sixty kids on stage all-together weaving in and out of each other and performing different but coordinated routines. I always dreaded staging that one – it took one complete rehearsal just to get that down as they would all rehearse separately until production week. Sometimes I wonder how we ever even did it. But in the end it was worth it just to see the looks on their faces and the faces of their families and friends.

At the city-wide Arbor Day event

At the city-wide Arbor Day event

If there is one thing that I can point to as my shining accomplishment at Hiawatha Park it has to be the dance company. Not that the other parts of the program were less important, but once I established it I knew I had hit the programmatic jackpot.

I stayed at Hiawatha Park for 14 years. In my third year three young women came into the drama program, Michelle Steffen (Rouland) , Janine Herman (George), and Camille DeAngelis. A few years later their friend Denise Chyrsty (Redmond) joined and then all four of them stayed with the program, becoming the initial core of the company, through their senior year in high school. That last year they became affectionately knows as “The Seniors”. Talk about growing up together, boy did we ever. It was so important to me that they have their last year in the dance company that I turned down a promotion the year before so that I could stay at Hiawatha Park for them. I never told them that at the time and was offered another promotion immediately following their final performance. I took that one and the dance company became history.

The Seniors

“The Seniors” with their moms and me.

But if “The Seniors” were the elder statesmen, you can’t discount the other members of the group, Jenny Jarosz (Holcomb) – the heart and soul of all of us , Nicole Burns (Shamo) the dedicated professional, Heather Wronowski – “finger love” (and the members all know what that means), Michelle Kyrstek – our angel who died at the age of 13 from an unsuccessful organ transplant, Lydia Hlibchuck – who taught us all a thing or two about jazz turns, and April Balitewicz – the most flexible dancer of the entire bunch. Together they were a joy to work with and a joy to be with. To this day most of them are still in my life.

It has taken me this long to honor in writing this wonderful group of young girls who have all gone on to become inspiring women. And although the miles may separate us, the love binds us together. I love them all and will until the day I die. And so, with all the love in my heart it is my honor to introduce to you, ladies and gentleman, The Hiawatha Park Dance Company!

Dance Company

Has Time Rewritten Every Line?

We all have experiences that define our lives. Whether they be situations, people, music, art – there are moments that when we recall them we know they contributed significantly to who we are today. This week, some of those moments were brought back to me in full force when I heard about the passing of Rita Utz, the long time music instructor at Hiawatha Park.

Over the years you’ve heard me speak about my experiences at Hiawatha Park, the little recreation center on the Northwest Side of Chicago. I started working there in 1974 and spent fourteen years teaching Theatre and Dance in after school programs. My title was “Drama Instructor”, Miss Rita’s was “Music Instructor”, Miss Gloria and Miss Debbie were “Physical Instructors, John was the other “Physical Instructor”, Vince was the “Park Supervisor” and who could ever forget that elderly curmudgeon, Adolph who was the “Building Attendant”. We were definitely a crazy crew who worked together, played together and created an atmosphere that caused hundreds of young children to march across the street from St. Francis Borgia School, (and Canty as well) at the very second school let out to participate in our after school programs. Everyday by 3:30 pm. the building was filled with the sound of basketballs bouncing, floor exercise music playing and of course the familiar sounds of the upcoming musical production coming from the club room right off the main entrance where I taught my classes. (I began teaching in a much smaller club room but graduated to a bigger space when my program got bigger).

And every day, year in year out, you could count on this little recreation center to be teeming with kids laughing, learning and creating bonds and friendships that could last a lifetime. Don’t get me wrong, there was drama as well. Kids will be kids and they will misbehave so there were also those times of determining the correct type of discipline to show that certain behaviors would not be tolerated. There were good days, there were bad days but those days became the days that defined the lives of many, the times of our lives!

Rita’s passing got me to once again think about those days. But now I am wondering, is that really how it all happened?  I have such wonderful memories of those times.  But were they as pivotal as I remember them?  Did they really create the experiences that defined the lives of all of us? Were we as good as we thought we were? And as I wonder about this, the words from the song “The Way We Were” reverberate in my head:

Can it be that it was all so simple then,

Or has time rewritten every line.

