York High School is full of teachers and coaches who, through nuance as well as bigger-than-life inspiration, have altered the paths of students' lives.
Over more than nine decades, York's inspirational teachers have churned out adults who are highly motivated, successful and inspirational in their own right.
But, until now, there has been no way to find and recognize those alumni. York has never had a hall of fame.
Les Zunkel (York Class of 1963) is one of those inspirational teachers. Zunkel is to the York Drama Department what Joe Newton is to the York Cross Country Team: Legendary. With 36 years as head of drama at York, students from the '70s who never even tried out for a play recognize his name today. Zunkel, now retired from York, still works with former students writing and directing caberets in a little storefront in Downers Grove.
He said a means of recognizing distinguished alumni is long overdue.
"The last several years I was at York, I was the assistant principal for student activities," he said. "At that point, because I had been traveling around to other schools and seeing they had a hall of fame, I said, we need to have this."
But for whatever reason, the idea didn't take off. Zunkel wasn't the only one to suggest it over the years, but the timing was never right and the ideal people weren't in place to take on the task—until now.
Fast forward to 2012, and the York Distinguished Alumni Program is not only under way, it's being pursued with a fervor. Zunkel is one of the organizers leading the charge. In addition to helping recruit nominees, he will be evaluating them for acceptance into the program.
"I think it is long overdue," he said. "I think it's something that's important to have because we don't remember—or even know about—people who have done some pretty amazing things."
He referred to York graduate Gary Rydstrom as an example.
"He has won multiple Academy Awards for sound," Zunkel said. "That's a big deal. There's nothing (at York) to recognize that."
Three groups are working to rally alumni to bring the program to life: The District 205 Public Relations Department, with Foundation Board member Irene Yacko heading up the York Distinguished Alumni Committee, York High School staff and administration, and the District 205 Foundation.
Foundation Director Lisa Fanelli (York Class of '79), said the criteria for nominees is fairly broad and encompasses all 94 years of York's existence. That means alumni can be nominated in any category—sports, business, the arts—and they even can be honored posthumously.
"We didn't narrow it down," Fanelli said. "We're not sure how many (nominations) we'll get, but I think we'll want our initial class to be larger, six to 10 inductees, maybe."
While they have received a few outstanding nominations already, the organizers have a lot of ground to cover to find the many more they know are out there. An official kick-off event is planned for this Friday, Sept. 21, at Silverado Grill on Spring Road, just steps from York's football stadium. It's no coincidence that it falls on Homecoming weekend, organizer Jay Webb (Class of 75) said.
"It will start right after half-time of the York game," he said. "It will be a social, and we'll have a 50/50 raffle, a big tent, live music," he said.
Webb is kind of like the Reunion King of Elmhurst. He has connected thousands of alumni already through his York Class of the 70s group on Facebook. The group, which is made up of mostly York graduates from the 70s, just had a two gatherings Sept. 14 and 15 that drew lots of alumni.
Webb was an ideal choice to help get the ball rolling on a hall of fame.
"I got a call and jumped right in," he said.
The nature of reunions has a broad appeal these days—much more than it used to—perhaps because of social media.
And, we're all getting older, Webb said.
"Remember Mike Jungles?" Webb asked. "That was probably what sealed the deal on what a good thing we were doing."
Jungles showed up at one of Webb's reunions and reconnected with lots of old friends. He was tragically killed in a car crash shortly after.
"Everybody had a great time, they all hugged and everything," Webb recalled. "I can't tell you how many people thanked me for the fact that they had that night to spend with him."
Friday's event at Silverado is a marketing kickoff for the Distinguished Alumni Program, but it's also Homecoming, and it's an ideal chance to see some friendly faces from the past.
Webb said this alumni effort could be built upon for many years to come.
"Why knows? Maybe there'll be a retirement home for us someday. That would be fun, huh?" he said. "We could have different wings for different class years."
Zunkel, Webb, Fanelli and dozens more welcome everyone to get involved, spread the word, come to the kickoff and find those special nominees.
"It's been a lot of fun working with this group of people," Webb said. "A lot of times, with different volunteer groups, it can be a chore. This thing has gone very smoothly. This is a great group of people that know how to get things done."
Nominations will be received through March 31. Alumni must have been out of high school for at least 10 years. Find more criteria here.
"An important piece is that we would like them to speak to the kids at York," Fanelli said. "We really want to make that a priority, to talk to the kids and be a motivating factor for them."
The first Distinguished Alumni Class will be awarded at a banquet on Nov. 7, 2013.
To make a nomination, click here. For more information, contact Debbie Hollstein or Melea Smith, communications and alumni relations, at (630) 993-8863.