October 1, 2000 — Source: Naperville Sun, The (IL) — Author: Kathy Millen
For almost a half-century, students in Reba Steck's class started their day by singing a song and repeating a variation of the golden rule.
"We'll treat everyone the way we want to be treated," they recited in unison before their teacher.
George Olson thinks that simple declaration of humanity is one of the most important lessons Steck taught.
In an effort to remind people of the wisdom of those words, the Naperville architect has designed a one-room schoolhouse sculpture, reminiscent of the ones in which Steck taught for most of her 48 years in education.
The sculpture, 8 feet wide by 15 feet tall, will be the 14th work of art in the Naperville Century Walk exhibit, a 10-year initiative started in 1996 to place public artwork relating to Naperville in the downtown area.
Two other works are in progress -- a mural on the south side of Sullivan's Steakhouse and three sculptures depicting Horse Market Days, to be placed at Naper Settlement in the fall.
Financed by grants from the Illinois Arts Council, the city's hotel-motel taxes, local banks and private donors, the exhibit will comprise 30 works of art by the time it is completed in 2006.
The schoolhouse sculpture will be placed on Jefferson Avenue next to the Christian Science Reading Room and will pay homage not only to Steck but to 20th-century education.
Two-dimensional figures of a teacher and four students, designed by Olson's wife, Shirley, will be placed inside the schoolhouse, along with slatelike panels etched with quotations from other Naperville educators.
Steck's version of the golden rule will be engraved over the north and south thresholds of the piece.
"The idea of focusing on the golden rule clicked with me because, for the last year or two, I have become very sensitive to it," said Olson, a member of the Christian Science Church.
"It seems to have been lost.
There is always an opportunity to remind us whether we are living up to that and if we consider it important.
I think it is absolutely essential.
I really believe our society is in dire need.
Something like this crosses entire lines."
Steck started teaching in 1914 at Crosier School, a one-room schoolhouse on North Aurora Road where she taught six pupils.
In those days, school ran from Sept. 1 to Christmas and March 1 through June. Schools closed during January and February to accommodate local farmers who found it difficult to get their children to school in the winter.
Each morning, the young teacher boarded a milk train at the Eola station and headed to work, getting off at North Aurora Road. She continued the rest of her commute on foot, reaching the schoolhouse before her pupils so she could start a fire in the potbellied stove.
In 1918, she married Leslie Steck and moved to his farm on Plainfield Road. She planned to retire from teaching and devote herself to being a farmer's wife.
But educators were scarce during World War I, and in the waning days of that same summer the Springbrook School on Plainfield Road still didn't have a teacher.
Steck agreed to teach at the little schoolhouse until a permanent replacement was found.
She ended up staying 13 years.
Most days, her husband drove her to school in his car.
When he couldn't, she got there by horse and buggy.
She learned to drive in 1931 when she transferred to a new school built in Eola. During the height of the Depression, she introduced a hot-lunch program there and organized a clearing-house for food and clothes for the needy.
She befriended her students, inviting them to her farm for picnics.
She paid for many of her classroom supplies out of her own pocket.
Steck finished her career in the 1960s at Weisbrook School, north of Butterfield Road. She died in 1979.
Pat Springer, administrator of the Century Walk, said Steck's teachings inspired programs on respect that are part of the Naperville school curriculum today.
"She talked about respect all those years ago," Springer said.
"We wanted to highlight that in one of our Century Walk projects."
Custom Welding of Naperville is prefabricating the sculpture, which should be put in place in the fall.
The school bell that will hang in the cupola was donated by former North Central College President Arlo Schilling a week before his death in December.
The bell, which had hung in an old schoolhouse in Indiana, had been in Schilling's family for generations.
Brand Bobosky, chairman of the Century Walk board, said the schoolhouse will be an interactive work of art representing the history of education in Naperville.
"We will be able to pay tribute to education from the one-room schoolhouse of Reba Steck on through collegial education at North Central College and Arlo Schilling, and recognize several of the guiding forces in the rapidly changing educational scene here in the last century," he said.
<BR>• Information on Reba Steck was taken from "A View of Historic Naperville" by the late Sun columnist Genevieve Towsley.
WORDS OF WISDOM Other quotes from Naperville educators that will be part of the schoolhouse sculpture include:
<BR>• "May education never become as expensive as ignorance." Dr. Arlo L. Schilling, president of North Central College, 1960-1975.
<BR>• "Stay at school and don't be ashamed that you want to learn more." J.L. Nichols, from his book "The Business Guide of 1886."
<BR>• "Future developments will require that (we) re-examine the role of public education in our society." Dr. John Fields, District 203 Superintendent, 1970-1984.
<BR>• "Teachers must have a loving spirit and teach each child equally, regardless of heritage." Kathryn Frey Holler, Elementary District 72 teacher, 1931-1974.
AT A GLANCE Other Century Walk artworks include:
<BR>• "A City in Transit," at Washington Street and Chicago Avenue.
<BR>• "Genevieve," in front of Barnes & Noble on Chicago Avenue and Washington Street.
<BR>• "River Reveries," on Jackson Avenue, east of Webster Street.
<BR>• "Naperville," on Jackson Avenue and Webster Street.
<BR>• "Reading Children," outside Nichols Library, Jackson Avenue and Eagle Street.
<BR>• "Man's Search for Knowledge Through the Ages," at Webster Street and Jefferson Avenue.
<BR>• "River of Life," on Jefferson Avenue on the side of Anderson's Bookshop.
<BR>• "Heartland Harvest," on Main Street and Jefferson Avenue.
<BR>• "The Printed Word," at Van Buren Avenue and Main Street.
<BR>• "Naperville's Own," on Washington Street at Jefferson Avenue.
<BR>• "Growth and Change," on Jefferson Avenue at the Jefferson Hill Shops.
Rosales Fermin, left, and Justin Smith of Custom Welding erect the bell tower on the Century Walk schoolhouse sculpture. The sculpture, designed by architect George Olson and his wife, Shirley, will honor Naperville educators, in particular teacher Reba Steck. When completed, it will be located on Jefferson Avenue next to the Christian Science Reading Room. -- A sketch of the Century Walk one-room schoolhouse sculpture includes metal figures of a teacher and her students.