If we had the chance to do it all again,

Tell me would we, could we?

Memories may be beautiful and yet,

What’s to painful to remember,

We simply choose to forget.

So it’s the laughter we will remember,

Whenever we remember, the way were…

So now I wonder, am I choosing to remember only the laughter? Am I making more of these experiences than they were ever meant to be? Has my mind created a fairy tale version of what happened during those years, a version that is easy for me to live with but far from the truth? Was it really all so simple then?

And as I wallow in the doubt, I get an email from a former student who read a blog that I posted in 2011 regarding my reflections on our Hiawatha Park experiences:

“Reading the experience through your eyes is amazing to me. Maybe I’m becoming more of a pessimist as I get older, but that seems like a lot of work! All I can say is thank you. Thank you for your patience with us. Thank you for your guidance. Thank you for sharing your talents with us. We were luckier than we knew. I’m glad to have the opportunity to tell you that, now that I can truly appreciate it through an adult’s eyes. YOU ROCK!!

I am writing this blog at the moment the funeral mass is being conducted for Miss Rita back in Chicago. At 94, she lived a full life but far beyond the blessing of years she lived a life that mattered.  Her talent and her love of children left indelible impressions on the lives of many creating experiences that defined their lives. And that is much easier said than done. She leaves this earth a richer person because of how she chose to live her life. I thank her today for sharing her gifts with all of us. She will be fondly remembered in all of our hearts.

I left Hiawatha Park 25 years ago and over and over I still get the types of messages from my former students similar to the one I shared above. So, as I once again think about those days and wonder whether they really were the experiences that defined our lives, I say with a great deal of certainty – yes, they were. Has time rewritten every line – no it has not. If we had the chance to do it all again, tell me would we, could we… well that is a question for the ages. I’m not sure we could, but I am eternally grateful that we did!

Hiawatha Means Holidays…

One of my most precious memories, or years of memories, I have of the Christmas holiday season was producing the annual holiday shows at Hiawatha Park. The shows started out as small plays and evolved into Christmas musical extravaganzas. For me, the fall and winter seasons are still defined in my mind by the rigid schedule we kept to get a show up the second week in December. It was always the second week in December for several reasons, mostly so it would not conflict with the myriad of other holiday activities planned by schools and families. But I also arranged my schedule so that once the show was done I was on vacation until the first of the year. Ah, those were the days…

We did many full scale musicals including Babes in Toyland, Cinderella and Peter Pan and we also did shows consisting of holiday skits and dancing. But, regardless of what we chose to do, it was always a magical way to ring in the holiday season. Auditions started early in September and the competition was always fierce for the lead roles. Once the show was cast rehearsals began and the tried and true schedule we was put into motion. Rehearsals were two to five days a week, depending on the size of your role. At least once, if not twice, during the course of the rehearsal period I would tell the students the show was canceled, not because I intended to do it but it was a weapon to get them to behave. It worked for a while and then became just another element of patterns of the rehearsal schedule. The first complete run through was always the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. I would always dreaded that day but more often than not was surprised that the kids could actually pull it all together.

After that, I would spend rehearsal times focusing on weak areas and ensuring that we did a few more complete run throughs before we moved into the gym. The Hiawatha Park gymnasium was the venue where we staged all of our shows. We could never get into the space until the Monday before the show so we literally had only two days to rehearse in the performance space before the show opened, and one of those days was dress rehearsal with no stopping and starting. So technically we had only one rehearsal to get it all down.

The Monday of show week was perhaps the day I dreaded the most. Moving from the small room where we rehearsed for two months and trying to get sixty kids to adjust their blocking to the much bigger space was always interesting. The more seasoned students learned quickly and adapted very well. The newer students had difficulty but always seemed to find their way by show time. Monday was also the day that we staged the major dance number of the show that involved every single student in the program. It was the first time all of them danced the dance together and it was a technical nightmare – sixty kids doing different things at different times weaving in and out of each other while watching in awe the dancing of the Dance Company. How we all got through it I will never know, but the result was spectacular. The Monday rehearsal  always seemed like it would never end. Having to restage the entire show, adapt the choreography and do a complete run through with lights and sound for the first time was a daunting task. But we all pulled through.

