Gail Smith - Transcript

Transcription of Gail Smith
Interviewee: Gail Smith
Interviewer: Dorothy Nygren
Date: March 15, 2013
Place: Chicago, Illinois
Transcriber: Nancy Holmstrand
Total time: 17:34 minutes

Copyright © 2013 Edgewater Historical Society

DN: Today is March 15th, 2013 and we’re at the Edgewater Historical Society. I’m Dorothy Nygren and I’m interviewing Gail Smith, one of our 2013 Living Treasures.

Gail, I’d like to thank you for all the work you’ve done for our community and also to congratulate you on being chosen as a 2013 Living Treasures. I’d like to start the interview by asking how you came to Edgewater.

GS: Well, my husband and I actually got married at St. Gertrude Church and that’s how we came to Edgewater because then it became our church and a few years after that, after our daughter was about 3 years old, I went back to teaching; I’m an elementary school teacher and I went back to teaching at Saint Gertrude School. At that time, it was Saint Gertrude School, and for four more years it would be Saint Gertrude School before it before it became Northside Catholic Academy, the consolidated school for six different parishes in the area. I taught third grade at Saint Gertrude and then Northside Catholic Academy for 20 years, so I’ve been working in the community for about 23 years as a school teacher at Saint Gertrude and Northside Catholic Academy.

DN: How did you come to be involved in community activities?

GS: Well, I became involved in community activity through my teaching. I was a third grade school teacher, as I said, and one of the things we studied in third grade was community and it was interesting. The first year we studied… I studied community with the third grade, I was using a traditional social studies book and there was a chapter on community and there was a community in Delaware and we studied that community in Delaware, but it was not very satisfying to me…

(tea break due to hoarse voice)

DN: So there was a chapter in the book about the community in Delaware.

GS: Yes, it was about a community in Delaware and that year we studied that community in Delaware, but when I came back to the third grade teaching the next year, I thought how much more exciting it would be to study the community where the children lived and that community was Edgewater. So I began doing some research about how we could study Edgewater and I found it very exciting and fascinating. I talked to some people for some resources like who to talk to and one of the persons I asked was our pastor, Father Bill Kenneally, and he directed me to talk to Kathy Gemperle, which was absolutely a goldmine for me in the study. I met with Kathy and one of the things we wanted to do… I thought about doing… was building a model of the community and she had said, “Oh I’ve already worked on that kind of a project and I can help you see what the standard model for a house in Edgewater.” and she drew that out for me right there at the meeting. She was a wonderful resource for materials. At that time, there was a published history of Edgewater that the Edgewater Historical Society had done… and I got a copy of that from her – a nice wonderful picture file. And every year she would come and talk to the children about Edgewater and she would bring her pictures, at that time we were using a slide machine, and talk about Edgewater history. She loved it so much you could just see it and so I was inspired by her and the children were always inspired by her. One of the things we always loved was, out of all the people in the community, these children knew about John Lewis Cochran and how he got Edgewater started. But from working with Kathy Gemperle… she was really a very important inspiration and motivator for me, I acquired these resources. I also talked to some other people: I remember talking with Sheli Lulkin at East Edgewater Chamber of Commerce, Ken Brooks at Edgewater Community Council, I talked to some people at O.N.E., and so the idea was to create a study of Edgewater that included all the different aspects of social studies but really focusing on the community here and where the children lived and went to school.

DN: Why did you think that it was important that they learn about Edgewater?

GS: Well I think the idea of place is so important. I grew up on the south side. My family moved at a point which was crucial in my life and I lost a very important place in my life. I really think that the importance of place is crucial; I also think community is important, and in studying community, it really helped me and as part of St. Gertrude Parish, I realized the importance of community.(pause when person enters) Edgewater is such a vital community and I have to admit, I was so attracted to the diversity of Edgewater. It was one of those communities in Chicago where I felt anyone could live and everyone was welcome and that was a very important message I thought for children to have about their community as they were growing up. So we studied different aspects of Edgewater: we mapped the community, we took a tour of the community, we drove a bus around Edgewater and made a few stops. At that time, when we could, we stopped at the Edgewater Historical Society. We studied some of the economy in Edgewater; the kids looked into some of the businesses and we thought about the wants and needs of a person in a community and we thought about how Edgewater fulfilled that. And one of the projects we did was to build a model of the community… the children picked different buildings or different stores – we would brainstorm all kinds of different buildings and stores and businesses – all the things that the community provides and the kids worked in committees to build those. I have quite a picture file actually, still, of some of the buildings and things that we built.

DN: How do you feel that learning about Edgewater in third grade will make the students that you have better citizens and give them a sense of place and perhaps contribute to the community themselves?

GS: Well I wanted them to realize how they were a part of the community. They were a part of the community of Edgewater; they were a part of a community building a model of the community; and they were a part of our classroom and school community. And I wanted them to realize the importance and the value and the meaning of that as well as the responsibility, so one thing that we did was we looked at some of the issues in the community. There was time when there as a question about a homeless shelter and there was a need for a homeless shelter in the community and there were some community meetings. The class made a banner about the issue of homelessness in the community. Another time, we had Kim Salem from O.N.E., the Organization of the NorthEast, come to the class and talk about the issue that O.N.E. was working on. Edgewater is a kind of parks-poor community, and so they were trying to build up some of the park projects in the park facilities like Broadway Armory, so she came and talked with the kids about that issue. So I wanted them to see how they were a part of a community, the importance of that, the value of that; also, the responsibility and how they could even help make a change in a community.

