Mr. Biester: ‘Chuck It Over by the Lake’

The History of Woodchucks: Who, When, and Why

Found in 1954 yearbook. Caption by student: “Second childhood, anyone? I wonder if my hair is all right? Anyone lost? Where did the wood come from …. York?”

Every Friday before Homecoming, selected seniors construct a bonfire of wooden palettes and then slather it in spray paint, representing their graduating class through goofy, sloppy and, yet, still beautiful art. Following the annual pep rally after school, students are motioned down to the track around Duchon to observe the bonfire set ablaze. But, why is this a tradition at our school? Who were the first woodchucks – and why does it occur the eve of Homecoming every fall?

English teacher Mr. Wiersum recently published a book, Glenbard West High School History. Inside, details disclosing the history of all things Hilltoppers includes information on this amazing tradition.  Recent additional research, including a spontaneous interview on Pennsylvania Ave., demonstrated to Mr. Wiersum and I that this fiery tradition traces back much farther than initially believed. Originally, evidence pointed towards the 1970s to be the birth decade of the Woodchucks, which would put Principal Dr. Elliott accountable. However, GBW yearbooks from 1956 and 1954 both included photographs of bonfires reaching heights much taller than any I’ve seen at West. This discovery pushed the responsibility back in time and into the hands of Mr. Fred L. Biester himself, Principal from 1918-1957.

Rather than the beige tiles we currently walk over, maple planks once lined the floors within the “Halls of Ivy” at Glenbard West. Fire safety regulations sparked Mr. Biester to order the removal of the wooden floors inside our school. During that unidentified summer, seniors stripped the halls and classrooms of the maple flooring and followed direction to “chuck them over by the lake,” thus the Woodchucks were born. This pile of broken wooden flooring was burned that fall in the first ever Homecoming bonfire.

Since then, the Woodchuck ritual has remained strong. Glenbard West oozes tradition at the edges, fostering an environment like no other. Mr. Wiersum commented, “That in any family system, you want to have those traditions that create bonding experiences.” He went on to explain that was why we blow the candles out at birthday parties, eat cake to celebrate anniversaries, and invite every cousin we can to special religious holidays. “So in a way, it’s a family ritual at Glenbard West,” he continued. “It makes us unique, and gives us a sense of belonging, so I think it’s really a sense of connectedness that’s so important.”

Glenbard West truly is one big, happy family: today’s students and yesterday’s. On the day of homecoming, I ran into Gail Kimen, a Glenbard West alumn from the graduating class of 1957, on Pennsylvania Ave. Celebrating her 60th high school reunion reminded Ms. Kimen of her own experience as a Woodchuck. Reflecting back on the amazing tradition, Ms. Kimen commented that she loved building the bonfire next to the lake. A yearbook from her senior year included a blurb about the events leading up to the dance. A 1957 student wrote: “On Friday night, the annual torchlight parade winded its way through the downtown area, around the lake, and finally up to the huge pile of wood which the G-Club members had been gathering together all during the day. After the bonfire had been started, it blazed and crackled while the cheerleaders led a rousing pep session and began the snake dance.” Back then, G-Club served a similar purpose to today’s Castle Crazies.

“It was a really fun night, and we went straight to a party at the boathouse,” Ms. Kimen continued to explain. Every Friday, students would swarm the Lake Ellyn boathouse for the Friday night social. Despite that tradition becoming lost, the castle has otherwise remained very similar to when Ms. Kimen walked the halls as a student herself.

As we talked outside of J&R about her experience as a woodchuck, another 1957 alumn reflected back on when York apparently lit the bonfire early as a prank on the eve of a game between the Dukes and Hitters. Ms. Kimen became a Hilltopper her sophomore year and was not a student when it happened, but this incident surely explains our everlasting rivalry. (Our shade of green is better, for the record!)

Watch the video above for an inside look at the creation of the bonfire. I would also like to emphasize the following: apply to be a Woodchuck your senior year! To have poured a little piece of myself into the rich line of tradition at Glenbard West was the icing on the cake for my final homecoming. No matter what year you are, relish in every single moment the castle provides. Who knows? Maybe 60 years from now you will be walking down the “Halls of Ivy,” answering interview questions for a 2077 senior newspaper writer. What will you tell them?