Then came Tuesday, dress rehearsal night, and you could feel the tension in the air. This was it – regardless of what happened, the show would be done in its entirety without stopping. I had strict back stage rules for the cast but trying to keep a slew of excited grammar school children behaving was perhaps the biggest task of all. I spent as much time keeping them seated, preventing them from peaking out from behind the bookfolds, and not talking as I did stage managing. Quite often I would snap my fingers and point at someone misbehaving with a glare that I hoped would stop them in their tracks. Some times it work and some times it didn’t. There were even a few surprise rump taps to keep them in check. If I were teaching today, that definitely would not have occurred. And eventually we made it through dress rehearsal and on to three nights of performances.

Wednesday, Thursday, Friday – performance days. The first night you could cut the tension with a knife, the second night the kids were old pros and the third night they were just plain having fun. And then there were the flowers. Every closing night they gave me flowers. For fourteen years I got flowers and for fourteen years each group that gave them went through elaborate measures to make sure that I didn’t know I was getting flowers – or so they thought. And although I knew, I cherished each gift because I knew it reflected the love they had for me, which I also had for them.

And then came Saturday. This holiday play producing tradition was capped off by the annual Christmas Party at Hiawatha Park which always occurred the day after our show closed. And every year the dancers would perform at least two of dances they performed in the holiday show. And that was it, the auditions, the rehearsals, the canceling of the show, the pre-Thanksgiving run through, the first day in the gym, the dress rehearsal, the three nights of shows, the flowers, the Christmas Party – all culminating in the second week of December.

Today is Saturday in the second week of December, the day of the annual Christmas party. And in my mind today, the show is over, the holiday songs are being sung (accompanied by Rita Utz on the piano) and the dancers for one last time are performing some dances from the holiday show. The flowers they gave me the night before are in a vase in a prominent place in my house, serving as a beautiful reminder of what we all accomplished together. Those beautiful flowers, those precious flowers. They are so vivid in my mind even though you don’t bring me flowers anymore…

Where Is This In My Job Description?

A story I read today made me once again think about the incredible value a good teacher brings to the life of a child. And whether that teacher is a parent, a relative, an academic, coach or recreator, teachers are the lifeblood of growing up healthy and strong. And quite often we don’t recognize the value they bring at any particular moment, but in hindsight realize that we would be much less of a whole person without the force of their influence behind us.

Today one of my former students recounted a conversation she had with her 11 year old daughter who maintained with strong conviction that she would not engage in sexual activity until she was married. Easy to say at 11 years old, harder to uphold when you are sixteen and “in love”. She maintained that if a boy pressured her for sex she would simply break off the relationship. Again easy to say when you are eleven and have not yet found “the love of your life”. You could tell her mother was very happy that her daughter felt free to talk openly about that subject with her. And, in a very gentle way her mother lovingly reminded her that when the day comes (and it will come) that she has to make a decision regarding having sex, she hoped she remembered the unwavering conviction she felt at 11 years of age regarding waiting until marriage.

This is definitely one of those critical moments in a child’s life where they turn to someone they trust not only to express their views but to get validation for something that could be embarrassing or difficult to discuss. You only hope in these cases that they turn to someone who cares about them, someone who has their best interests at heart. In this case, she turned to her mother. In another she may turn to someone else but whoever assumes that role of “teacher” has the same responsibility – to recognize the significance of the situation and to care for the welfare and the well being of that child.

When I initially got into teaching I never realized the enormity of that responsibility. I taught theatre and dance in after school programs and mistakenly believed that’s what I was primarily doing. Along the way I found out that even though those disciplines were the “carrot” that got kids into my classes on a day-to-day basis, the real reason they continued to come was the interaction they had with a caring adult who was not their parent. And I learned that lesson in quite a unique way.

