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Chaz and Verdine's High School Reunion!

I went to Crane High School on the Westside of Chicago with Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire, and not only are we still friends, but we have a high school reunion coming up in June.

I thought of this recently at my Ebertfest Film Festival as I was sitting on stage with the talented filmmaker David Mirkin, Emmy-winning producer of "The Simpsons," during a Q&A I was conducting with him as the director of his hilarious 1997 comedy, "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion." The film stars Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow as two lifelong friends, labeled as losers during their teen years, who strain to impress the skeptical peers at their ten-year reunion. At one point during our conversation, Mirkin voiced an opinion about what a miserable experience high school can be, before looking at me expectantly, waiting for validation. 

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I squirmed and tried to avoid the response, but quickly gave a sympathetic reply while mouthing to him, "I liked high school." I felt like a traitor. 

Crane Cougars Class of 1969 from The Mint on Vimeo.

Yes, I know how high school is portrayed in movies and I remember having friends who hated every minute of it. However, I am in the process of planning a reunion with a small group who, like me, shared fond memories of our experiences. I was one of those kids who was in everything: Voted Most Popular Girl, in Drama Club, National Honor Society, French Club, Spanish Club, Afro-American History Club, Biology Club, Science Club, Pep Squad, even briefly R.O.T.C. and too many other things to remember. 

Not only that, but we had good teachers who really cared about us, and we liked them, and wanted to do well. Of course we also were up to our shenanigans that were expected of young people. But all-in-all we had a good time and got a decent education in a public school that didn't have a lot of advantages. 

Left: (As credited in the 1969 Crane yearbook) Best Dancers Charlie "Chaz" Hammel and Lawrence Quarles; Right: Senior Class Officers, Vice President Charlie "Chaz" Hammel, President Dorethea Turner, secretary Joyce Arrington, Treasurer Joshlyn Dortch.

So that is how it was that after not seeing each other for almost forty years, we were able to get together and fall right back into our old positions that we occupied in high school. I was somehow thrust into the role of Chair or Co-Chair with Joshlyn Banks (née Dortch), and fell comfortably into ease with the other committee members who I remembered only by their maiden names. We got together and put on a successful fortieth high school reunion, with the most meaningful activities centered around the Class of 2009. 

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We went back to Crane and spoke to the high school seniors encouraging them to pursue higher education. We took them on a trip to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. And then we established scholarships to help pay for some of their expenses and tuition for their path ahead. It was so satisfying that the Committee bonded over these good deeds and stayed together for the next ten years. Now we are facing (GASP!) our Golden Reunion. 

In the meantime, Verdine has become a superstar in Earth, Wind & Fire with his recently deceased brother Maurice White, and Phillip Bailey of the butter smooth soprano voice. And I am proud to say that we also have superstar teachers, lawyers, community activists, realtors, entrepreneurs and just good citizens. 

Verdine Adams at Crane High School on left; Verdine White performing with Earth, Wind & Fire in the Netherlands in 2010. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Crane High School also has a wealth of other distinguished alumni including George Halas, founder and head coach of the Chicago Bears; Berle Adams, founder of Mercury Records; Richard Hamming, computer pioneer and winner of the Turing Award; Wally Ris, swimmer and Olympic gold medalist; and Martin Cooper, inventor of the handheld cell phone.

Our school was located on the Westside of Chicago in a working class neighborhood that was considered not so choice. The building itself is an architectural gem built in 1903, still standing majestically, though a bit down at its heels. I remember reading stories about us in the daily newspapers as a high school student and being angry over the way we were portrayed. The articles seemed to have been written by people who had never stepped a foot into our school or talked to any of its students.

Left: The Crane Players production of "Christmas by Candlelight," starring Chaz as Mary; Right: The Crane ROTC Drum and Bugle Corp.

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Had they taken the time to speak to anyone from The National Honors Society they would have met Teresa Jones and Patricia McIntosh and Inez Reed and Catherine Beatty. Or if they looked elsewhere, they would've found Althea Garth, Marvin Smith and Virginia Tolefree, too. 

Joshlyn, Inez and I were overjoyed to have Katherine Branch, Sallie Kelly, Linda Brown, Madie Conners, Isabella Ferrell, Jennie Hatch, Rosemary Slack, Larry Beasley and Joyce Arrington join us in forming this year's Crane Golden Reunion Committee.

Crane High School's National Honor Society (Chaz is second from the left in the first row).

