Jul 29, 2014

A Major Gift from Mr. Fish

A random fish story at a bar turns into heartwarming memory of a fifth grade teacher at Lake Bluff School.

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So I thought I was so up on Shorewood news. Well, I had my fish handed to me on a platter this week when Ann Furlong and two of her former students from the Class of ’82 were busy collating newsletters for me at the Village Pub.

Now you really know this is a small town. You walk into a bar with a box of collating and labeling to do for a school-related thing; the ladies at the next table grab stacks while they enjoy their post-softball pitcher of another sort; the really familiar-looking one turns out to be your committee-mate’s second-grade teacher, who also remembers you and most of the people you knew, including the detail that you didn’t start with the other kids until third grade when you transferred in; and that fact causes a brief hush at the table, even 10 (ok more than 10) years later.

It is from that lovely Monday evening this week, with papers flying and Furlong suggesting it, that this story came up.

“Why don’t you write a story about Mr. Fish’s Gift,” she queried.

“What gift?” I asked? “You don’t know, Jenny?” she exclaimed, “He donated $75,000."

So, Mr. Fish. Mr. Alvin Fish, my fifth grade teacher who retired some years ago, gave the school a $72,000 annuity in February of 2011, and then died shortly thereafter. 

According to his longtime colleague, Jayne Perkins, music teacher at Lake Bluff School, Mr. Fish ate in the teachers lounge every day for lunch. He enjoyed playing bridge, and sat at the same table with a foursome. He was an avid tennis player, showing up in the Milwaukee Journal in the 70’s for being the lone player out on the courts across from what is now Alterra on the Lake, clearing off the snow in the dead of winter to play.

Perkins was 22-years-old when she started teaching at Lake Bluff, and Mr. Fish had been teaching there a while.

“He was so devoted to the school,” she said. And last year, “It didn’t surprise me one bit when I heard he’d made this gift.” 

Mr. Fish was a loyal and dedicated man to Lake Bluff School. He never married and never had children of his own.

I had a nervous year and was not very nice to Mr. Fish, although I remember he was quite calm about all that. In writing this story, I have hung my head, as the times I got most in trouble were in his class.

I cleaned a lot of erasers for him.

Mr. Fish used to call me the “note writer.” He had some very odd quirks for a precocious/obnoxious fifth grader to notice, that I will never forget. He had a metal Land of the Lost lunchbox, and in it, a chunk of bulk chocolate in plastic and a little knife. During reading or some work we were to be doing without speaking, he would sit at his desk and cut pieces off and eat them. What is really strange is that even though I moved away and am back with a house here, I just stood up from my desk, turned 180 degrees, lifted the lid off an old bin marked “Photos – Jenny – Random” and picked out five from the same instamatic camera I got on the last day of fifth grade. So, I have a picture of him. The school has few records of him. The business office didn’t know he was an employee when they got the funds. Yet, here he is, in a shadow, at his desk, in his wool jacket, on the last day of school.

Then there was the constant debate about his car, a station wagon that was on full view especially due to errant kickballs hitting the parking lot in the old arrangement. It seemed that it was actually inhabited by at least one person, maybe two.

We used to catch him washing his hair in the sink, but now I get a catch in my throat. He was saving it for us. He was saving it for the school, for the educational system he believed in. And he gave it all to Lake Bluff School.

Kirk Juffer, Lake Bluff School Principal, reflected that they are using the money to make a lasting and , which will have a dedication to Mr. Fish when it is complete.

They have also purchased smart boards and document cameras with some of the "Mr. Fish Money," as it is called.

Thank you, Mr. Fish, for your infinite patience with me, with us all, and for your devotion to education.

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