Chicago West Division/McKinley H.S. “Comets”

Chicago McKinley High School
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                 The History of Chicago West Division/McKinley High School

Chicago (population 2.8 million) is in northeastern Illinois along the shores of Lake Michigan. Without question, the third largest city in the United States has been described as a melting pot of all cultures, showing great diversity to the number of cultures and religions that are in the city.

Lake Michigan, along with the Chicago and Des Plaines Rivers are the main waterways in the city. Interstates 55, 57, 90, & 94 will all lead you to the “Windy City.” Railroads and water transportation were two reasons why Chicago was one of the fastest growing cities in the country during the 19th Century.

West Division High School opened its doors in 1875 to relieve the overcrowded conditions at Chicago Central High School, taking only freshmen and sophomores at the time. By 1882, West Division became a four-year school along with North Division and South Division as Central closed.

When West Division first opened, it was primarily housed at Skinner Grade School, located at the corner of Aberdeen & Jackson as a two-year program. Other students were located at Scammon School at Monroe & Halsted to ease congestion. Two years later, a new building (built at the cost of $38,000) was ready at the corner of Morgan & Monroe as it prepared for a four-year course, but the 15 classrooms with steam heat and capacity for 945 students was outdated by 1887.

So West Division again was on the move, this time to Ogden & Congress for a newer facility. The five-story structure (below, left)  had 24 classrooms for up to 1,150 students and an assembly hall with a stage located on the top floor. A gym was added onto the building in 1897.

West Division Temporary Home 1901-04
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courtesy of Marjorie Warvelle Bear’s “A Mile Square of Chicago”
West Divsion High School Building 1887-1901
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courtesy of Marjorie Warvelle Bear’s “A Mile Square of Chicago”

This home only lasted 14 years until the school moved again to a former street car barn at Flournoy & Western (above, right). The Ogden location was sold to the College of Physicians & Surgeons, which later became part of the University of Illinois.

The fifth and final move was completed in 1904 as a new location was prepared, this one at Hoyne & Adams (top of page). The school name was changed to McKinley in 1904 in honor of the late US President William McKinley and it stayed that way thru its closing in 1954. Students were moved to Crane Technical High School while the building became McKinley Upper Grade Center.

Andrew Patner provided the following information on the location of McKinley High School:

“The school was located in the 2000 block of West Adams Street between Seeley and Hoyne Avenues. The building still stands and in good condition as NIA/Foundations Middle School, still a part of the Chicago Public School system.”

Famous Student

From a fan of the site, Dennis W.:

“Walt Disney attended McKinley High for a short time (1917-18) and was a cartoonist on the school newspaper, before dropping out when he was 16 to join the Army. Because he was too young, the Army did not accept him, so he joined the Red Cross.”


Year opened (as two-yr school):         1875

Year it became four-yr school:            1882

Year name changed to McKinley:       1904

Year closed:                                         1954

School colors:                                     Orange & Black

School nickname:                                the “Irvings” (W. Division)

the “Comets” (McKinley)

School magazine:                               “The Voice”

School song:                                       “Alma Mater”

written by William Schuessler


West Division and McKinley offered a number of sports to its students, such as track, football, girls’ basketball, softball, tennis, and baseball. The school was a charter member of the Cook County League in 1889 along with Hyde Park, Manual Training, Lake View, and Englewood, then helped form the Chicago Public League in 1913.


The school excelled on the tracks and brought home fame and two individual state titles, not to mention some medals back to the trophy case from the IHSA state meet in Champaign-Urbana. Here’s a look at the highlights:

1900 Tied for 8th place at State Finals


1   Biggsville                                33

8   Chicago West Division            5

8   Pontiac                                     5

8   DuQuoin HS                             5

Individual Medalist

           Harry Halleck           180-yd hurdles—STATE CHAMP!!! (time :21 4/5)

                                           220-yd hurdles—2nd place

As McKinley

1907   Tied for 8th in State  


1  Oak Park-River Forest          18

8  Greenfield                              5

8  Normal Community               5

8  Joliet Township                      5

8  Chicago McKinley                 5

8  Moline HS                              5

8  Chicago Phillips                     5

          Individual Placer

            William Timblin       880-yd run—STATE CHAMP!!! (time 2:02 2/5)

1922B   Cornelius Ewert       High Jump—2nd place
1923B   Cornelius Ewert       High Jump—4th place


Both West Division and McKinley did battle with other schools in the Chicagoland area while the school was open. The school won the Cook County League title in 1890, which was the second season of league play.

