Main Story and Stats
On June 6, 1989, 345 classmates, including this writer, marched down the aisles of the Ravinia pavilion in Highland Park to receive their high-school diplomas. Donning our red gowns and mortarboards with red and gray tassels—the colors of our alma mater, Deerfield High School—we proceeded one by one across the stage before our beaming parents. The school orchestra played Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, and our principal and the class speaker served up heapings of clichéd advice about the “real world.” Sadly, the most riveting lesson of that day came with news of the death of one of our classmates, Joel Glick, reportedly from an asthma attack just hours before the ceremony began. Joel’s sudden death hit us all hard—a vivid reminder of the frailty of life—and dampened some of the pomp of the circumstances.
Not long afterward, our graduation tassels wound up on the rearview mirrors of our cars (not mine, of course), and most of us headed off to college. Years passed and our ten-year reunion came and went in a blink-of-an-eye night of bittersweet nostalgia. Now, with our 20-year reunion nearly upon us, thoughts of reconnecting with my old classmates have crossed my mind more and more. With the occasion of Chicago’s examining the high-school lives of natives who went on to fame (see Before They Were Famous, on page 50), I decided to track down my own former classmates—now in their mid-30s—to see what has happened and how we have changed.
The brief profiles on these pages suggest where life so far has taken some of the members of our class. A survey I conducted gives a broader view. Both elements should be considered in the context of a hometown that is wealthy, comfortable, and—certainly in my youth there—ethnically homogeneous.
Growing up in Deerfield in the mid-1980s, I often felt as if my classmates and I were starring in our own John Hughes movie. Deerfield High School seemed just like the fictional North Shore suburban school of Hughes’s flicks, and my D.H.S. classmates could easily have been plucked from Sixteen Candles or The Breakfast Club.
Built in 1959, D.H.S. has churned out countless topnotch graduates, as well as some pretty good football teams, with one state championship and three runner-up trophies. A sprawling ranch-style school bordering Waukegan Road, the facility is surrounded by a woodsy 80-acre campus with multiple athletic fields. The school’s 1,750 students come from Deerfield, Bannockburn, Riverwoods, Lincolnshire, and a portion of Highland Park.
Year after year, dozens of Deerfield kids go off to the Ivies or other colleges found near the top of the U.S. News & World Report rankings. In my graduating class, 86 percent went on to four-year schools and 6 percent continued at two-year colleges. We had six National Merit semifinalists and five finalists (this writer was not among the bunch). Our average scores on the SAT reasoning tests were 462 in verbal and 537 in math, substantially above the state and national averages. (Note: Adjusting for the change in SAT scoring just over a decade ago, the equivalent scores today would be 540 in verbal and 560 in math.) Nearly half of our class qualified for some college-level credit even before we set foot on a university campus, and 52 students—15 percent of our class—got perfect scores on Advanced Placement exams.
D.H.S. was, and still is, an intense place—competition was part of our DNA, and we frequently tried to validate ourselves in the eyes of our classmates and, perhaps more importantly, our parents. “This is a very well-educated community—parents want their kids to be successful,” explains Ed Saleniek, a counselor, who has been at the school since 1978. “I think there’s some pressure to be as successful as the parents or at least to get into as good a college as the parents did.” The atmosphere at D.H.S. got so competitive that the school eliminated class rankings in 2004.
While Deerfield High School is one of the most elite high schools around Chicago, I never really considered Deerfield, the town, to be an elitist place to live. Sure, we enjoyed the trappings of our privileged youth, but in my teenage imagination we were less snobby than neighboring suburbs like Lake Forest, Highland Park, and Wilmette, closer to the lake.
Located about 27 miles north of the Loop, Deerfield is a small hamlet of cul-de-sac subdivisions and tree-lined streets, with a couple of not-so-quaint shopping areas mixed in. It hasn’t changed much since I was in high school, aside from a recent makeover that spruced up its downtown. Two Starbucks, of course, have joined the mix.
When I was growing up, Deerfield was, as it still is, a solidly white, upper-middle-class suburb, with an average household income of $85,000 and an average home value of $232,200, according to the 1990 census. (Today, the average household income has climbed to $107,194, and average home values have hit $342,900.) In my time, Deerfield had its share of well-off doctors, lawyers, and corporate types, but also among the 17,000 residents were plenty of plumbers, shop owners, and factory workers at Sara Lee, which operated in Deerfield for 27 years until it closed its plant in 1991. A 400-home sub-division now occupies the 50-acre site.
Like the town, Deerfield High School was full of white faces—97 percent of our class, to be exact. There were a handful of Asian students, 12 in all, and no blacks or Hispanics, according to school records. It was our tiny, insular cocoon. And we rarely left it. Chicago seemed a world away—and slightly intimidating, at least to us teenagers. Taking the el to a Cubs game felt like a feat of derring-do.
But as I embarked on my needle-in-a-haystack search for scattered classmates—a couple of whom, it turns out, live as far away as Stockholm, Sweden, and Sydney, Australia—our world had obviously grown.
I had maintained close friendships with only a handful of people, so my mission started virtually from scratch. I Googled people. I examined public records and networking Web sites, such as Classmates.com and Reunion.com, the leading sites for contacting former schoolmates. I sifted through old newspapers and D.H.S. alumni directories. I also cold-called old acquaintances and even a few parents.
Some people were easier to find than others. One high-school friend, for instance, married my younger sister, and another is my stockbroker. But tracking down members of the class who were dead or convicted criminals—among the most common queries posed by my former classmates—was especially difficult. I didn’t unearth any jailbirds and was able to verify only one post-high-school death: Adam Kleon, a funny, friendly guy, who was killed by a drunken driver in 1995.
