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Roosevelt High: Why does Arnie Kamen keep coming back?



It's been 42 years since Arnie Kamen left high school. Since then he's made his mark at the Merc, helped sell millions of dollars in Israeli bonds, and raised a family. But in some ways he never got away from high school.

That high school is Roosevelt--sacred ground for a certain group of graduates, mostly Jewish men and women approaching the far side of middle age.

Like Kamen they left Albany Park long ago. The northwest-side neighborhood, like the school it feeds, is now a mixture of working-class blacks, Asians, Arabs, and Hispanics. But though the old grads live miles away, they maintain some ties.

"I've never seen anything like the almost spiritual connection our graduates have for this school," says current principal Jack Sherman, a 1956 Roosevelt grad. "Their eyes brighten when they talk about Roosevelt--for many it represents the greatest years of their lives. I guess that's why they want to stay in touch."

Few of them stay in touch with the tenacity and enthusiasm Kamen shows, however. He made a few phone calls to old classmates and raised in excess of $4,000, which has helped buy new backboards for the gym and uniforms for the boys' basketball team. He hopes to create a $100,000 athletic fund that will support all the school's teams.

He also visits the school at least twice a week, bantering with almost every student, teacher, security guard, and secretary he sees. Come game time he's in the bleachers, cheering the boys' or girls' basketball team (both are known as the Rough Riders), rising at halftime to sing the school fight song, and reminding all who will listen (and many who won't) of the school's long-standing motto: "You can if you will for Roosevelt."

"The dude is crazy," says Montrell ("Sin") Cochran, a senior tackle on the school's football team. "But you got to love him, and I'm glad that he's here."

Aside from raising funds, Kamen's foremost ambition is that Roosevelt students know the fight song.

"It's the greatest school song for the greatest school in the whole world," says Kamen. "Jerry Bressler wrote it, and do you know who he is? He's a Roosevelt graduate who went on to a big career in Hollywood. How many other schools can claim a school song written by a famous musician? I'll sing it right now--come on, sing it with me. "Go on you Rough Riders go, go Roosevelt, go / Wave, wave your banners high / For V-i-c-t-o-r-y! / So go you Rough Riders go, go Roosevelt, go / We all are true to the gold and blue / So go Rough Riders, go . . . ' And that's just the first verse--there are two others."

His ultimate goal, he says, is to heighten the confidence of Roosevelt students.

"This isn't about a bunch of old guys buying some backboards," says Kamen. "I want to give these kids pride in their school that they might transfer to themselves. Self-confidence, that's what it's all about. That's what gets people motivated to go out there and conquer the world."

According to Kamen, when he went to Roosevelt nearly all the students knew the school fight song.

"The world was different then," says Howard Lazar, a classmate of Kamen's and now a fund-raiser for Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. "We didn't know about gangs or gunfire. We were hungry--we wanted to make our stake in the world."

The community they lived in (or the community they recall living in) was an ideal working-class Jewish neighborhood of courtyard apartment buildings, in an area roughly bounded by Lawrence, Pulaski, Montrose, and Kedzie. They played baseball in Jensen Park and basketball at the old Max Strauss Community Center. They weren't dirt-poor, but they weren't rich. Their fathers were small merchants and salesmen. The rich kids, the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers, lived in the big houses north of Lawrence and attended Von Steuben high school. In 1952 the Rough Riders won the city title--a big blue banner honoring them still hangs in the gym.

"Our whole universe was Albany Park," says Manny Weincord, a 1950 graduate who now teaches gym at Roosevelt and coaches the boys' basketball team. "We belonged to social athletic clubs. I was in the Ovikitahs. Arnie, I recall, was a Seneca. We were sports crazy. I would have stayed at the Strauss Center all night, if my mother would have let me."

