Black History Month: My Fenwick Experience

By Marlon R. Hall, Sr., EdD., Guest Blogger

“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.”  ― Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Dr. Marlon Hall

My journey to Fenwick High School began as a student in 1972. I was one of 11 African-American males that year who entered as freshmen. At the time, there were only two African-American males in the entire school. The most memorable episode of African-American student integration of schools in the history of our nation occurred 15 years earlier when nine students entered Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. They were called the “Little Rock Nine.”  I am calling us, “The Fenwick 11.”

The route to Fenwick began at my grammar school, Our Lady of Sorrows, on the West Side of Chicago. During our eighth grade year, high school representatives traveled to our school to speak about the advantages of attending Gordon Tech, Providence-St. Mel, Hales Franciscan, Holy Trinity, St. Ignatius, Loyola Academy and Fenwick.

The Fenwick representative was a man by the name of Mr. Kennedy. At the time, he was the Dean of Students/Vice Principal. His presentation really fascinated me. He spoke about the famous alumni, the class schedule and the opportunity to be enrolled in a Physical Education course for four years. The athletic prowess in me loved the idea of time in the gym for four years. Previously, I had the privilege of attending a basketball game in the old Lawless Gym in 1965. My cousin, Darnell, was playing for the St. Phillips High Lightweight basketball team in the Annual Fenwick Junior Basketball Holiday Tournament, so I was aware of the school, the township of Oak Park, and the ‘el’ ride from the West Side of Chicago.

Marlon Hall as a Fenwick freshman in 1972-73.

I decided that Fenwick was the place for me after Mr. Kennedy’s presentation. I arranged a campus visit with Mr. Kennedy, and he introduced me to Greg Stephans, an African-American student at Fenwick who took me on a tour of the campus. After the tour, I took the entrance exam with five of my classmates. After the testing was completed, one of my classmates was fully accepted, one was rejected, and the rest of us were told that we needed summer enrichment in math, English or reading. For four weeks in the summer, I took a math course with Mr. Finnell and a reading course with Mr. Kucienski (self-appointed ‘Sir’). During those few weeks, I became acquainted with the Fenwick community, travelling to Oak Park, and met new people like Don Howard, Henry Tolbert, George Kas, Kevin Galvin and Kevin Prendergast. They became freshman classmates of mine at Fenwick. I finished the courses sufficiently and I was fully accepted into Fenwick High School.

The ‘N’ word and other slurs

What happened during the next year was unexpected! I guess I was naïve coming from the West Side of Chicago. After the summer school experience, I thought that I would be able to successfully integrate into the Fenwick community. But I was called nigger, bourgie, burrhead, ‘boy,’ and one upperclassman one day decided to take it out on me and slapped me across the head and said, “Nigger, why did you come to this school!” This was not part of the program.

I was spit upon. Pennies were thrown at me, and my classmates threw rocks at us as we walked to the bus stop or the el stop. I can look through my Blackfriars 1973 Annual and remember every Fenwick student who communicated some type of racial slur or comment at me during my brief tenure at the school. The insults hurt but made me stronger. I decided to leave Fenwick after my freshman year. I transferred to Hales Franciscan, where I completed my high school education. Out of the 11 freshman, only three remained to graduate in 1976. They were Donald Howard, Henry Clarke and Wilbur Parker.

In the early 1970s, racial tension ran high in schools across America, from Virginia to Illinois. Oak Park and Fenwick were no exceptions.

Since leaving Fenwick in 1973, I realized that I should have remained and completed my education there. I have voiced that opinion to other members of the Fenwick 11 whom I remain in contact with. They agree. But, why did nearly all of us leave? Fenwick is one of the greatest educational experiences any student could have, especially a “ghetto” kid from Chicago’s West Side. The ridicules, the snickers, the violence afflicted, the racial slurs that I suffered made me a stronger individual.

At the present time, I serve as the President of the Lassen Community College in Susanville, California. This is my sixth year as the College President. Since leaving Fenwick, I have earned six college degrees: an associate’s degree, two bachelor’s degrees, two master’s degrees, and a doctorate degree in Educational Leadership with an emphasis on Community College Administration.

Mr. Andy Arellano in 1972, his first year of teaching at Fenwick.

Teachers like Mr. Arellano, Father Hren, Mr. Finnell, Mr. Kucienski, Father Ostdiek, Mr. Ludwick (who expressed to my mother that I should have remained at Fenwick) and Father Poulsen are the reason for my success today. I thank Mr. Arellano for calling my mother during that year at Fenwick and showing his concern for my education. His exact words were, “This school is very expensive and he should be making a better effort.” None of those individuals ever gave up on me.  I should have sought the support and guidance of my teachers, counselor (Father Bernacki), and the administration.

Looking back, with regret

As Vince Tinto (author of Leaving College) wrote, students will leave an institution if they do not feel a part of the campus community. I should have made an effort to do that.

As for my classmates from Fenwick, I am still in contact with several of them. It amazes me that I only spent a year on Washington Boulevard and Scoville and they still remember me. I sincerely thank individuals like John Quinn, Leo Latz, John O’Toole, Neil Bresnahan, Ed Trauth and Dominic Lombardo for reaching out to me on social media. All of these individuals are Caucasian.  I really want to thank Sean St. Clair for attending the viewing of my grandmother’s body at the Wallace Funeral Home in Broadview. That really touched me.

