Proms to Dear Johns

Duke Ellington Orchestra - Mood Indigo

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In the nineteen fifties, Junior and Senior Proms in high school were important events  The Senior Prom was the really big deal.  The Junior Prom was a training event. Let’s face it, Junior boys are not very coördinated when it comes to the social graces, at least not in my time.

My brother Bill colluded with a buddy to set me up with a date in the fall of 1954. Bill’s friend, Bob Keough, had seven sisters, one of whom was a Junior in high school. Jacqueline attended St. Louis Academy on State Street near 115th.  Mendel and Saint Louis often attended each other’s sock hops, but I never saw Jacque (pronounced Jackie) at any of them.

Bill talked me into calling Jacque.  At the same time, her brother Bob told her I was going to call her. I am not a big talker, but when I heard Jacque’s freindly voice and her infectious laugh, the conversation went easy. We talked for an hour about all kinds of stuff. Finally, I asked her out for a date. We went to a movie and followed with ice cream.   We learned a lot about each other on that date and became great friends.  That date led to another, and soon we were going steady.

Jacque invited me to her junior prom. A prom is a very formal dance.  The girls wear gowns and the guys wear tuxedos. The guys buy the girls a corsage to make it nicer. The St. Louis Academy Junior Prom was held at the school.  The band played great music. I prided myself on being able to dance the jitterbug. Dancing fancy made a guy popular. We had a fantastic evening.

We dated through the summer and all through our senior year. I asked her to my prom, and she reciprocated. The Mendel Prom was at the Conrad Hilton Hotel in the Grand Ballroom. The Saint Louis Academy Prom was at the DelPrado Hotel in Hyde Park.

When prom ended, it was customary to go to a night club on Rush Street.  None of us was old enough to drink, so we wound up paying the cover charge and getting Cokes for our drink minimums.  We went to the Blue Note Jazz Club on Rush Street in Chicago. The Duke Ellington Band played until it was time for us to leave.  Each of us had a curfew to make.

Jacque and I were an item for two years.  We talked on the phone all the time.  We went to every sock hop, dance, game and pep rally that our schools had.  When the school social calendar was quiet we dated on our own.  We went to movies, or to the Grant Park concerts, or we just hung out together.

Mom took a shine to Jacque too.  Why, I don’t know, Jacque wasn’t Hungarian, but she was a good conversationalist and listened well. Mom always wanted her kids to hook up with a Hungarian mate.  That never did happen.  I never even dated a Hungarian girl.

After the proms and graduation, the summer sped by as we prepared to leave for school.  Saint Joseph’s College in Indiana is where I headed, Jacque enrolled in nursing at Saint Francis School of nursing. We spent every minute we could together.  I was hopelessly in love with her, but too young to marry.  Neither of us wanted to marry until after we finished our college.

I started college in August of 1956. St. Joe’s is a small school in the middle of a cornfield on the outskirts of Rensselaer, Indiana.  Jacque started nursing school on the far north side of Chicago.  Each of us lived at school.  We wrote letters to each other daily.  I looked forward to the mail with excitement.  We wrote about our classes and how hard everything was, especially pop quizzes and exams. Her life was very different from mine. I attended classes while she did class work and worked in the hospital.

My roommate in freshman year was my good friend Jim Geil from high school.  Jim and I were bosom buddies.  Geil, as I called him, and I were always looking for ways to entertain our ladies.  We learned of the Junior-Senior Prom at St. Joe.  We did an unusual thing, we joined the prom committee. We were the only freshmen that ever volunteered for the prom committee. It was an upper class event, but because the total enrollment of Saint Joe was eight hundred, invitations went to the entire student body.

We worked every spare minute we could on decorations for converting the huge gymnasium into a Roman Garden.  I painted two very large canvasses with scenes from ancient Rome.  These paintings were the back drop for the two balconies overlooking Rome.

Jim invited his girl and I invited Jacque. The band was the Duke Ellington Orchestra.  The girls had to stay in town at a boarding house for women only.

The committee transformed the gym into the courtyard of Roman Villa. The ceiling was dark blue with tiny lights for stars. The exterior walls were stucco with two large windows overlooking Rome. A long pond with a fountain adorned the center of the floor.  Jim and I made a lot of friends in the Junior-Senior Class because of our participation on the committee and that made us popular at the dance.  The Ellington Band was also fabulous.  I collected his music for years afterwards.  I can still recognize Ellington music within a few bars.

After the prom, the year ended with exams. The summer was busy with work to earn money for school.  Jacque went to school through the summer and our dating became sparse.

A few weeks into sophomore year at St. Joe I received a letter from Jacque.  I was just as excited as ever.  This time, however, the tone of the letter was different.  The letter more popularly known as a “Dear John”,  started “Dear Joe”.  The lady I loved with all my heart dumped me.  Devastated, mad, and sick,  you name it, I was it.  How could she?  Didn’t she know I loved her?  Well, I sent many a letter asking why, but I never got a response.  I made up my mind to get over it and put the energy into my studies instead.  My letter writing didn’t stop, though.

Jim did not return to Saint Joe that year, but we corresponded. Our friendship helped me get through a very rough emotional time. Jim began dating Carol Jean, a student at St. Anne’s School of nursing. The letters continued, and led to some very interesting times. It was during this period, that I invented Steve Star, a character I could hide behind.

This story does not end, but it will continue.

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