Some graduates--not only Weincord and Sherman but special-education teacher Don Weiss--joined Roosevelt's staff. Others moved on to careers in finance, law, real estate, or medicine; some of them settled in up-scale suburbs. At one time graduates would return to watch or play in fund-raising old-timers' basketball games, which Weincord organized. But they had to stop those games four years ago. "The guys were getting too old," says Weincord. "You should have seen them lumbering down the court--a bunch of them looked like they were gonna have heart attacks. I told them, 'Fellows, you play the game slowly but gracefully.'"

Many graduates gave to the Alumni and Friends of Roosevelt High School, a group headed by Elaine Soloway (class of 1956). And most subscribed to the "Roosevelt Alumni News," a newsletter edited by Al Klein, the school's former football coach.

Kamen attended the charity games, made donations to the alumni group, and subscribed to Klein's newsletter, but he still felt he could do more. "As I got older I realized that I was lucky," says Kamen. "I've had a good life, and it all started at high school. Roosevelt was my gateway to life. And I felt I had to give something back.

"You know, we were the fortunate generation. We grew up in a world where we were happy, and then our generation screwed up the world. Most of us said we will give to our children all the things we did not have. So we gave them the cars and TV sets and the trips to Europe. And yet we forgot to give them the one thing we did have: happiness. That's what I want these kids at Roosevelt to have more of."

In 1989, when he retired from the commodity business and started visiting the school regularly, Kamen discovered that Roosevelt had changed a great deal. Because of open enrollment, students came from neighborhoods across the city; they were no longer concentrated in Albany Park. They confronted problems of gangs, crime, and drugs that his generation had never even imagined. These students weren't basking in the glory of U.S. victory in a world war or anticipating unlimited growth. Roosevelt was still a gateway to life, but the future wasn't as bright as it had been 40 years earlier.

The students were surprised to find Kamen hanging around. "I remember seeing him in the stands singing the song," says Maceo Tillman, a senior forward on the basketball team. "I thought, 'Who is this guy and what is he doing here?'"

Roosevelt students quickly learned that Kamen can be a persistent and shameless noodge. "I told all the kids in the stands, 'Come on, sing the song,' but none of them would join me," says Kamen. "I said, 'Fine, I'll sing it by myself.' One day I noticed that the kids were sitting on the other side of the gym. So I walked over there and said, 'Oh no, you guys can't get rid of me that fast.'"

At the beginning of this school year he marched into Sherman's office and all but demanded that the principal start playing the school song over the loudspeakers every day during homeroom.

"I have to admit that at first I was a little reluctant to do it," says Sherman. "I thought, this is a different day and age and songs don't matter so much. But Arnie is persistent--you've got to give him that--so I went along. Listen, if I'm proven wrong, super."

The song has been playing since December, and so far reviews have been mixed.

"Some kids are embarrassed to sing, but not me," says Veronica Perez, a sophomore on the girls' basketball team. "Some kids laugh and look at me like, 'Oh girl, you crazy.' But I don't care. I love Roosevelt. It's the greatest school in the world and I'm proud to go here. And I hope that 30 years from now I'll be coming back just like [Kamen] to tell the kids how great this place is."

On January 8, before the boys' game against Lane Tech, Kamen brought back some of his classmates for a pep rally.

"We're here because we love you and we love this school," Kamen told the students gathered in the auditorium. Backed by the choir, and with tears welling in his eyes, he belted out a heartfelt rendition of the school song. Some students whooped and hollered, but others sang along. Then the biggest crowd of the year watched as the Rough Riders, led by David Casas's outstanding defense and Sylvester Turner's three-point heroics, fell just a few points shy of an upset.

The next pep rally is set for February 7, before the boys play Von Steuben. For that one, female Rough Riders Perez, Angie Bernard, Curtoria Twiggs, and Danielle Green will join Kamen onstage to sing the school song.

"I'll sing it in front of the assembly--I'm not afraid," says Green. "Let's see if the boys have the guts to join in."

So far only two players from the boys' team--Herman Carey and Ronnie White--have taken Green's challenge. But the rest may be convinced if Kamen keeps pestering.

"Hey, the more the merrier," says Kamen. "If you have the spirit, show it. Remember: You can if you will for Roosevelt."

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

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