As she made plans to travel from California to Evanston for a family wedding, Carolyn Doepke Bennett’s walk down memory lane prompted her to write a thank you letter to her now 92-year-old Lincolnwood Elementary School teacher, Dr. John Hillebrand. She inquired about getting together while she was in town, and the seed for a joyful sixth grade class of ’62 reunion was planted.
On the beautiful, sunny morning of Saturday, Sept. 25, a group of classmates returned to Lincolnwood, marveling over how much bigger the school seemed to them 57 years ago, when they were students. Joining Bennett and Dr. Hillebrand were Elizabeth Blodgett, Nancy Jones Emrich Freeman and her husband John Freeman, Lynn Thurlow Barras, Sharon Endo and her two quaker parrots, Baby and Lunch Monkey.
Stories and Laughs
Hearty laughs accompanied the telling of favorite elementary school stories, like using the excuse of a leaky fountain pen to explain away juice stains on clothes from eating the mulberries on nearby bushes. There were the walks to school aided by a shortcut through the woods, watching President Kennedy’s Inauguration, and sitting on the gymnasium floor to listen to Dr. Zipper’s symphony concerts.
Bennett’s fond memories included “student council, safety patrol, the big kids’ playground, riding our bikes to school, after school dancing with Gus Giordano. I remember helping Miss Civis, the librarian, check out books for underclassmen. I remember going to the auditorium to rehearse our play, “The Road to Agra” (and having to embarrassingly wear a Peter Pan collared shirt under my sari), looking forward to Mme. Turner’s weekly French lessons and cleaning erasers in the basement on the magic eraser-cleaning machine!”
For one of their classmates, Ann Marie Betterley Donia, dancing stood out among her memories. She couldn’t attend the reunion but shared by email, “How blessed we were to learn the Box step, Cha-Cha, and Jitterbug, and then the Twist! I met so many people over the years who were not this fortunate and could not put one foot in front of the other on the dance floor! So with that, I’ll also give kudos to Gus Giordano and Chubby Checker!”
Barras described the year as “magical because we were finally the ‘big’ kids at school that came with all the perks like safety patrol, 6th grade play, dance lessons with Gus Giordano and white gloves required.”
In reminiscing about Dr. Hillebrand’s classroom, Blodgett shared, “I remember a sunny, happy class with a piano, music, spelling bees, overhead projector art projects, and, of course, ‘The Road to Agra’ play.”
An educator ahead of his time
As Freeman read email tributes from her classmates, the portrait of an exceptional teacher who was ahead of his time in his approach to teaching and learning quickly emerged. For instance, to bring world geography to life, Dr. Hillebrand issued class passports to his students with stamps earned by studying a country and writing a report. In a nod toward incorporating current events, someone quipped that if they “visited” Israel, they had to abide by travel restrictions that were in place at that time, in order to visit other countries. As Freeman stated, “He managed to reach nonmusical subjects with the piano music, and he elicited our participation and sharing through fun events like photo contests, communal songwriting, small controversies from the real world.”
Cross-disciplinary, experiential, differentiated, collaborative – these contemporary teaching descriptors were put into action decades ago in Hillebrand’s classroom. Doug Shaker wrote about how Dr. Hillebrand was sent draft copies of Princeton’s new math program, and “For the six or so kids who had finished the assigned textbook chapters, he let us gather in a corner and work on the new math textbooks. For someone who loved math like me, it was heaven. We got to work at our own pace. We got to talk to each other about what we understood and what we didn’t understand. And we got to explore what were for me at least the fun parts.”
Capturing her class’s sentiment about their dynamic teacher, Barras stated that Dr. Hillebrand had “so much energy and new ideas. He made learning fun.”
“The Road to Agra”
Practically every classmate commented on their 6th grade class production of “The Road to Agra,” with its accompanying Taj Mahal model-building project and saris sewed from dyed bed sheets. “The Road to Agra” is a fictional story about the journey of 13-year old Lalu and his seven-year-old sister Maya, from Allahabad to Agra, to seek treatment for Maya’s eye disease. Published by Norwegian author Aimée Sommerfelt in 1959, it was translated to English in 1961 by Evelyn Ramsden and brought to life on stage by Dr. Hillebrand’s Lincolnwood sixth graders, led by their drama teacher, Leah Nathanson.