The lessons I learned were to always be prepared, come on time, wear your uniform (to this day I always wear a shirt and tie to work), take advantage of opportunities, ask questions, lead, achieve and serve.

Finally, the Fenwick 11 paved the way for other students of color to attend Fenwick. Our pain, suffering and success led to opening doors for others to follow. One of my cousins, Vincent Humphrey, Sr., sent his son, Vincent, Jr., to Fenwick where he was a success in the classroom and on the basketball court. [Vince Humphrey, a member of the FHS Class of 2004, went on to study and play basketball at Valparaiso University.]

Recently, I was in Chicago for the funeral of my stepfather. I traveled to Fenwick and met with Mr. Arellano (my former English teacher) and John Quinn (a current faculty member and former classmate). As I walked through those halls I could hear the words of the Fenwick fight song: “March for our colors, Black and White, and for Fenwick and Victory!”

To the members of the “Fenwick 11” ― Paul Hester, Sidney Thomas, Charles Williams, Joe Lenoir, Mike Jones, Henry Tolbert, Don Howard, Wilbert Parker, Leonard Franklin and Henry Clarke): Our cause speeds on.

Editor’s note: When Dr. Hall enrolled at Fenwick as a freshman nearly 46 years ago, black students represented fewer than 1.0% of the school’s then all-male student body. In 2018, 72 of Fenwick’s 1,204 students (6.0%) are of African-American ethnicity; 202 students (16.8%) are Hispanic-American; another 25 (2.1%) are Asian-American; and 40 (3.3%) are multi-racial.

“Race: Are We So Different?” The exhibition runs through July 15th at the Chicago History Museum. Watch a video preview.

FENWICK HIGH SCHOOL’S INCLUSION STATEMENT

With Saint Dominic as their guide, Dominican friars, sisters, nuns and laity have valued and promoted the diversity found in the one human family, while acknowledging that all people are called to the same eternal destiny in the Kingdom of God. As a Dominican institution, Fenwick High School continues the great Dominican tradition of inclusion and welcome for the common good. This process is rooted in interaction with those of different backgrounds, cultures and ways of life. Experiencing racial, gender, ethnic, religious and socio-economic diversity enriches everyone involved in the educational enterprise. Fenwick commits itself to welcoming every student who would flourish by embracing our Dominican, Catholic, college preparatory curriculum. Fenwick pledges that no one will face discrimination based on race, gender, religion, culture, ethnicity or sexual orientation. A Fenwick education will be marked by respect and inclusion. 

8 Replies to “Black History Month: My Fenwick Experience”

  1. Dr. Hall, I appreciate your sharing your Fenwick experiences and the strength they gave you. In context, in 1950 the world renowned chemist Percy Julian became the first African-American to take up residence in Oak Park. His home was fire bombed on Thanksgiving Day of that year and again in 1951. In May of 1954 the Supreme Court rendered the “Brown vs. Board of Education” ruling and in September of 1955 I walked into to Fenwick as a Freshman, two years before the “Little Rock Nine”, and I am black. There were no other black students and there would only be one more in the next four years.

    Many of my experiences were similar to yours but the negatives were overwhelmed by the support of the majority of the student body and the faculty support cannot go without mention. There were whispers and some name calling and even a fight or two but the Dominican family pushed, nudged, and refused to let me think of anything but finishing. I was also aware of the financial burden that I was placing on my family.

    In return, I received a excellent education both academically and socially.

    Reading your commentary is inspirational and I can only hope that it leads to growing diversity at Fenwick. Please continue to spread the word and continue your good work in education.

  2. Germaine Tanner (via Facebook): Dr. Coach Hall thank you for all you did for me. More than just my Coach in high school & college. You were my mentor, father figure, a man I looked up to for guidance. I thank you for watching over me and I hope that the man I have become has made you proud.

  3. More Facebook comments from over the holiday weekend:

    Daylon Giddens: Dr.Hall was my college basketball coach and even though I went another direction I appreciate this man for who he was to our basketball program as a mentor and as a father figure. His hard work, dedication and accomplishments has rubbed off not only on me but other young men as well. Thanks Dr.Hall for everything, be well in Jesus name.

    John E Adams: Thanks for sharing. Please read Dennis Bracco and Jim Smith. You might know some of the people referred to in this article.

    Dennis Bracco: John you can bet that I know most of the names that were mentioned that were Fenwick students. Although I graduated before Marlon Hall entered Fenwick he would have attended with two of my brothers. It’s ironic that he mentions Nate Humphrey and Nate Humphrey Jr., as Nate Junior’s grandfather, also named Nathaniel, was my referee partner in Division 1 for many years and a dear friend. I worked with Nate the last four nights before he died and was one of the pallbearers at his funeral. Nate Jr. attended Valparaiso along with my son Patrick, who played baseball there. Sometimes the world is smaller than we think….and as such we are so connected. I promise I will reach out to Dr. Hall in the very near future.

