Excellence comes in valuing diversity: thoughts on TF South’s vote to dissolve “Rebels” name

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Local Voices

Frank Fetters, former Lansing resident and member of TF South’s first graduating class in 1959

Today I read comments from John Gehrig, Alissa Bolz, Barbara Dust and Daniel (no last name) regarding the students at TF South voting to change the name of the school’s athletic teams, and I would like to add my opinion.

I believe the major promoter of the idea making “Rebels” the team name was John Padgen, TF South’s head football coach, who probably thought the name would inspire a rivalry between TF North and TF South throughout the years. I have great respect for the members of the Padgen family. They have been important and inspiring to many who who came through TF South and witnessed the successes of Padgen family-coached teams. Although I didn’t play for Coach Padgen, my brothers, Jim and Jeff did. I know they were grateful for the opportunity and achieved some real success when they played. Coach Padgen was also a positive influence on me during my senior year and let me know that he appreciated what I wrote for TF South newspaper.

Coming up with the nickname “Rebels” was probably an easy decision for the school administration to make, but I believe it was a wrong decision. First of all, it had zero input from the student body, which, I believe, was a serious mistake. Secondly, it carried the unintentional historical, social and emotional baggage of the American Civil War, and that linkage with the Confederacy was underscored when somebody made the unfortunate decision to drape the Confederate Battle Flag over the front of the school building. I was very happy to learn that Karen Walker and the rest of the School Board, after considering all possibilities, decided to remove it. I sincerely hope that Pierre Thomas, one of the finest athletes ever to play at TF South, never had to see that flag hanging there on any day he ever attended classes at TF South.

I feel this way partially because I do not see any historical link between the Confederacy and TF South. First, the Mason Dixon does not cross through any part of Illinois. Rather, it touches the southern tip of of the state, so any connection to the Confederacy geographically is nowhere close to 18500 Burnham Avenue, unless you are observing from outer space. Secondly, my guess is that, if you counted the number of direct descendants of Confederate soldiers who served in the Civil War who attended TF South high school, the number you are likely to come up with would most likely be in the single digits, double digits at most. Therefore, the only metaphorical or historical link remaining related to the nickname and flag of the Confederacy is the TF North/TF South rivalry. And if that rivalry is so thin that it MUST have the Rebel nickname to keep it going, then it is not much of a rivalry at all!

What I would like to talk about next is the heritage that preceded the break-up of Thornton Fractional High School into TF North and TF South. First of all the original TF nickname, METEORS, inspired me when I attended there and it still does today. A meteor, from down here on the ground, is more than just a hunk of space junk flying by. It is a brilliant, shining, projectile soaring through the night sky! And if anybody had asked me at the time, I would have suggested that TF South sports teams should be called The COMETS!

Another thing that sticks in my memory is the conference we played in, the South Suburban Conference (It’s good that we have come back into it!). During my time in high school, there were only three or four dominant conferences in the state of Illinois, and the South Suburban Conference was one of them! Also, our athletes from the years just preceding my entering, and also while I attended, high school included several stellar individuals: Jack Siatta, who went on to play football for Northwestern University; Earl Van Inwegan, who went on to play for the Air Force Academy’s varsity football team; Vern and Jamie Vierk, who were outstanding varsity players the year before I attended school in Calumet City; Mike O’Laughlin, a varsity wrestler who won the state championship his senior year and went on to wrestle for the University of Illinois; Brian Schultz, who wrestled and played football as a Meteor and then went on to West Point, and he wrestled there as well. Bill Walters, was a shooting guard who was the scoring leader for a TF basketball team that made the Sweet Sixteen tournament, and he went on to play college basketball in Iowa. And I haven’t even mentioned the amazing state and national championships in Speech and Drama won by TF South students under the direction of Earl Davis and Robert J. Phillips. That list would be huge! I apologize for taking the “long way around the barn” to explain how powerful our sports identity was at that time and I also apologize to all the other outstanding Meteors that I failed to mention. But I’m making this point to underscore that TF South was starting out from scratch and perhaps needed a nickname that could provide a powerful hook into this tradition. I assume that’s what Coach Padgen might have been thinking.

