Flood can't wash out high school prom

May 04, 1994|By Chicago Tribune

KINDERHOOK, Ill. -- Traditions run deep in a small town, and Saturday's high school prom was bound to happen no matter what the Mississippi River had done.

It was last summer when the Mississippi, fueled by weeks of heavy rain, spilled through the countryside. Floodwaters struck the Illinois towns of Kinderhook, Hull and New Canton, near Hannibal, Mo. Nearly a third of the students in the three towns' single school district, nine miles from the river, were forced from their homes by rising waters July 25.

The West Pine Community High School building was spared the sewage-filled green waters that left the elementary school neck-deep in muck, along with the corn and soybean crops. But although the months since then have seen the school buildings cleaned of debris, the cleanup wiped out funds for the annual prom.

Fearing that the spring dance would never get to its feet, West Pine High School Principal Tom Leahy aggressively asked for help by sending letters to school districts around the country.

In waltzed a group of high school students from Naperville, a suburb of Chicago.

The group of students, members of a drug-free community-based organization called REACH (Responsible Educated Adolescents Can Help), began collections to help out the West Pine school, which is on the central-western edge of Illinois.

"It really renewed our faith and took away some of the adversarial feelings that can politically separate Downstate from Upstate," Mr. Leahy said.

The Naperville students collected 25 prom dresses for the school 300 miles away. They also raised $1,000 to offer flood victims $50 each to buy their own dresses or rent their own tuxedos.

"Without the $50 for the tux, I probably wouldn't have gone to the prom," said Nathan Vincent, 18. Like many of the residents, Mr. Vincent, a senior at West Pine High School, is living with his family in an emergency trailer.

But Mr. Vincent and all 21 seniors and all 28 juniors attended the junior-senior prom. Two senior boys who didn't have dates were matched with two Naperville girls to make the traditional processional entrance.

Mr. Leahy's appeal for help also brought money from hurricane victims in Florida, from donors in Connecticut and from Illinois towns including Libertyville, Elmhurst and Plano.

The West Pine parents usually raise about $70,000 annually for ++ extras such as class trips, the band, the yearbook and the prom.

"But with all the losses from the flood, we can't tap our own community as much with the usual pizza and candy sales," Mr. Leahy said.

Meanwhile, Joyce Lorentz of Naperville, an adult leader of REACH, contacted the West Pine school's administration.

"We wanted to give our Naperville students a giving experience," Ms. Lorentz said.

The Jaycees of Naperville were recruited to provide the shrimp ++ and steak dinner at the prom.

On Saturday morning, 20 of the Naperville students and a dozen Jaycees boarded a bus for Kinderhook, arriving at the gym while the prom students were at home getting dressed.

The Naperville students scrubbed baking potatoes and filled little bowls with salad dressing. Then the visitors quickly changed in the high school locker rooms into black trousers and red cummerbunds, ready to serve dinner to the students.

The 49 prom-goers arrived to find the West Pine Community High School gym transformed into a fairyland. Thousands of cardboard stars glimmered amid a mist of gossamers; over all JTC towered an 18-foot-high cardboard castle.

During dinner the Naperville students hovered over the tables.

"Since this class is smaller, the prom is so much more intimate and special," said Jill Wegerer, 17, a senior from Naperville Central High School, who volunteered to be one of the processional escorts. "It feels a lot closer."

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