One mark that the school would rather soon forget about is that future University of Chicago gridiron star Walter Eckersall racked up six point-after touchdowns versus West Division in 1902 while Eckersall was playing at Hyde Park on Chicago’s South Side.

Prep historian Tom Sikorski was able to find some history on the Comet football program, which competed from 1928 through 1940 before dropping the sport.

1928  0-5                                           Coach unknown

1929  0-4                                           Coach unknown

1930  0-6-1                                        Coach unknown

1931  1-7-1                                        Coach Sam Nowinson

1932  2-4-1                                        Coach unknown

1933  2-5                                           Coach unknown

1934  1-3-2                                        Coach unknown

1935  3-2-1                                        Coach unknown

1936  0-5-1                                        Coach unknown

1937  0-5                                           Coach unknown

1938  1-5                                           Coach unknown

1939  1-7-1                                        Coach unknown

1940  0-9    (last team)                      Coach unknown


West Division competed in the sport as early as 1894, according to IHSA historian Robert Pruter. The school competed in the Cook County high School Lawn Tennis Association Tournament that season, but did not place anyone high enough for an outstanding finish.


The school was the first to adopt the sport with the boys and girls in Chicago during the 1890’s, as the boys played three amateur teams as well as Manual Training in the winter of 1891-92. The first game on record between two high schools saw Manual beat West Division 20-8 on November 21st, 1891.

In 1895, not only did the girls form a team, but the Cook County League to began offering league play for boys, and West Division was the league champ in 1901. McKinley kept playing even as their name was changed from West Division in 1904 and even had a couple of games played outdoors (when the sport was an indoor event with thin bats and 14-17″ balls). McKinley was the league champion in 1906-07.


The first-known meet of more than three schools was held in November 1907 with McKinley, Northwest DivisionMedill, Crane, Austin, and Oak Park competing in a meet on the West Side of Chicago. McKinley competed in the fall of 1908, and was joined by Lake (now Tilden) in the fall of 1909.


The West Division girls were a charter member of the Cook County League in 1900, and later were joined in the league by Jefferson (now Schurz), Lake, Medill, and South Chicago (now Bowen).

Even though the boys did not win any league titles, they were a charter member of the Cook County League’s boys basketball league play in 1901-02. We were able to find the following record for them, thanks to a yearbook submission:

1928    9-9                                                          Coach Sam Nowinson


West Division fielded a team in 1890 in the Cook County League along with Manual TrainingHarvard, and South Division. One player went on to play in the major leagues as Herb Juul appeared in one game with the 1911 Cincinnati Reds, following a collegiate career at the University of Illinois.

West Division won back-to-back league titles in 1900 & 1901, then added a third in 1904. McKinley won the Cook County League championship in 1907 after the name change from West Division.


Charles Gordon, Class of 1952, tells us:

“We played Soccer in the Chicago Public league. I was on the team in 1950-1951. Some of the teams we played were Marshall, Crane, Lane, Tilden, and Von Steuben. We also played Oak Park HS.”


Both West Division and McKinley were the home of the Washington Irving Society, known for its debates, literary programs, and social hour gatherings. This was a carryover from Chicago Central High School, and continued until the school closed for good in 1954, as did the school magazine, The Voice.

West Division was host to a sorority chapter of Alpha Psi, which was formed in 1894. Speaking of female students, Girls Athletic Association (GAA) was also available to McKinley students.

Another club similar to the Washington Irving Society at the school was The Junto Club (named after Benjamin Franklin’s Junto Society). The small (15 members maximum) group began in 1898 to demonstrate their literary and forensic abilities like its counterparts thru essays, debates, and orations.

Students appearing at a McKinley operetta (c.1930)
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Courtesy of Valerie Speciale & Deborah Gothard
1915 McKinley High School graduating class
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courtesy of Tom McKeever
1940 McKinley High diploma for Pat Auriemmo

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courtesy of Winnie Pastore


**From Diane Callahan Mastny:

“My mother, Kathryn Beckerley Callahan, attended McKinley High School, graduating in the Class of 1936. (She died in 2001.) My mother remained friends with her high school girlfriends throughout her entire life, and during my childhood, gatherings of “the McKinley Club” were a regular event at our home, and at the homes of the other members. Thanks for the memories!”

