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Political football: broken promises at Austin High

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Almost four years ago, Harry Leneau, a retired Du Page County businessman, came home to help the kids at Austin High.

What he saw as his old west-side school just about made him cry. The front yard was a muddy heap of litter and broken glass. The hallways were dark and gloomy. Paint was peeling. The faculty had been beaten down as enrollment fell and tardiness and absences rose.

"I loved this school--this was Camelot when I went here," says Leneau, who graduated in 1952. "And it breaks my heart to see what's become of it. It's not fair. I thought the Board of Education and the city would want to work with someone who wanted to help."

Far from working with him, the board and the city have been either hostile, inept, or indifferent. Plans to build a football field, which he initiated, have been stalled in City Hall for over a year. His effort to raise money from alumni has been stifled by the board and General Superintendent Argie Johnson, who refuses to give him a list of graduates.

"People either give me excuses or ignore me," says Leneau. "It's like they would rather have things stay the way they are."

When Leneau attended Austin, the surrounding working-class neighborhood was vibrant and strong, as residents made decent money in the factories that flourished on the west side. The school, located near the intersection of Central and Lake, was one of the largest and most prestigious in the country. "There were plays, concerts, vocational programs, and collegebound classes," says Leneau. "We had a great football team. To say you went to Austin filled you with pride."

But pride for Austin was not strong enough to keep Leneau in the city. He moved to the suburbs in the early 1960s to be closer to the highways on which he drove to work. Eventually he and his wife Judy settled in Naperville; their daughter Heather attends Waubonsie Valley High School. "Waubonsie reminds me of what Austin was like," says Leneau. "The school's open from dawn to dark and there are so many activities, so many things for kids to do. You walk in there and you have this feeling that the kids there are going to succeed because everyone expects them to succeed. That's the way it was at Austin."

Coincidentally, it was through Waubonsie that Leneau reconnected with Austin. "I was at a Waubonsie football game and they flashed a message on the scoreboard saying Austin was playing in Aurora," says Leneau. "I decided to see that game."

This was in the fall of 1992; what he saw at that game sickened him. "There were only three parents on the Austin side of the bleachers," says Leneau. "The team had only 17 uniforms. The frosh-soph played first, then gave the uniforms to the varsity. They had to stop the game so a kid could tape up his torn uniform with duct tape."

He introduced himself to the coach and met the players, and soon he was attending all their games. "I wanted to give them some support, but it was so frustrating," he says. "You go to a suburban game and look across the field and see 59 kids and six coaches. Meanwhile, Austin's got one coach and he's the math teacher who sells doughnuts out of his car to raise money."

The low point came during a game in the south suburbs. "We were winning 12-0 and a coach scouting for another school says to me, "You won't win; you have too many blacks,"' says Leneau. "We ended up losing 14-12. I don't want to sound like a sore loser who blames things on the refs, but I saw it with my eyes. They turned against us. I mean, God forbid the black kids from Chicago win. They took away touchdowns, they called us offsides, the ref had his hand on his flag before the team was out of the huddle on one crucial play. I lost it that day. I went ballistic. I've never been discriminated against in my life and I couldn't tolerate it. I was screaming at the refs, 'You bastards!' If you wonder why there's a rage in some of these kids, you have to be there to understand."

He began going to the school at least once a week, and what he saw made him more distressed. The school, like the neighborhood, had been devastated by two decades of economic dislocation. Many of the factories had left for the suburbs, jobs were short, crime and drug use high. Enrollment had fallen to about 1600, and on any given day almost 500 students were absent. Over 90 percent of the students didn't meet state goals on writing exams; 85 percent didn't meet goals on math tests.

"I got to know the kids and I could see they were good kids, smart kids, with as much talent as the kids at Waubonsie," says Leneau. "They were just beaten down, and I decided that we needed some kind of immediate symbol to show them that someone cares."

In the fall of 1993 he got his graduating class to donate money to buy the band new uniforms. At the same time he planned to build a football field in the muddy vacant lot just east of the school. "There had been an old school on this site which was torn down in the 60s," says Leneau. "The lot was filled with rubble and concrete."

Leneau wrote the local alderman, Percy Giles, and Mayor Daley seeking assistance. Neither man responded, so he moved on his own. "I went to Ann Bigane, who has an asphalt company, and she said, "How much money do you have?"' says Leneau. "I said $600. She said, "I'll send you a truck, a driver, and a bulldozer.' I knew that with the $600 she didn't even break even."

On September 17, 1993, the heavy equipment came in, digging up old concrete and knocking down nonfunctioning light poles. A few days later the Austin Voice, the local paper, ran an article by Leneau headlined, "Austin "People Power' Is Making a Dream Come True." Leneau proclaimed, "Again, we invite Alderman Percy Giles, Mayor Richard Daley and all the other politicians to catch up with the people. This is the EMPOWERMENT EXPRESS and it's leaving the station."

A few days later Giles called the school. "I heard what they were doing and wanted to help," says Giles. "I think it's a shame that those kids don't have a football field."

Giles asked Leneau what the project needed to be completed. "I said we needed to have the field cleared of the concrete that was dug up and new dirt put down and seeded," says Leneau. "It wouldn't take much money."

Giles had the rubble hauled away, brought in topsoil to smooth over the field, and went one step further. He brought in the mayor. "I took Mayor Daley on a tour of my ward and I showed him the school," says Giles. "I told him these kids don't have a practice field. And the mayor agreed that the school should have a football field."

Suddenly administration officials were on the phone telling Leneau to hold off on his plans to seed the field. Instead, the mayor would provide money to build a football field with a running track, tennis courts, and benches for fans. In September 1994 the Voice ran a story announcing that the Public Building Commission had "stamped their approval on an allocation of $1,260,951 to make Austin High's "Field of Dreams' a reality."

But no work has been done as yet and now the city is sending out conflicting reports. "I called the Public Building Commission and they told me they were rebidding the deal because the original bid came in too high," says Leneau. "I saw Mayor Daley on February 10 at a get-together for the community press. And he told me that the project at Austin is a go. He said the city was committing $1.6 million."

But a PBC spokesperson says it's only spending $300,000 on the project, which includes a field but no running track, stands, or tennis court. "I don't know where we stand with this field," says James Williams, Austin's principal. "It seems like we get a different story every day. If they had just left Harry alone he would have finished that field a year ago."

In the meantime, Leneau continues his struggle with the Board of Education over the list of Austin graduates. "I called the board's office and was directed to a woman in their communications office," says Leneau. "I told her that we needed that list of graduates so we could bring in a company that would track down their addresses. Then we could send out a letter asking for contributions. We're talking about thousands and thousands of people who would be willing to give their time and money for Austin. She told me that information couldn't be released. I called Argie Johnson over and over but she wouldn't return my calls. I had my attorney write a letter, explaining that this is public information. Other towns have given out these lists. But not Chicago."

Dawn Simmons, Johnson's chief publicist, would not return phone calls for comment, but a woman who would not give her name and identified herself only as Simmons's secretary said, "What [Leneau] needs to do is run an ad in the newspaper calling on all alumni to contact him."

Leneau says he may go to court to get the board to turn over that list of graduates. "It's ridiculous having to go to court to get a list that might open doors to these kids," he says. "All I want to do is help these kids get some of the same opportunities we had and they slam the door in my face."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Jon Randolph.

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