During that period in Chicago, classes graduated in June and in January. Unlike the June classes, the January classes only had a few days between graduation and the start of high school in February. I was in a January graduation, so after Christmas of the preceding year, we only had a busy month to prepare for high school.
As with any other big city, Chicago divided up its entire area into approximately 50 high school districts. The grammar school I went to was toward the western end of our high school district, so I knew very little about the make-up of the rest of our district.
You were required to attend high school in your district unless circumstances allowed you to transfer to another high school. It was not easy to do. Therefore, I was confused that January when I heard many of my classmates talking about getting out of going to our district school.
Why, I thought? Was it the name, Von Steuben High School? It was named after a Prussian general who helped train Washington’s troops during the Revolutionary War. It was a foreboding name, but that couldn’t be it.
My best friend finally told me why he was trying to transfer out. His dad had told him that Von Steuben was filled with Jews. What? I did not know who or what a Jew was. I thought at that time that everyone in the world was Swedish, Lutheran or both. I did not know that the majority of our district was part of the second-largest Jewish community in Chicago, the first being the Hyde Park area around the University of Chicago.
Well, I thought, I want to go to high school with my pal, so I went to my dad and asked if he could finagle me a transfer out of the district. I told him that many in my class were going to go to five other non-district high schools. I told him why.
His response? Through the roof! He told me that was not a reason to transfer out of the district — end of discussion!
As it turned out, only eight out of 33 in our class went to Von Steuben. That’s less than 25 percent.
So, what was my four years at Von Steuben like? They were wonderful! I loved every minute.
I was accepted immediately and felt totally at ease. Of the eight who did go, five of us were not Jewish. In my first year, I joined a club of about 15 guys, and I was the only non-Jewish member. It opened a whole new world to me, who had come from such a provincial Swedish Lutheran background.
It was probably the best thing my dad ever did for me — refusing that transfer.
But as I grew older and understood better his decision, it did not surprise me. My dad would never allow me to use racial or religious slurs about anyone. My dad was one of the least prejudiced and unbigoted persons in my life, and followed what Martin Luther King Jr. said about judging a person only by the content of their character, and nothing else.
I do believe it rubbed off on me. Thanks, Dad.
— By Richard Hoffstedt, Tribune community columnist