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.

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Forever Friars: The Dobber

Fenwick High School periodically profiles people affiliated with our community who have since passed on …

Dan O’Brien ’34 (1917-2003)

Remembering DOB, “the Dobber:” a coaching/training legend affiliated with Fenwick for seven decades.

By Mark Vruno

In the basement of Fenwick High School sets the Dan O’Brien Natatorium. Our swimming Friars will host the 30th Annual Dan O’Brien Relays this coming January. Younger alumni and present-day students may wonder: Who was this O’Brien guy and why is he a such a legend at Fenwick?

DanOBrien_plaque

Dan O’Brien was more than a stellar swim/dive guru; he was versatile. DOB was a FHS student (Class of 1934) who then served as a physical education teacher at his alma mater. “Dan’s first Fenwick paycheck predated the Social Security system and had no social security withholding,” deadpans Jerry Lordan, PhD., who teaches social studies at Fenwick and wrote the preface for O’Brien’s oral history, a hardcover book entitled Fenwick Over the Years.

In 1937 Football Coach Tony Lawless hired O’Brien to lead his freshman team. Football was O’Brien’s first love in sports. In the fall of 1930, seven years earlier, Fenwick was only one year old. Dan was a scrawny, 128-pound freshman who showed up for tryouts at the new school, only to be snickered at by burly classmates and upper-classmen. “Sorry, son,” said Lawless, according to a 1972 Oak Leaves article. “I can’t use you. You’ve come out for the wrong team.”

O’Brien, however, was determined and refused to give up easily. Here’s how reporter Ted Londos recounted the story 42 years later:

“The kid faced the wise, young coach and replied firmly, ‘Mr. Lawless, I’ve come out for the team. You’ve asked for candidates. Here I am. You’ve got to give me a chance to show you what I can do.’ And so, to get rid of that reckless kid, Tony put him into a scrimmage – just for laughs. But on the first play, Coach Lawless’s eyes popped when he saw the tiny freshman bring a varsity giant down with a devastating tackle. Again he tried him out, and another regular bit the dust. Young Lawless shrugged his shoulders and decided to let the gutsy little guy hang around. ‘What’s your name?’ asked the coach.”

But the feisty O’Brien’s gridiron career with the Fighting Friars was short-lived. As a sophomore he suffered severe medical complications from the surgical removal of a kidney, which kept 15-year-old Daniel out of school for an extended period of time in 1931-32. “His surgeon warned him that the procedure may either fail and/or kill him,” Lordan later learned. “Dan outlived the surgeon and saw the surgeon’s grandchildren (twin boys) attend Fenwick.”

DanOBrien_1954_cropped

Dan O’Brien circa 1954.

 

Fast-forward 45 years, to when two of his former swimmers-turned-doctors came to O’Brien’s aid. “I had come back to Chicago in 1977,” recalls Leonard Vertuno ’57, M.D., a Loyola-educated nephrologist (kidney specialist), “and Pete Geis knocked on my door.” Dr. Peter Geis ’60 was a transplant surgeon and an All-State swimmer three years ahead of Vertuno at Fenwick. “Pete said, ‘Dan needs a doctor, and you’re it.’”

So began a reuniting of player and coach – and an adult friendship that would span more than a quarter-century. It was Dr. Vertuno who would give the eulogy at Dan O’Brien’s funeral in 2003. “He was an amazing man,” the retired doc said in early November from Sarasota, FL. “Dan was renowned nationally and internationally. He chose to stay at Fenwick and work with Tony [Lawless].”

From field to pool

Continue reading “Forever Friars: The Dobber”