As part of my after school theatre program, I would organize field trips to other recreation centers that had similar programs so that my students could see plays performed by other kids their age. We would arrange an evening out that consisted of going out to dinner, seeing the play and then discussing what we saw on the ride home. I would try to do this at least once each season and each time it was an experience that the students looked forward to with great anticipation.

It was during one of those pre-show dinners that I finally understood my role as a teacher. About five girls and myself were eating and just having pleasant conversation when all of a sudden one of them turned to me and said, “do boys have periods like girls have periods?” There was complete silence at the table. And I will never forget the first thought that came into my mind – “ok, now where is this in my job description?” I was initially taken aback. But luckily I then felt honored that she came to me and and that she felt she could trust me not laugh at her or embarrass her but give her a straightforward caring answer, which I attempted to do. And I knew it was not only on her mind, but on the mind of all the other girls sitting at the table as well. What power, what influence an adult has at that moment. I was blown away.

And over the years that one moment stuck with me as time and time again my students would come to me and share sensitive information or ask me sensitive questions. And more and more they began to do so. And more and more I was glad they came to me. And over time, I began to realize the enormity of the responsibility each and every teacher has, and it mostly has nothing to do with their chosen discipline. Teachers have the power to save lives, change lives, to create hope and to inspire. They can be the pivotal make or break influence in a child’s life, an important thing to recognize and remember.

So I congratulate my former student for performing the role of a good teacher impeccably with sensitivity and caring. And I thank all of my former students for their faith in me as their teacher when they were growing up. I know it made me a better human being and I hope it did the same for them.

Chicago and The Song of Hiawatha

I have done several posts in the past about working at Hiawatha Park. It was the experience of a lifetime and it amazes me that it is still the gift that keeps on giving. The highlight of this last trip to Chicago was getting together with some of my former students from Hiawatha Park. When I left them they were adolescents. Now they are all very accomplished women with diverse backgrounds and interests.

The wonderful part about this reunion was that the group of women who came to tip a few at Bar Louie (and those who couldn’t but met me for breakfast or lunch) represented the two “generations” of students that I had at Hiawatha Park. I was only there for fourteen years, but the program was very different when I first got there than it was when I left. Initially the program was a traditional theatre program but some time into my tenure I incorporated dance into it and that element took off like gangbusters. Instead of just doing stage productions, we evolved into doing musicals and dance recitals and even developed the Hiawatha Park Dance Company, the “in-crowd” dance troupe into which all students aspired to be.  We went from small appreciative audiences to packing the house for all of our shows. It was a phenomenal experience and one which, at this point in time, I question whether we could ever replicate.

Some of the "girls" and me

There were several very special things about this get together. First of all, just seeing everyone again after so many years was such a joy. I am grateful to a medium such as Facebook which has connected me with former students that I never thought I would ever see or speak to again. I was amazed at how we instantly were comfortable with one another just as if we had seen each other yesterday. For me it was such a joy to be able to relate to them as women and to hear about their lives and interests and to have adult conversations with them. We were no longer teacher and student (although we recognized just how precious those memories were) but now we were friends.  I felt so blessed that that evening gave me a whole new group of women friends who I love and admire.

The second was the bond that was evident by the two generations of students. Some had been involved earlier in the program and others later, but there was a bond of how important that program was to them and how now, as adults, they recognized the extreme value of having day-to-day contact with a caring adult in an after school setting. One of them told me that she had very vivid memories of feeling safe and how important that feeling was to her. Others spoke of sharing personal things with me knowing that I would handle them with sensitivity. Others spoke of the discipline and rigor that I expected from them and how that taught them life lessons. They spoke of the antics that went on backstage and how I would reprimand them (in ways I would never do now). Others spoke of how important it was to have someone who was an adult but not their parent be there to listen to them. And although the program had its value, the message was clear – it was about the relationship of teacher and student and how powerful that relationship can be. And as we talked about that, both generations of students saw that although the medium was different, what they got out of the program was the same. And it was so powerful that the effects of it have lasted a lifetime. Now how can you ever put a dollar value on that? You simply can’t. And although some had only met each other for the first time, they bonded that evening as well. And the new Facebook friendships were forged the very next day. That was fun to see.