    Leslie Farley: You’re a humble leader in our community and we greatly value your ongoing contributions!

    John Dignan: Dr. Hall is as tough as they come.

    Cathy Harshbarger: Thank you for sharing your painful experience that allowed you to learn. You experienced the worst and best people offer each other. The decision to move forward and follow your dreams is inspiring. So glad you are part of our community and you and Mary are our friends.

    Tiron T Huds West: Glad you made it to Hales Franciscan, Marlon Hall.

    Judy Terrazas: I appreciate you. Thank you for sharing.

    Ray Williams: Doctor Hall, glad you have done well.
    I also was a boy from the West Side of Chicago who was admitted to Fenwick. Some of suburban guys did not like the city guys. Too bad.

    You happen to be black, I happen to be white, however we are Westsiders.

    May you encourage those California students to hang tough, study and succeed.

    Mike Hagerty: Oh, how this is true! It was just in the way that their eyes looked down on us.

    Ray Williams: I noted your pow-mia shirt. I had the honor to return the bracelet to the named pow when he landed in the states. He was a high school buddy of Army Colonel at Fort Polk when I was stationed there.

    Some students somehow overcome long odds through effort and encouragement.

    One of my investments is to give away books. Mostly used, very inexpensive but still useful. A young lady got a slim volume on physics and some building design publications. She has advanced to the WYSE (Univ Illinois) science competion. She may be short in height but tall in potential.

    May you find and scout talent.

    Martin Greenspan: Thanks for your post, Mr. Williams… You can bet on it… I have known Dr. Hall over 27 years, and I can tell you your message was well received, and that he will keep pushing the students at Lassen Community College and be a leader in education throughout that remote region of Northeast California at all levels… very tough to find a better man.

    Bill Ritchie III: Being called the N word would’ve sucked! I know people say it was back then, but I can’t imagine thinking you were entering a new world and expecting respect and then that. Doesn’t shock me. Just saddens me. I was class of ‘79 and we had maybe a couple more than a handful of African Americans in our class. By graduation, just 4. I didn’t really think about it until much later when diversity or lack there of, was brought up. But I don’t recall ANYone in our class treating Daryl, Demetrius, David and Donnell differently or badly. Maybe differently. But GOOD differently. Maybe going out of our way to make them know they were part of us. We probably DID make fun of the Polish and Lithuanian guys from Berwyn and Cicero 😜, along with the Country Club kids from Riverside or Oak Brook… So we didn’t even think about race.

    But during the time I was there 75-79, I can say with absolute certainty, that Tony Lawless called EVERYONE “Boy” and so did the Assistant Dean of Student Life (aka Disciplinarian). Didn’t matter what color you were, it was “Hey Boy! C’mere!”

    Sorry people treated the good Doctor this way. Being pioneers is probably always toughest. Maybe my classmates owe the 11 something.

  4. I just read Dr. Hall’s blog post and as 1969 graduate of Fenwick and as a product of my parents upbringing, I am appalled at the treatment that he and the other black students received while at Fenwick. I thought that we as community were better than that, even 46 years ago.

    Fenwick lost a great representative who not only set high standards for his own education, but continues to devout his life to the education of others. His photo and story belongs along side the other great people who have attended Fenwick High School.

  5. More comments from our Facebook users:

    Sean StClair: Thanks Marlon, never heard the moniker, the Fenwick 11. I always thought that the Fenwick 11 were very brave students.

    Michael Latz: Congratulations to Fenwick for facing some ugly history. Congratulations to Dr. Hall for succeeding despite prejudice and abuse. As Friars from that era will attest, the discipline was intense, but only if caught; some of the older disciplinarians called everyone “boy” – Mr. Lawless referred to everyone as “boy.”

    Gary Petranek: Just had my 15-year-old daughter read this story. I am proud you shared this inspiration, Dr. Hall.

    John Ronan: Marlon I was in the class of 77 and never got a chance to meet you! Congrats on all your success!

    1. Awesome article. Marlon’s experience was not all of ours. I did not get the same treatment, at least not to my face, and still left. We have discussed over the years how “we should have stayed at Fenwick”. The reality is that GOD allows us to do things and HE still keeps HIS hand onus so that we can accomplish that which HE has for us to do.
      The lessons learned at Fenwick have stayed with us through the years and allowed us to blossom.

    2. Congratulations Dr Marlon Hall.
      I never really got the chance to thank you for not giving up on me and everything you’ve done when I had the pleasure of having your class in highschool! To this day I talk about you to my kids on how you made a big impact on my life! Thank you!

  6. Comments from Fenwick Facebook followers:

    Teresa Campos-Nourse: Thank you for sharing.

    Robert Pauly: Dr. Hall might have only completed his freshman year, but he is as much a part of the community as any. Just forwarded this to my son, who is a multi-racial freshman. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Dr. Hall, and kudos to Fenwick for publicizing this.

    Christina MartinezI: Appreciate Dr. Hall sharing his experience with us.

    Juliana Panagas Lamblin: Wonderfully written; thank you so much for sharing your experience, Dr. Hall – Juliana ‘03

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