What made our school especially fun was the variety of groups and clubs seeking our involvement: the Crane Student Council, the Future Homemakers of America Club, the Crane Players, the Crane Service Club, the Office Occupations Club, the African-American Heritage Club, the Library Club, the Distributive Education Club of America, the Key Club, the VIP Club, the Future Nurses Association, the Modern Dance Club, the Math Club and the Chronicle newspaper, not to mention our band, choir and numerous sports teams.

At one point, when public schools were being closed in Chicago, Crane was targeted to close as well. However, the Crane Cougars and other community leaders successfully fought to keep the school open. It has been converted into a medical preparatory school with four divisions, and I am humbled to say that one of the divisions is called the Chaz Ebert School. It is led by a dynamic principal named Mrs. Shabazz, and from all accounts, is doing well. 

Crane's VIP Club (on left) and Chess Club (on right).

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All these memories have come flooding back as I've joined my reunion committee in inviting the Crane High School Classes of 1968, 1969 and 1970 and their guests, to celebrate our 50th year Golden Class Reunion, on Friday, June 14 through Sunday June 16, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois.  

This three-day event will include lodging at the Hilton Oak Brook Hills Resort, 3500 Midwest Road, in Oak Brook, and kick off with a Meet and Greet and a formal dinner on Friday. The next morning, we will set sail on a luxurious Lake Michigan cruise on a private beautifully appointed yacht. Our weekend concludes Sunday with a joyous walk down the aisles of the Chicago Symphony Center as the Class of 1969 marches with the Class of 2019. 

Romy and Michele, we are not. Chaz and Verdine: Here we come!

For  more information please contact Joshlyn Dortch-Banks at jbanks2and2@yahoo.com, or Katherine Branch-Anderson at katherine.anderson@live.com.

Below is the full press announcement released today about the Richard T. Crane Class of 1969 paying tribute to new graduates in a special commencement ceremony scheduled during their 50th anniversary weekend festivities...

In a show of support for the graduating class of Richard T. Crane Medical Prep High School and of pride in their alma mater, Chaz Ebert, president of Ebert Digital and the film criticism site RogerEbert.com, and Verdine White, famed guitarist of R&B supergroup Earth, Wind & Fire, will join their classmates from the Class of 1969 in a special tribute during commencement this Sunday at Symphony Center Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan Ave. 

The celebration will culminate a 50th high school reunion weekend of activities. Beginning at 10 a.m., 25 members of the Class of ’69, dressed in all white and wearing gold sashes, will lead the procession of the Class of 2019 into the auditorium. 

Ebert and White will provide words of encouragement to the students as they prepare to receive their diplomas. This class will be the third to graduate from Crane since it was reimagined as a medical preparatory school in partnership with Rush University Medical Center. Formerly focused on technical careers, Crane benefits from a robust roster of alumni who have gone on to enjoy highly successful careers and remained active with the school, including scholarship support.     

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“It will be a great opportunity for the students to see the former graduates, their pride and the pride they have for their school,” said Crane Principal Fareeda Shabazz. “They’re so excited to come back and contribute and share words of wisdom with our current graduates. It’s phenomenal the support the alums have shown our people, making the students feel they are part of a larger community and network of graduates.”

Photo credit: Jabari Jacobs.

The campus is divided into four houses named for its distinguished alums, including the Ebert House. The school has a 100 percent college acceptance rate, and the Class of 2019 has been awarded more than $13 million in scholarships.

The commencement keynote speaker will be Jahmal Cole, founder of My Block My Hood My City, a social activist organization in Chicago that takes kids from their neighborhood and exposes them to different parts of the city and the world. 

“We want to encourage excellence and encourage them to continue with their education,” said Ebert, who went on to pursue a law degree. “Those students are really on the ball. We want to let them know that despite the negative things they hear and read about Chicago in the national media, there are so many positive things that come out of this city, including them. So many people have gone on to achieve and make a profound impact in their fields.”

Ebert and White have maintained a close friendship. Ebert recalls going to the Museum of Science and Industry with White and his brothers before their scheduled music sessions with jazz great Ramsey Lewis. 

“Chicago is a great city for music and culture,” said White, who returns July 27 for a show at the Chicago Theatre. “We’ve earned the right to be Chicago proud.”

The Class of 1969 reunion committee is a close-knit group that believes in giving back. For their 40th reunion, the committee gave scholarships to college-bound seniors with limited access to scholarship opportunities, and treated the graduates to personal computers and their families to a trip to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois.

“A reunion without good deeds is just not as interesting to me,” said Ebert. “Like the song by Earth, Wind & Fire says, each one of the members of the Class of 2019 is a shining star in my eyes." 

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