DN: Could you talk about that a little more – about the responsibility students might have in building community and then that lesson they might carry through into adulthood?

GS: Well I think the responsibility starts in their family, so I think it’s a part of understanding and that relates to the beautiful diversity (interruption for voice breaking)… well I think part of the question of community is that it starts in the family and one of the things children … well, I think the sense of community certainly begins in the family… one of the things we do as teachers, I think every teacher thinks about their classroom as a community: we build community in the classroom and that’s just so important to the teacher and all the children. And so in the classroom, you have a sense of responsibility for yourself and for your classmates and a sense of all working together for common goals. When we study a community like Edgewater, then we’re studying the bigger community as a classroom community and when we study that community, we think about the values and goals of our larger community and how we fit into them. And so for children growing up, one of the things I really always believed about Edgewater was the value of its diversity and importance of its diversity. I said before, that it is a community where everyone is welcome and I think that was always such an important thing for the children to learn and realize that they were a part of. One of the things, as we studied Edgewater, is that we used the Edgewater Historical Society history book and we studied Edgewater history decade by decade, And by studying that, the kids got a little sense of American history.

But then, when we got to the decade of the ’60s, which I loved because I kind of grew up at that time, all kinds of things were happening in Edgewater that were working to improve the community and make it a community that was really open for true diversity. So that was the decade of ECRA, when ECRA was created, the decade when Edgewater Community Council was created, and Care for Real. And I think for kids to really tune into that part of history is a valuable thing when they see there was a time in history where people saw there are needs for our community and our community can work to meet those needs. Then for children, when they’re working on a project like a school collection of socks and toiletries for a homeless shelter they can see how they’re contributing; they’re part of a community; that they’re responsible for and helping; they can contribute to. Or when we do the Thanksgiving food collection in the school, they can see that they are really contributing to the needs of people in the community who have needs for food – that’s something that basic.

DN: Do you think that Edgewater is different than other communities, and if so, in what way would you think so?

GS: Well, when I first studied Edgewater, I remember looking at the map of Chicago communities and I learned there were 77 communities in Chicago; and we looked at the map and there, on the very far northeast side, was one, and then two, and then three, and then four and then five and it all went around the city. And then, right smack in the middle of one, two, four, and five is 77; and I wondered, why is that – why is Edgewater the 77tth community of the city? Well, it didn’t take long to realize, it was the 77th named community in the city and I believe it was 1980 when Edgewater officially became a community. And one of the things that’s interesting about that is, that I think there was a community project to create Edgewater among those communities. There was felt among the people of Edgewater that there was an identity there that needed to be recognized so it could be nurtured and it could be lived and thrived as its own identity. So yes, I guess, I do believe that Edgewater is a very unique community within the city.

Now how does that play out. Well, for me, I’ve said this… it plays out in its diversity: it is a community that’s really intentionally diverse and has made efforts to provide for the needs of all the people in that community. And I think that the beauty of that for me, having been like I said, teaching in the schools for now 23 years – 20 years studying Edgewater history with third grade – is that it’s still developing. The diversity is still growing and its still it’s becoming richer and richer and I love Edgewater that it is the place where people, all people, are welcome and now that’s expanding. It’s been gradually… and when we would study the history, we would study how different ethnic groups came to Edgewater. It would line up with the history of the country and the immigration patterns of the country and different ethnic groups would come during each different decades of the hundred year history… the hundred year history that was covered in that history book. But it is still growing and changing and now its not just ethnic groups, but it’s also questions of gender issue and I think that’s really important for a community to continue to grow and change and to welcome all of the changes that are happening within a society in a very nurturing and satisfying way for everyone of them.

DN: Thank you, Gail. That about concludes the questions I have for you. Do you have any other comments you might want to make at this time?

GS: I guess that I feel this great gratitude for having been part of this project… teaching this community with my children. As a teacher, I realize that whenever I’m teaching something, I’m learning it with them and you never know where it’s going to go. So I’ve had the chance to meet and work with Kathy Gemperle, who’s been just lovely and wonderful, and get to know the Edgewater Historical Society through her. Also, I’ve gotten to work with other organizations like Organization of the NorthEast and Edgewater Community Council, and it’s just been such a blessing for me to be able to experience all that. So yeah, I’m very grateful for having the experience that I’ve been able to have, studying Edgewater. One other thing about building a model of Edgewater is: each year, part of the project would be to, like I said, was to build a model of the community, and for me, it would be looking at the community and also the children and also play and also imagination. So as we would build the community, I started to see the world differently. I kind of chunked things down to the size of our building as I would be looking at – buildings around the community. And I also saw the children building the community and being part of it sort of the way they would be navigating their imaginations in a dollhouse or something like that.

DN: Thank you. Would you have any advice for future generations?… If you don’t want to comment, that’s all right; I’m just throwing it in.

GS: I guess my advice would be to pay attention, see what’s around you, let yourself be affected by it and let yourself extend out into it. Working with Edgewater in my classroom led me in places I never expected, and it was just from asking a few questions and from starting to get involved with a few things and now I see the community so differently. (coughs, starts to lose voice) Oh I’m sorry; I’m losing this.

DN: That’s all right. I think that’s probably enough, Gail, I’m going to conclude the interview at this point. Thank you so much, Gail Smith.