September/October 2016

G. Howard “Bud” Thompson of Prophetstown was IASB president in 1976 and 1977.

A number of years ago, conventional wisdom about educational leadership included the following from a speaker at an “arts in education” seminar: “There are 842 school districts in Illinois. All but 19 of them have male superintendents, and they all have the same first name: Coach.”

That was likely an exaggeration then and is definitely so now. But there is a kernel of truth to the sentiment: many school administrators have a physical education and/or athletic history. Seldom do you see a superintendent with an art major. This is part of the reason arts seem to come in last on budget priorities.

The field of the arts has a very large tent. Anyone is welcome. Everyone is welcome. The arts are not racist – in fact the arts exemplify diversity. If your goal is life-long learning, try the arts.

In 2012, then-state superintendent of education Christopher Koch said, “We put so much focus on math, science, and English language arts, and unfortunately sometimes neglect areas that are not tested. I believe the arts are every bit as important to a student’s education as algebra, biology, or composition. As educators, we all know that valuable lessons are learned and creativity is fostered through a student’s participation in the visual and performing arts. In some cases, participation in the arts may be the necessary spark that keeps a student from dropping out.”

The arts are not a frill. They are not only important, they are crucial.

I was born in October of 1930. My family — my parents and two older sisters — was very poor. The Depression was bad enough for everyone, but my dad was an alcoholic -- no, really he was a “drunk.” He would be gone for two, three days at a time, sometimes for a whole week. I was a small, skinny kid and my clothes were clean but worn.

I hated school. I was picked on just about every day, taunted with “Your old man is a drunk.” I had a list of five bullies who were the worst. I vowed to get even some way, someday.

But in eighth grade, a great thing happened. I loved to draw. I was in study hall, but instead of studying, I was drawing tanks, guns, ships, and planes. World War II was in progress. I was unaware that the study hall teacher was standing behind me. She said, “I want to see what you are doing.”

I was in trouble, I thought. “I’ve had it.”

But she took my drawing, looked at it, and handed it back. She said, “I would like to keep this and please sign it.”

She hung it in the teacher’s lounge on the bulletin board. I had many teachers and others tell me how good my drawing was. This was a huge spark in my life. My negatives turned to positives. My grades got better. I tore up the list of five.

Two years later, my Dad found Alcoholics Anonymous and never had another drink.

After high school graduation, I enrolled in Augustana College in Rock Island. I had an art teacher who told me I had gotten a gift from God with my art. But, she said God demands that you share your gift.

I got a grant for a summer session at the University of New Mexico at the Harwood Foundation in Taos, N.M. I enrolled in the school of painting at the Art Institute in Chicago and was to start in January after Taos. But Dad got emphysema, a killer if you work around livestock. A decision had to be made: sell the family business and continue my art career, or forget art and take over the family business. I chose the latter.

As it turned out, I was very successful. After retirement, I tried to honor my commitment to God, to share my art. I taught art classes for our church school youth. I developed a series of murals working with our students in the high school art club. We did 12 historic-based murals. We received the “ Most Art-Friendly Small Town in Illinois” award from the Illinois Municipal League and the Illinois Alliance for Arts Education in 2005.

I sincerely believe the arts saved my life.

I have a long-time friend who was very active in sports in the late 1940s. His children were very active in athletics during their time in school in the 1970s. We get into a discussion occasionally about which is more important: the arts or athletics. He is stubborn and biased (which I am not, of course). He stresses how many students have benefited from athletic involvement. He is right, but I have never told him that. And yet, in the words of William Shakespeare:

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted.
— Merchant of Venice