Still in relative infancy, having signed its charter in 1945, the United Nations was aiming to raise awareness about its UN International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). For Dr. Hillebrand’s students, “The Road to Agra” made the practice of collecting donations with UNICEF boxes, when trick or treating at Halloween, more meaningful.
The play’s impact was far-reaching and in some cases life-changing. As John Lindgren wrote, “I was scared stiff while doing ‘The Road to Agra.’ I had never been on stage – ever. I don’t remember what role I had but I had a couple of lines. That first time I got on stage ended up being important as I became a musician, performed on stage in bands, and so forth. It all started in sixth grade.”
Authentic connections with students
Today, the prospect of a “home visit” may elicit an expectation of a critical inspection. But for the students in Dr. Hillebrand’s 1962 sixth grade class, it meant bringing your teacher home for lunch, a method of enhancing the family-teacher connection.
Dr. Hillebrand said that those lunches afforded better understanding of his students, and his ability to make each of his students feel seen was expressed by several students. Linda Smith Hoefing wrote, “you were a very positive influence in my life at a very impressionable age. I remember your interest in each of us and your understanding approach to your flock of pre-teens. I always felt that you got us, a high compliment from an almost teenager about to step into junior high and grab the world by the tail. Thank you.”
Recounting a conversation with Dr. Hillebrand about a challenging math concept, Doug Shaker wrote, “I don’t expect I had anything useful to contribute on the subject of irrational numbers. But it was exciting to be treated by an adult, as if my opinion mattered.“ Similarly, Freeman shared, “He would listen to me and I knew I was heard.”
Writing that Dr. Hillebrand was “a terrific teacher,” Karl Piotter shared that his “most memorable interaction was his [Dr. Hillebrand’s] enthusiasm about book reports. I think I read 20 biographies that year because of his encouragement.”
Edie Seyl Polson noted that Hillebrand was her first male teacher, writing, “you were the first major male role model for me. To this day, your positivity, enthusiasm and your ability to bring out each person’s great potential continue. I am amazed that after all of these years you wrote to me recently suggesting that I write an account of my experience of traveling in India. How did you remember that? To be listened to by you and to be heard by you are two of your great attributes! Thank you. You certainly deserve a Lifetime Achievement Award!”
The male teacher as role model
A recurring theme became apparent as Freeman read her classmates’ messages – the significant role that Dr. Hillebrand played as their first male teacher. Freeman said that she “housed a male sixth grade teacher for several years because I knew the value of male teachers in elementary school. BUT, I never noticed that Mr. HIllebrand’s male-ness was different than usual teachers then. A teacher was a teacher! Learned the importance of a male teacher in an elementary classroom later through my 20 years in the education field!!”
Dr. Hillebrand commented on the transformative effect of having a male teacher on a number of male students who had struggled in kindergarten through fifth grade, but excelled in his sixth grade class. He added that female students also seemed to benefit, as echoed by Madeline Luce Percival, who shared, “Lincolnwood was my safe and warm place away from home, and I know John Hillebrand helped nurture my self-esteem during my last year there. He was awesome. I remember him best as my first male teacher. And that was very exciting! I loved his class and as I left, I felt very prepared for Haven Junior High School!”
Lincolnwood Elementary School
For Sharon Endo, moving to Lincolnwood in the third grade was a pivotal moment in her learning. Her Chicago classroom had two grades in each classroom and, slipping through the cracks, Endo did not know how to read. She said that at Lincolnwood, “the classroom seemed small, and you got individual attention…Whereas there [in Chicago], it was easy to hide. Yeah, no one knew I was there.” Acknowledging her reading challenges and given her January enrollment, she was allowed to complete three semesters as a third grader, and “once I learned phonics, it took off. And I could read anything.”