Shelly, Janet and Jane

The night flew by, we closed the place. We talked about a myriad of things – we ate, we drank, we laughed. At times I just sat back and watched them as they shared details about their lives today. They were witty, funny and the atmosphere was filled with joy. And as I think about it now I wonder how the heck I got so lucky. It dawned on me that this get-together was not about living in the past but moving forward with our relationships. It was about reinforcing that we have a strong group of loving and caring friends who may not get the chance to see each other with the frequency that we’d like but who will always be there for each other for the rest of their lives – we have a special place in each other’s hearts and there we will each stay.

So, to Jenny, Janine, Janet, Gina, Jane, Dee, Shelly, Sandy, Camille, Denise, Amy (had breakfast and lunch with them) Brett and Nick (who bravely made appearances) and to all of the others from Hiawatha Park present or not – I love you, I always will, thank you – and here’s to the future!

Solve the Federal Budget Crisis – Cut the Arts!

One of the considerations on the table to “solve” the federal budget crisis is to cut all federal funding to the arts. Here we go again. We’re talking somewhere in the area of 160 Million, chump change in relation to the overall federal deficit. I am always amazed that these types of programs are on the chopping block, especially since the arts represents the humanity of our culture and that of all others as well.

What the brain trusts on capital hill are choosing to forget is that this money, although seemingly small, provides not only funding for arts organizations but seed money for these organizations to receive other grants. In listening to an interview with Kevin Spacey today, if this 160 Million is cut, it can result in an estimated overall funding cut of approximately one billion dollars to the arts.

Spacey talked about the value of the arts – the impact they have on a person’s life. How the arts can grow self esteem, how the arts can create confidence. Hello! Haven’t I just spent about a week waxing on the magic of the Hiawatha Park program. Haven’t I heard from folks what an impact a program like that had on people’s lives.  And this was just a small theatre and dance program on the Northwest Side of Chicago. We are talking some major arts organizations that can lose their funding.

But, having spent 34 years working in local government I learned long ago that you never win a budget battle by arguing quality of life. Everyone agrees in principle that the arts improve quality of life. But politicians deal in the reality of dollars and cents. So let’s talk about that. Most cities support arts centers because they are good for the local economy. Not only do people attend performances, but while they do so they also eat at local restaurants, shop local stores, stay in local hotel rooms and spend money that helps to sustain local economies. Many urban areas have been revitalized not as shopping districts but as art districts because the arts dollar tends to generate dollars for other enterprises as well.

In Spacey’s interview he cites a very interesting fact. Do you know what the biggest tourist attraction is in the United States. Broadway! So arts tourism dollars benefit the economy locally, nationally and internationally. Arts dollars breed dollars, always have always will. So why would you not want to invest in a sector of our economy that can generate additional dollars and help keep our economy strong? The logic for cutting funding to the arts escapes me, but with the size of our federal deficit it does not surprise me that business acumen is a skill virtually non-existent in Washington, D.C.

Spacey went on to talk about how Abraham Lincoln knew the value of the arts and although he was assassinated in a theatre, Lincoln quite often went to the theatre to escape the hardships of leading during the Revolutionary War. He also talked about some research he had done on Winston Churchill. He said that during the Second World War as funding was getting tight Churchill was told that in order to continue funding military initiatives funding to the arts would have to be cut. Churchill’s reply was succinct and brilliant. He said, “Then what are we fighting for?”

There is so much other waste in our government’s spending but politicians like to try to take the easy way out whenever they can. Don’t let them. Contact your representatives and senators and tell them to look elsewhere to cut the budget. It may be just your voice, but aren’t the arts worth it?

Kevin Spacey interview

The Past – Blessing or Curse?

As many of you already know, I will be turning 60 in May and I think, because of that, I have spent a lot of time recently talking about the past. Is that what happens as you get older – you rely on your past to feed your present? I’m not entirely sure but feel it necessary to explore the idea.