The thing I’d like to do now is address the comments already made. First of all, I totally agree with Alissa Bolz and Barbara Dust, I think their comments are right on target. I am a bit overwhelmed by the straightforward common sense of Daniel’s (no last name) entry. I think what he says makes a lot of sense. But I know the school is not going to follow his wisdom, so I’ll continue. I am flummoxed by how John Gehring assumes that renaming a school’s sports nickname could possibly be classified as an injustice. HOW? Do they invalidate your high diploma if the school changes its nickname? Do they throw you off your job because you said you attended TF South High School, home of the REBELS, and it is now a lie? I don’t see it! Here are some real injustices: slavery, lynching, Jim Crow laws, redlining, and all the other methods racists have used to force non-white people into the status of being second class citizens. Currently, we have a diverse body of students attending TF South, and we should WANT them to succeed! Because everything they do reflects on every person who has ever attended TF South High School! I also believe that the future of America lies in diversity. If we cannot tap into the talents and genius of individual citizens, especially our students, many of whom are non-white, then America’s future is dim! And I believe that the diversity of Lansing’s current population is powerful; and by that, I mean all of us, from every race, make us strong and ensure our success, and the energy of that diversity should take us right over the top! It has to, because the alternative is failure, which is unacceptable.

A final word, because I’m sure those who disagree with me are chaffing to find this out: what the hell do I know? Well, I was born in 1941 and lived in Lansing until 1968. I wrestled on Joe Sowinski’s wrestling team, and I also wrote for the school newspaper and the Lansing Journal. I went on to get a BA in Speech and an MA in Theatre Arts from Northern Illinois University. I have written plays that have been published and produced. I taught Special Education at an inner-city Chicago grammar school, I was a technical instructor for the nuclear project at Hanford, Washington, I was a federal marshal, a deputy sheriff, and, at one point, I was a Mental Health Specialist in Elgin, Illinois before I took a job as an assistant professor of Drama at Eastern Washington University. I am proud that I graduated from TF South in its first graduating class (1959), and I would be proud to live in today’s Lansing, Illinois.

Seriously, if TF South is to continue its successful quest for excellence and Lansing, Illinois is to become an even stronger and more successful community, diversity must respected and valued. And the best way to do that is to support the choice that TF South students will make concerning the nickname for their sports teams.

Frank Fetters


Local Voices is our version of “Letters to the Editor.” The opinions posted here are those of the writers, and posting them does not indicate endorsement by The Lansing Journal. We welcome input from fellow residents who have thoughtful things to say about topics that are important to our community. Send your submissions to The Lansing Journal with “Voices” in the subject line.

9 COMMENTS

  1. I appreciated your perspective on this, Mr. Fetters, since you were there from the start. You’ve expressed the points of the issue very clearly. I would agree with your name, Comets, as being quite fitting. Thank you for sharing and expanding our history of TF South.

  2. I agree with you on every point, Frank. And “Comets” seems like a natural choice.

    David Christian
    TF Class of 1956
    Arlington, Virginia

    • Thank you, David. The students may come up with something entirely different because it’s their decision and it should match their requirements.. I especially appreciate your feedback because you were there for BOTH traditions. At least I think of it that way because your father taught Music at both schools and your younger brother, my good Friend, Richard Christian, graduated in 1959, the same year I did.

  3. I am a life long Lansing resident and a TFS grad, class of 1968. I support the move to change the nickname. The confederate symbols in use when I was a student seemed strange to me in light of the civil rights movement occurring in the 60’s. Had the school been built just a few years later perhaps the choice of ‘Rebels’ would not have seemed so innocent. Times change and we must be willing to change with them.

  4. I was Richie Rebel my senior year of high school.

    I agree with the dissolving of the nickname.

    We do not give our young people enough credit to make powerful decisions. My understanding is that this decision was students lead. As so, I agree with the students to make this change.

    Let us be proud of the fofthought of these young adults in making a very strong and tough statement that should well be their decision and theirs alone.

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