Endo characterized Dr. Hillebrand as “hard” but enjoyed his class so much that she was upset when he moved into an administrative role before her younger brother had a chance to have him as a teacher. Andy Logan wrote, “I enjoyed being a member of Dr. Hillebrand’s class and thought Lincolnwood was a terrific school and Dr. Hillebrand was a terrific teacher. I am sure I probably owe him some homework for something I did not finish.”
Blodgett enthused, “He made learning fun. He seemed to enjoy teaching – possibly even us! This was the only grade I cried when it was over. I feel honored that he wanted to keep in touch with us, and to return once more to Lincolnwood.”
As they grew beyond Lincolnwood and on to subsequent careers and life adventures, Dr. Hillebrand’s students lived the lessons learned in his classroom. For Hoefing, those lessons transferred directly into her own classroom. In tribute to Dr. Hillebrand she wrote, “Your teaching style and many of your methods carried into my elementary teaching career and passion of 36 years. You let some of us design and implement the bulletin boards that decorated the awesome display case in the hall. My students loved planning, working together and completing similar projects.”
An appreciation for music and the arts was another recurring theme among Dr. Hillebrand’s students. As Hoefing continued, “I studied piano and violin for years beyond sixth grade. What a great way to relax and enjoy life. Thank you for that introduction. I never reached your level of proficiency. But it was always present in my classes in one way or another.”
Freeman remembered Dr. Hillebrand’s photography contest, stating “I have been a photographer ever since – color, black and white, developing both in darkrooms in college and then choosing my career because it would have a free darkroom.”
Donia remembered winning a prize in that same contest for her photo of her collie Lassie’s nine black and white puppies who were born on President Lincoln’s birthday, Feb. 12. She wrote, “Elizabeth ‘Bit’ Blodgett’s family adopted one of the puppies, ‘Abe’. It was so special that Abe went to her home.” Donia also recalled Dr. Hillebrand’s “musical influence too, which was so special to me. I, too, am still playing the piano, love theatre and dance, and have passed these passions on to my children.”
All of the tributes shared included a mention of how Dr. Hillebrand influenced his students’ future pursuits, which spanned the gamut from exploring and living in other countries, careers as educators, researchers, authors and advocates for social justice, and achievements in music, theatre and photography fields. As Lindgren noted, “Most important? He taught me to learn.”
Modeling lifelong learning
Throughout Dr. Hillebrand’s career in education, he has been both a teacher and a lifelong learner. He described the process of completing his doctorate in 1970, which included often telling his colleagues that he could not chat after school as he headed to the library to write. His wife, Maureen, to whom he was happily married for 60 years, would type what he wrote the next day. Over the course of four months he completed his 200-page dissertation on school integration, earning a Ph.D. at University of Illinois. His work in education beyond his sixth grade classroom has included adjunct faculty and associate dean positions at National Louis University, serving as principal at Timber Ridge and Orrington, working in the central office in the Division of Public Services, and championing middle school development as the assistant superintendent in Champaign.
Dr. Hillebrand continues to play piano in a number of venues, according to Freeman, “whether at the Top of the Hilton, at the Presbyterian Home, at the Wilmette Rotary, or at the DuPage Club in Oakbrook. Sometimes he has audiences of 500.”
Laughter continued to float on the sunny September morning as the lunch hour approached. Some classmates prepared to dine with Dr. Hillebrand at Hackney’s while others said their goodbyes. Plans were made to schedule a Zoom meeting to continue the conversations, and to reconnect with those who could not attend the in-person reunion. On Oct. 22, Dr. Hillebrand, Bennett, Freeman, Barras and Blodgett were joined by classmates Shaker, Logan, Polson and Roger Friskey for a Zoom reunion which Dr. Hillebrand described as “delightful.” He added, “Teachers know which classes were special, and this one was one of those.”
Stating that the reunion experience was “quite enjoyable,” Dr. Hillebrand encouraged other District 65 classes from the 1960s to reconnect similarly. “We all felt, I think, it was time well spent and want to do it again perhaps next year.”