Aren't public memorials supposed to be permanent? Not in Chicago.

July 6, 2011

The purpose of a public memorial is to let a later generation know that someone was important enough to remember. Memorials are supposed to be permanent and unchanging.  

Not in Chicago, pal.

For one example, let’s look at a particular public school.

In 1896 the Chicago Board of Education opened a new grade school at Central Park and Armitage in the fast-growing Logan Square community. Many of the neighborhood people were German. The Board named the school after Otto von Bismarck, the first prime minister of a united Germany.

Bismarck School educated young Chicagoans for two decades. Then, in April 1917, the United States went to war against Germany in World War I.

Remember a few years ago, when some zealots were angry at France, and started calling French fries “freedom fries?” That sort of thing happened in 1917. German measles became “European measles.” Sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage.” The noble dachshund became the “liberty pup.”

Bismarck was the symbol of Prussian militarism. He wasn’t a good German like Goethe, or Beethoven, or Humboldt. Therefore, his name had to come off his school.

General Frederick Funston had recently died. He’d been a hero in the Philippines conflict and in the San Francisco earthquake. If he had lived, Funston probably would have led the American Expeditionary Force in the new war. He was the logical person to honor.

It wasn’t that easy. Some members of the school board thought the re-naming business was silly. The matter dragged on for a year. Finally, on May 1, 1918, Bismarck School was officially changed to Funston School. The name remains Funston 93 years later.

And 93 years later, perspectives have shifted. Some historians have re-examined Funston’s career and concluded he wasn’t such a sterling character. And compared to Hitler, Bismarck no longer seems so scary.

I don’t think Funston School should go back to being Bismarck. But I do have a plan that would address changing historical fashions, and also help school finances.

The Board of Education should sell naming rights to its schools.

Think of all the money that could be raised from corporations, or advocacy groups, or political candidates! And as a tribute to a departed loved one, a public school building is more accessible than a lunar crater or a star. Then, after 20 years or so, the Board could auction off the name again, and raise more money.

It worked for Northwestern U. and Ryan Field.