BY MARY WICOFF
While some people want to put their high school years behind them, Mary Jane (O’Rourke) Brady considers those four years “a treasure.”
“They were very, very special,” said Brady, salutatorian of the first graduating class at Schlarman High School. “There was a sense of togetherness and sacrifice, and the quality we were exposed to was a treasure.”
Brady, 81, of Bloomington, has compiled a history called “Schlarman High School … Its Beginning, 1945-1949.”
The spiral-bound book, produced by Faulstich Printing Co., contains photos and memories from former students, faculty names, athletics, classes, a description of the Hartshorn mansion and many other details.
“This became a labor of love and gratitude to our parents, the religious, the teachers and even the students of that era,” she said.
Janet Picillo, development director at the school, now called Schlarman Academy, is pleased with the book, calling it Brady’s own personal crusade.
“It was done with a lot of love and dedication,” Picillo said. “Mary Jane is one of our incredible alumni — always a wonderful volunteer.”
The school has 75 copies, and there are copies at the Danville Public Library and Vermilion County Museum, as well. The books are for sale, and more will be ordered when this supply runs out.
“It’s nice to have our history compiled in one place,” Picillo said.
Brady said she hopes the faculty and staff will read the history and share it with students so everyone will understand how their education is so solidly rooted.
Several years ago when Brady and Picillo were talking, the idea to compile a history came up. Brady later volunteered, as long as there weren’t any time restraints.
During two years, she worked on the history, visiting Danville and contacting classmates. Eventually, she pieced all the facts together, using details already compiled by the Rev. John Flattery and others.
The book begins with the end of World War II, when pastors of the Catholic churches in the Danville and Westville area discussed the need for a Catholic high school.
In 1945, while a site was being secured, the first high school class of 39 students began its freshman year in a specially prepared area of St. Patrick’s Grade School.
That class was known as the senior class all four years.
“They pounded into us how important (this was),” Brady recalled. “We took this very responsibly. We really did understand the mantle we were given to get the school off the ground.”
In April 1946, officials purchased the W.G. Hartshorn estate (called Greystone) at Vermilion Street and Winter Avenue. The mansion had landscaped lawns, a greenhouse and other buildings on 13 acres. Five more acres were purchased, which gave the school frontage on Lake Vermilion.
The school was named Schlarman High School in honor of the Most Rev. J.H. Schlarman, bishop of the Peoria Diocese, who supported the purchase and was recognized as one of the top administrators of the Catholic Church in the country. Schlarman died in 1951 at age 72.
The mansion was remodeled to include living quarters for the nuns, classrooms, a library, kitchen and community room; lockers, restrooms and showers were provided in the basement.
On Sept. 16, 1946, the school officially opened in its present location with more than 100 freshmen and sophomores.
During the years, a new classroom wing was added and many other changes were made. The students and athletic teams became known as the Hilltoppers — referring to the fact that the campus sits on the highest geographical point in Danville.
Brady recalled how the school retained items from its mansion days, such as the radiators with wrought iron coverings. The home’s dining room was turned into the biology lab; a button under the hostess’ chair would call the butler.
Although the school was in its infancy, Brady said she received a well-rounded foundation in academics.
“We went away to college very well-prepared,” she said, citing the faculty’s strong credentials.
While Brady enjoyed compiling the history — calling it a thank-you gift to the school — she doesn’t plan to pursue any other books.
“I was very, very happy to do it,” she said, “but somebody else is welcome to write the sequel.”
After graduating in 1949, Brady attended Marycrest College at St. Ambrose University, Davenport, Iowa, and graduated with honors in 1953. She taught at Northeast School in Danville (the first year it opened); University of Iowa, Iowa City; and the Area Vocations Center, Bloomington.
She holds teaching certificates in home economics and elementary education.
She was married to a classmate, Dave Brady, who died in 2005; they raised five sons.
Her brother, John O’Rourke, a retired attorney, lives in Danville.