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Sandra Cisneros, Suze Orman, Dan Castellaneta, Harold Ramis, Dave Eggers

sandra cisneros

Sandra Cisneros Writer
Josephinum Academy, Chicago (1972)

Writing on the Wall: Although her old neighborhood, Humboldt Park, served as inspiration for her seminal début novel, The House on Mango Street, American Book Award winner Sandra Cisneros can be dismissive, at best, when acknowledging her youth here. “If I’m an artist, it’s despite Chicago, it's despite Chicago, not because of it," she once told the Chicago Tribune.

But those from her West Side, Catholic, all-girl alma mater, nicknamed the Jo, remember “Sandi” more fondly than she remembers the city: as someone earmarked for her way with words. “With Sandra, her passion was writing,” says her friend and former lab partner Zoila Garcia, who recently asked Cisneros if she had always known she would be a writer. Garcia says Cisneros responded, “No, I was [encouraged] by my teachers.”

One of those teachers, Julie Kuzera, then an English instructor, recalls Cisneros as “a great student, but very shy, reserved, and retiring”—the polar opposite of Cisneros’s take-no-prisoners persona as an adult. “She didn’t volunteer any information. She was always very good at writing, but she probably didn’t appear to be the best in class because she was so quiet.” Kuzera says a senior-year stint as head of the school’s literary magazine helped build the budding writer’s confidence. The 1972 yearbook credits the magazine’s “excellence, fresh style and appeal, and modern format” to Cisneros’s editorship, and Garcia says, “One-third [of the magazine] was stuff she was writing.

“I think, when we were there, the school was going through a transition,” Garcia explains. “There were still a lot of kids from the Ukrainian neighborhood, but there were more minorities coming in, African Americans and Latinas. For me, and I think for Sandra too, that diversity was good. I think she picked up a lot of characters for her books.”

Words, Not Workouts: While Cisneros has been known to badmouth her elementary years in local parochial schools, even using a C- and D-riddled report card as a don’t-give-up prop when lecturing local students, she seems to have hit her academic stride at Josephinum. “I always thought she was a pretty good student; I didn’t see her struggling at all,” Garcia says. “But I don’t think she liked gym a lot.”  –J. W.

Suze Orman

Suze Orman TV personal finance guru
South Shore, Chicago (1969)

Type A+ Personality: The listings next to her senior photograph in the school yearbook suggest that Orman’s frenetic style developed early—she was involved in more than triple the number of activities listed for most of her classmates. She served on at least ten committees and worked as an aide in five different capacities, along with being involved in at least a dozen other clubs. “For her to be on TV and talking the way she does—that was no surprise to me whatsoever,” says Laurie Brown Nayder, a friend and classmate. “The fact that she was a financial person was a surprise to me.” Nayder always figured Orman would follow her father into the restaurant business, taking over Morry’s deli, which her father operated at 55th Street near Cornell. It was a high-school hangout for Orman and many other South Shore kids. Even as a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Orman worked in a deli, Nayder says.

Off-Field Athletics: Organized sports for girls at South Shore didn’t come into their own until after she was out of high school, but Orman kept herself in motion nonetheless. She and her friends liked to play “hide-and-seek tag” inside the Museum of Science and Industry. About ten of them would meet at the Farm exhibit and disperse in groups of two. “It wasn’t enough just to find you,” Nayder says. “We had to tag you, too.” There may have been some running involved, she admits. “And there may have been some times when we were asked to leave.” Nayder adds, “We were the kind of girls who would have been on sports teams if they had had them.” Classmate Bill Gerstein remembers a vivacious girl at South Shore, where he is now a principal. “She was very friendly, very funny and always smiling,” he says. “She got along with everybody.”  –M. A.

dan castellaneta

Dan Castellaneta Voice of Homer Simpson
Oak Park and River Forest, Oak Park (1975)

Homeric Journey: As a skinny, small kid (five feet four or so in his senior year), Dan Castellaneta didn’t make much of an impression around Oak Park and River Forest—until he opened his mouth. “Dan’s normal speaking voice was not outstanding in any way,” says drama teacher Jim Eitrheim, “but he could bend it around to do whatever he wanted, from high to low, all over the place.” Adds speech coach Patt Cheney, “Dan was always doing voices, always imitating people”—exactly the talent that’s allowed him to sound off as the voice of America’s most notorious cartoon slouch (as well as other voices on The Simpsons). At the time, that career choice was not obvious, so Castellaneta went on to study art at Northern Illinois University, planning to become a commercial artist. Eitrheim recalls spot-on cartoons that Castellaneta drew of him and other teachers.