This past week I have connected with three entirely new people on Facebook all who played a part of my past at Hiawatha Park. And it was great to hear about their lives to see how they’ve changed and to explore the bonds we made that were built many, many years ago. Those bonds are strong and will never be broken. I think it is safe to assume that they will be carried with all of us for the rest of our lives. But to what degree do these experiences shape your life, and is it healthy to continue to dwell on them?

I teach a class on Women and Leadership and a key component of the class is to look at the history of barriers that women have faced in terms of achieving their leadership goals. I learned over the course of my life that in order to better understand who we are now and how we arrived at the circumstances we face, it is important to go back in history and see what it can tell us. History provides information, understanding, tolerance and context. It helps to create a clearer picture of the present and a better awareness of the reasons for what currently exists. It can play a variety of roles from education to acceptance to peace. It has valuable lessons to teach.

Mount Sanitas - Boulder, CO.

So when I recently took a major voyage down memory lane cruising through the straits of Hiawatha Park, it taught me that many of the things that I like about myself now – that I am proud that I accomplished – that I learned the hard way – were rooted in the work and relationship experiences I had there. And I have to say, I am pretty darned blessed. I’ve had wonderful challenging work experiences in both Ohio and Colorado after leaving Chicago. I was able to retire comfortably at 58 and now spend my time only doing what I love to do. I live in one of the more beautiful areas of our country and I still am able to have that connection to wonderful people and experiences in my past – what more can a person ask for?

So, don’t worry about me. I may be turning 60 but nowhere near ready to be pushing up the daisies. In the words of Conrad Birdie “I got a lot of livin’ to do” and I intend to do it. This recent journey back in time only solidified that in my mind. And it is a journey well taken. I suggest you book your own personal cruise as soon as you can, and I hope it is as  wonderfully memorable. Believe me, it is worth every penny!

Twenty-Three Years Ago This Month…

It’s April and the promise of Spring is in the air. Spring is a time of renewal, a time of change, a time that holds very powerful memories for me. You see, it was Spring, twenty-three years ago in April when I said goodbye to Hiawatha Park. Over the past several days I posted on Facebook some clips from a tape that was given to me when I left Hiawatha Park – the tape included memories of shows we had done with pictures that had been taken, video clips and even some creative editing to some very special songs. These posts have raised questions from some of my newer friends as to what Hiawatha Park was and about the Theatre and Dance Program we had.

For my parks and recreation friends, the Chicago Park District does not use terms the way they are used in most of our profession.  Most of you know the term park to connote a piece of land that is used for active or passive recreational purposes. And although that was part of Hiawatha Park, in the Chicago Park District, the term is also used to represent the recreation center that is on the grounds of the park. So the park and the recreation center both go by the same name, Hiawatha Park. Simple, easy and yet the words Hiawatha Park have a meaning far beyond a tract of land and a building for me and a whole bunch of people that I know.

It was at Hiawatha Park that I came of age. I changed from someone who was floundering to someone with a purpose. And although I was basically dragged into that job kicking and screaming, I left it so thankful that I had the opportunity to have the experience of a lifetime. There I had the opportunity to work with some of the best and brightest young people I will ever know. We loved each other, we fed off of each other’s energy and together we created magic. It was magic so powerful that it still resonates in all of our lives. We grew up together, worked together, played together, loved together and parted ways together. A core group has stayed in touch with me over the years and there were many others that simply went on with the business of living their lives.

But whether we were in contact or not, it did not matter. I carried each and every one of those young people in my heart wherever I went. I always had pictures of them in my office prominently displayed and whether I was in Chicago, Ohio or Colorado, they came with me and provided me strength, purpose and some of the best memories anyone could ever have. And with the dawn of Facebook, I have been able to reconnect with some that I never thought I would see or hear from again. That just happened again today, and I cannot tell you the joy it brings to me every time it happens.

So if you are wondering what Hiawatha Park was, for me and a whole bunch of people it is a bond that will never be broken, memories that will forever be cherished and one of the more precious gifts anyone of us will ever receive. Click on the link below and you can experience for yourself some of the magic.