Pretty soon I had a daisy chain of 175 e-mail addresses. Then, to collect basic information, I created an online survey through Zoomerang.com, a Web service that lets users design a questionnaire, e-mail recipients, and tabulate the results. The survey was designed to answer the sorts of things I figured my classmates would want to know: Where do we live? What do we do? Are we single, married, or divorced? Do we have kids? What are our accomplishments? How are we faring in life? (See sidebar The Stats for the Class of ’89 survey results.)
In late October, I e-mailed the questionnaires to 117 classmates, and within 48 hours, nearly 50 people had completed theirs. By my deadline around Thanksgiving, 130 people—more than one-third of the class—had filled out surveys. The results offer an intriguing glimpse of what has happened to my classmates since we graduated. Of course, the findings need a caveat: if conventional wisdom is right, the people most likely to fill out these kinds of surveys are usually the ones who are the most successful or who still have fond memories of their alma mater—the same sort of people who typically show up at high-school reunions.
So what ever did happen to Deerfield’s Class of ’89?
Well, we seem to have become our parents: we grew up in Deerfield, griped that there was nothing to do, went away to college, moved to a big city (usually Chicago), and then went back home to Deerfield, or a suburb much like it, to raise a family.
Most of the members of the class I surveyed are now married, and two-thirds of them have children. Given that roughly half the marriages in the United States fail, I was surprised that only 9 percent of survey participants said they had been divorced. Of our single classmates—25 percent of the respondents—there are slightly more women than men. And only 1 percent of the classmates I surveyed—two people in all, one male, one female—said they were gay.
As it turns out, 70 percent of the respondents now live either in Chicago or in the nearby suburbs, and 13 percent have moved back to Deerfield. Most of the survey respondents find Deerfield to be a desirable place to live and raise children. One classmate, a divorced woman, says she recently bought a house there, mainly to keep her kids homegrown. “I wanted them to grow up in the same school system as I did,” she wrote. Good schools and low crime were two of the most commonly mentioned benefits of living in Deerfield. So are the other comforts of suburbia: the roomy houses with pretty lawns, the soccer and baseball fields, the privacy—and the familiarity. “I remember saying to my parents, ‘No matter what, I’m never moving back to Deerfield—it’s boring; there’s nothing to do,’” said one classmate, now a stay-at-home mom. “Sure enough, as I got older, it started looking very attractive—with all my friends moving back and the good schools. Next thing you know, we moved back. It’s crazy. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.”
Nonetheless, a number of classmates said that what they considered Deerfield’s drawbacks—the “North Shore attitude,” the “competitive environment,” and the “lack of diversity”—outweighed its benefits. One classmate, a divorced woman now living in Chicago, says Deerfield is “too materialistic” with “too much pressure to be perfect and rich.” She added that residents there seem to care too much about social competition and “keeping up with the Joneses.”
If money were the sole measure, indeed it would be tough to keep up with our class. Nearly half of the respondents said they earned more than $100,000 a year; 20 percent make more than $200,000. Eighty-six percent of the survey respondents own a home or a condominium. Based on my survey, we have, generally, followed traditional career paths in business, accounting, medicine, and law. Despite this, people said they had not fulfilled all their career expectations. Perhaps that suggests our legacy of growing up in Deerfield—very high expectations.
Still, nearly all who were surveyed said they were more satisfied now than they were in high school. “Life just seems easier than it did in high school,” one classmate explained. Most also declined to second-guess past experiences and decisions. Some said they wished they had worked less, lived somewhere besides Chicago, or declined to go into the family business. One classmate said she “definitely would not have said ‘I do’ three times.” Another, a businessman in Kentucky, acknowledged: “I’m probably very different [from] who I was in high school. Some, I wish I would’ve gotten to know better; others I wish I would’ve treated better.”
Most spoke with great pride about their families. Some mentioned getting their master’s or Ph.D’s, starting a business, or moving up the corporate ladder. Others noted accomplishments of a more personal nature: running the Boston Marathon, traveling around the world, being financially independent, or simply maintaining old friendships. One classmate, now a pro golfer, said his accomplishment has been to be “living YOLO,” meaning, “You only live once.”
In October I returned to Deerfield High School—the fitting ending, I thought, for my trip down memory lane. The school felt smaller, even though it has grown by two major additions and increased by 500 students. Some of the changes are obvious: computers seem to be everywhere; and the dumpy cafeteria that we knew is now more like a shopping-mall food court. Gone, too, is the smoking pit, the designated area outside the school where students, aptly named “pitsters,” hung out and smoked cigarettes. Still, D.H.S. looks pretty much as it did when I was there—even the students remind me of my classmates, except without big eighties hairdos and stonewashed jeans.
When I visited, the school was still reeling from the deaths of two 18-year-olds—a D.H.S. senior and a 2006 graduate—from a drunk-driving accident over homecoming weekend. (Only weeks later, Deerfield’s Class of 2006 lost another member when a former all-state swimmer was found shot to death in a rental car in a Libertyville parking lot—a drug deal gone awry, police said.) The deaths took me back to my graduation day and the loss of my classmate Joel Glick. Looking around the main hallway of the school, I found the wall plaque commemorating him. I stared at it for a long time. Searching out my classmates, I hadn’t known what I expected to find, or wanted to find. Looking at Joel’s picture on the plaque, I was reminded only that life is short and unwritten chapters lie ahead.