Acting Out: One day, Eitrheim left his office while Castellaneta and other students were still milling around. At some point, another teacher called, looking for Eitrheim. “The next day this teacher said to me, ‘Jim, yesterday were you on something when we were talking?’” the drama teacher recalls. “I said, ‘Yesterday? I didn’t talk to you yesterday.’ Then a light bulb went off in my mind. It was Dan. I don’t remember what he said, but Dan told that teacher the wildest tale you could imagine.” That bit of fun got Castellaneta barred from Eitrheim’s office for a few weeks.  –M. A.

harold ramis

Harold Ramis Film director, writer, and actor 
Senn, Chicago (1962)

A Nerd, Yes: Everyone called him “Hershey,” the Yiddish translation of Harold. Tall and thin, Harold Ramis “used to wear a shirt with an open collar and a beige V-neck sweater, and his sleeves were always too short,” classmate Joellen (Adler) Lobelson recalls. “He was a nerd, but he was a nice nerd,” says another classmate, Lynne Wexelman. She remembers going downtown on the el with Harold and a couple of other friends to listen to jazz. “We weren’t sneaking in, we weren’t drinking; we were just listening to the music.” A gifted student, Ramis was elected president of the boys’ honor society his senior year; he was coeditor of the yearbook, and a member of Quill & Scroll, a club for writers.

harold ramis

But a Nerd with Flair: Hershey had a more dashing side. He belonged to an out-of-school club, the Centaurs, whose members wore jackets—gray with red piping on the shoulders and cuffs—and moved in a pack. (Well, it was pretty innocent. “This wasn’t a gang. These were Jewish kids who didn’t know from that crap,” says Barry Galfield, a fellow Centaur who went to Sullivan High School.) Inspired by the Errol Flynn movies Ramis and his brother watched as kids, Ramis lettered as a member of Senn’s fencing team, one of only a few such high-school teams in the city. And he had a flair for romance. One day in his junior year, during a Mixed Chorus rehearsal, Lobelson was sitting in the bleachers one row in front of him. “I was laughing with my friends, and I fell backwards into his lap and he kind of caught me and gave me a kiss on my forehead and said, ‘You’re so cute,’ or something like that. I liked him right away, and we started going steady.” Several acquaintances describe him as quiet, but funny when he wanted to be. “He used to spread his nostrils, and just that would make me laugh,” Lobelson says.

Ramis left Senn for Washington University in St. Louis intent on becoming a neurosurgeon. He ended up earning a degree in English with a minor in theatre and speech. “Hershey was very smart,” Lobelson says. “And he was not aware he was smart, and that was part of his charm, too.”  –M. A.

dave eggers

Dave Eggers Author, founder of McSweeney’s quarterly journal and a magazine, The Believer
Lake Forest High School, Lake Forest (1988)

Eggering Them On: Eggers oozed creativity as a student at Lake Forest, even showing signs of the wry style that would become his trademark. His speech teacher, Pete Ferry, remembers a persuasive talk Eggers delivered on riding bicycles to the center of the earth, his main selling point being that the ride would be mostly downhill. In his student newspaper column, Eggers once satirically attacked a conservative Christian teacher who had fallen into the habit of proselytizing in class. “That said a lot about Dave,” Ferry points out, “because he was not only bright and principled, but not afraid to make a stand.” Eggers had a talent for art, drawing cartoons, painting portraits, and heading the senior mural project on a railroad overpass in Lake Forest. After a junior year honors English teacher encouraged Eggers to become a writer, he slowly began to rethink his options. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he ended up majoring in journalism.

Goal Oriented: Eggers worked on the high-school newspaper and the literary magazine, Young Idea (becoming YI’s editor his senior year), and copy-edited the yearbook. He also cofounded a club for visual artists called the New Artist Guild. A four-year soccer player, he often organized pickup games with his friends.Refined Taste: Eggers’s appetite for knowledge far exceeded his appetite for food, his friends say. “Whenever he would come over to my house, basically all he would ever eat was dry toast,” says classmate Eric Vratimos. Classmates recall that as a freshman, Eggers went on a camping trip to Canada and refused to eat the freeze-dried fare that was provided. “Dave survived on a loaf of bread for a whole week,” says fellow camper Tish Scola. Adds Vratimos, “When he came back, he had lost, like, 20 pounds.”  –M. A.


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