A Garden Grows in Wilmette

I grew up in Wilmette. I no longer reside there but sometimes I wish I did. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Washington, DC but I often wonder how everyone is in Wilmette. I will be fifty this year and left your village thirty-two years ago, just as many young people have. My story starts in the 1950’s. I lived on 8th and Washington and walked to Central School everyday. It was a short walk, cutting through four yards to get there, some feloniously, some not. Central School evokes names like Mrs. Stokes, Atkinson and Deerkoop and who could forget Mr. Bartlett. You always knew this guy was in charge, firm but fair.

Then came Howard Jr. High. I searched for this institution during my last visit but found it missing. Development, I guess, or maybe we had something to do with its demise! The name Perry, Dr. Perry, rings a bell. He was a principal that exuded authority, as did Harry Roush. Make a serious mistake in his gym class and he’d lead you around his gymnasium by your ear. Most of us were smart enough not to repeat the event too often. The person I remember most vividly, however, was my eighth grade teacher, Zoe Delorme. Zoe, if you ever read this, you were my first love but then, all us guys felt the same way. It was tough competition over who was going to do something bad enough to be kept after school. The day she gave me a ride home in her white sixty-one Impala is stamped right on my heart. She was a kind person that cared about all her students. I have to thank her for some very special educational growth. She did all she could for us and sent us on our way to New Trier.

In all my years I have never met anyone that went to a high school larger that New Trier, and few any better. The SAT scores of my ’67 graduating class towered above most other schools. I had a good time in high school, sports, and music, thanks to Miss Clendening and friends. Like many students, I could have done better but an appreciation for academics would have to wait.

The point of this essay falls within these eighteen years, the things that happened and the people who got me through this time. As an adult I often daydream over these early experiences. There were people and places in Wilmette to whom I owe a great deal. Those who kept me from doing what I shouldn’t and others who are responsible for what I do as an adult. Recently, as a father helping to raise two children, I think about my own childhood and the wonderful time I had growing up in Wilmette. There are a few people who I would like to thank for taking me through those years. Some are no longer with us and others, well, maybe they will read this and get a chuckle.

First and foremost, I have Grace Leaton to thank for putting me exactly where I am today. Many of you remember Grace as the President of the Wilmette Garden Club and the person responsible for the beautification of the train tracks and traffic circles throughout town. I was usually found tagging close behind her. She came to me when I was very young and asked if I would care for her yard and gardens and in return would teach me how things grew from the earth as well as give me $1.10 per hour for my time. At that moment the offer had little appeal but I soon found myself pruning, cutting and planting with her until I left for college. What she gave me I took as I would a friend and is the only kind of work I have ever done, even now as a consulting arborist working with The Care of Trees in Washington, DC. The Care of Trees has offices in Chicago. Many of you have had our Wilmette representative, Lou Leggett, in your yard to help you with your own plant health care needs. I’m sure Lou is taking good care of my now adult trees and shrubs. What Grace taught me stands above all the college, books and experiences received elsewhere. She gave me the passion I hold for plants, trees and the natural environment. Even now, when I return home, I see things in her yard that I planted over 30 years ago. I see my labors as a small contribution and now can’t imagine living in a community without trees and beautifully landscaped yards. Thanks to people like Grace, Wilmette remains one of America’s most beautiful places to live.

In the 60’s, a new business moved into town. Word went out like wildfire about an ice cream store next to Anderson’s clothing that was giving free samples away. We were on our bikes in a flash standing in line at Baskin Robbins, 31 Flavors. I’m sure all of you know exactly where it is. Because of our frequent visits, I became well aquainted with the owner, Jack Stigal, sorry about the spelling, Jack. We had a core group of friends that hung around together, so Jack hired us all. Now, most employers wouldn’t have done that but Jack was a real leader. He knew how to bring out the best in all of us and turned us into a team. We learned how to handle money, work with customers and run a business. I still think of Jack with my own business and dealing with my own clients. Thanks, Jack wherever you may be.

Finally, after two years in the service I went to work for the Wilmette Park District. I’m sure you all recognize the name Lambrecht. Mr. Lambrecht owned the Jewelry store in town and his son Bill Jr. is now the Superintendent of the Wilmette Park District. Amongst other superintendents, Bill afforded me the opportunity to learn things that I continue to use today. I learned to build ballfields, work at recreation centers, run machinery and work on trees and shrubs on a large scale. It was a continuation of my lessons from Grace Leaton. I worked for Bill all through and after college and keep a picture of all the guys from the crew on my bookshelf to this day. I always stop in and see everyone during my visits home.

I guess we all have a story. We all have memories, mine are very special. I learned many things in Wilmette that have led to where I live now. It makes me realize how important my children are and how much fun they should have as kids. That is the most important thing to a kid, I think, having fun. I hope my kids meet the kind of people I was fortunate enough to meet, spend time and grow with… And to my mom and dad, who still live on the North Shore, none of this would have happened if you hadn’t brought us to Wilmette. I would have never met Grace, worked for the parks, gone to Wrigley Field or met any of my friends, with whom I still correspond today. Thanks.

I was watching the movie, Home Alone, the other night with my kids and there was the Wilmette Congregational Church at the 5-way stop on Lake St. right in the movie! If you were to walk across the street from the church you will find hundreds of tulips in a planter bed that were planted almost 30 years ago, by me! I told the kids, “ That’s where I grew up “. They said, “ sure dad “, well I know it’s the truth.

You’re a great town, Wilmette. I hope other young people take the opportunities to grow as I did in their hometown. Wilmette has so much to offer, just as it did so long ago. Grace is no longer with us but I think about her all the time. Everybody can use a mentor now and then, she has been mine. Who would think working in a garden could lead to so much joy. Success in life depends upon one’s attitude and responsibility. It also helps to have some real good friends along the way. Thanks everyone, I can’t wait to come home and see my trees!

Copyright 2005 by Peter Deahl. All rights reserved.

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