Hiawatha Park Memories.

“We Are The Notes Of Your Opus”

The other night I again watched the movie “Mr. Holland’s Opus”.  I just happened to stumble on this movie a few years ago. I don’t remember how. I do remember Richard Dreyfuss being nominated for an academy award for his performance, but did not actually watch the movie until a few years after its release.

The movie chronicles the life of Glen Holland, a would-be rock musician who takes on a teaching job to pay the bills until he can make it as a musician. He gets dragged kicking and screaming into his fallback profession, teaching, and initially just does what he can to “eek” by. That is, until he actually is able to help a student overcome her fears and personal demons by learning to master playing the clarinet.

The movie is filled with songs from “my era”, and rightly so as it chronicles his teaching career from the late sixties until the early nineties. Mr. Holland gets students to love music by playing the Kingsman’s song “Louie Louie” or making the correlation with them between Bach and the Toy’s song “Lovers Concerto”.  I will not share more than these few glimpses into the movie, as I believe everyone should watch it because it is that darn good.

There are two takeaways that I got from this movie, one personal and the other more global. The personal side for me takes me back to my days teaching Theatre and Dance at Hiawatha Park. You see, I too was going to be famous. I was in a band, we had an agent, we were recording, it was just a matter of time. And in the interim, I needed to do something to pay the bills. So, teaching in after school programs for the Chicago Park District seemed like a great way to “eek” by. Well, fame never came. And it was a bitter pill for me to swallow. After all, I was not going to be like all the rest – I was going to make it. But I didn’t. I was a failure.

And so there I was, stuck in a nowhere job teaching young kids. I didn’t even like kids. But it paid the bills. And that’s the way it started, until one day when I was able to teach a young girl how to do a pirouette, or teach another young girl how to do the time step, or teach a young boy how to be the Cowardly Lion. I didn’t even realize it at the time, but something changed. All of a sudden I was putting my heart and soul into teaching this band of young people how to dance and act show after show, dance recital after dance recital, year after year. A whole group of young women stayed in my program for 12 years. We formed a dance company, we performed outside of our own little parks and recreation program. I even turned down a promotion a year before some of them graduated high school so that they could have one more year of being in shows.  Then I got another opportunity for a promotion and decided it was time to leave. After all, it was only a theatre and dance program, right. No big deal.

The final performance of the Hiawatha Park Dance Company was at Woodsmoke Ranch near Starved Rock Illinois. We had performed there over the summer for a couple of years. One of the parents owned a lot on the ranch and got us in the door. Once we were in, we were asked back. We performed that evening, cried a little, but knew it was time to move on, door closed.

The next day, they took me to the community room and played for me a tape that they made. The tape chronicled my years teaching at Hiawatha Park and ended with a montage of the end of almost every show we had done. You see, after every show they would give me flowers. They would always try to hide them from me, but I always knew they were going to do it. So together we all watched the many years of them giving me flowers flashed up on the screen to the tune of Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand singing “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers Anymore.”  It ended with the final show and the final gift of flowers. The only other time in my life that I cried harder was when my mother died. I could not believe the love and the caring that I was feeling. And to quote from Mr. Holland’s Opus, “there is not a person in this room that you have not touched. We are the notes of your opus, the music of your life.” That is exactly how I felt – and I never had felt so blessed.

To this day, I am in touch with many of the young people who gave more to me than I ever gave to them. They probably don’t realize it, but when you feel like a failure and then someone helps you understand that you were made to do something else, that your life has a different purpose, that is such a great gift. I can never thank them enough for showing me that I was not a failure. I felt like Glen Holland at the end of the movie. And to this day I remain in contact with many of them. They hold a very special place in my heart and always will.

The second takeaway is a little more global. Teaching is such a noble profession. A teacher never knows who they will inspire, who they will excite, who they will save. I was dragged into that profession kicking and screaming and now thank God every day that I had that opportunity to teach. Teachers are very special. They have the power to change lives.

So here is the The Last Scene From Mr. Holland\’s Opus. Once you watch it, I don’t think I will need to say more.