**From Charles Gordon (Class of 1952):

“I was in the class of Jan. 1952. A few items: We played Soccer in the Chicago Public league. I was on the team in 1950-1951. Some of the teams we played were Marshall, Crane, Lane, Tilden, and Von Steuben we also played Oak Park Hs. I played “outside Left” or left winger. I also played on the 1950 baseball team.

Basketball: Leon Hillard, Class of 1951, played with the Harlem Globetrotters signing with them in 1951.

Our School song “Alma Mater” written by William Schuessler

All I can remember is “Alma Mater, Alma Mater, God shed his grace on thee…school we love McKinley…”

From Judith Velazquez Berg (class of 1943):

“Browsing online to find information about my old high school, hoping to find a picture. I found an interesting story abbout McKinley High. The class of June 1943 will be holding their 70th class reunion in September (2013). I would like to reprint this history for our 15 alums that will be in attendance and praying that by September, there will still be 15 of us.

“By the way, our class president and vice-president will be attending. Our class president, who is on a short trip right now, will be able to write some history about our class and after the reunion, we may be able to add to it. Judith Velazquez Berg; If you respond, please put McKinley on your subject line, thanks.”

from Emily Guziak:

“Hi, I can tell you that my great grandmother, Helen Diana Wilcox, graduated from this school in 1886 and went on to Wilson College for two years and the Chicago Art Institute. She taught school for “a short time beyond the southern city limit,” according to family information I have. I believe she lived at 245 W. Adams St. She married in 1893, living in Chicago until moving to Wilmette in 1907. She died in 1966 in Wilmette. I was 10 years old then, and have memories of her being well spoken and intelligent until her death.”


Eminent architect, James Gamble Rogers lived at 1524 W. Van Buren with his parents and 4 brothers and 1 sister. He graduated from West Division High School in 1885 and went on to Yale and eventually received his architectural training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He designed too many buildings to list, but a few include many of the buildings on the current campus of Yale University, the School of Education at the University of Chicago, many of the earliest homes along Dover and Winthrop in Sheridan Park, Dyche Stadium, the Deering Library, and many other signature buildings on Northwestern University’s Evanston and Chicago campuses, Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, New York Presbyterian Hospital, etc. (submitted by Daniel R. Layman)

–Finley Peter Dunne (class of 1884)–Chicago newspaperman of the late 19th century, and editor of Collier’s Weekly. Dunne was also known for a series of essays named after Mr. Dooley, who traveled around the world for 20 years with human and humorous exploits.

Mary Barthelme (class of 1882)–judge and philanthopist who spoke for the rights of delinqunent and impovished children.

Milton Agar (class of 1910)–songwriter that wrote the song “Happy Days Are Here Again” with Jack Yellen for the 1930 film Chasing Rainbows. He also wrote “Lovin’ Sam,” “Auf Wiedersehn, My Dear,” and “If I Didn’t Care.”

George Petty (class of 1912)–artist known for drawing the “Petty Girl” images used found in calendars, magazines, and advertising.

Samson Raphaelson (class of 1914)–screenwright/playwright that wrote The Jazz Singer, Lady in Ermine, Trouble in Paradise, Heaven Can Wait, and Hilda Crane.

–George Sonny Cohn—famed jazz trumpeter.

Henry Horner—became governor of Illinois from 1933-40.

–Eldee Young—jazz bassist who played in the Ramsey Lewis Trio and then the Young-Holt Trio (later changed to Young-Holt Unlimited), making many albums for Chess Records and Brunswick Records. Recorded the instrumental “Soulful Strut” in 1968, which peaked at #3 on the top 100 list, and was designated as a Gold Record three months after its release.

Walter King Fleming – famed jazz pianist, made several albums for Chess records.

–Studs Terkel— author, television and radio personality.

Charles Dvorak–Two-time Olympian in the pole vault (did not place in 1900, gold medalist in 1904).

Karla Vopat-Sullivan–Professional oratrix that graduated from McKinley in 1905.

Harry Fairfield–At the time of the school’s closing in 1954, he attained the high honors ever awarded to a student. Mr. Fairfield later graduated from Northern Illinois Teacher’s College (now Northern Illinois University) and was a principal at a school in Rolling Meadows when he passed away in 1958, and was a member of the football team as well a member of the band at McKinley.


William Morton Payne—Graduate of Chicago Central High School, Payne was on staff teaching economics, government, and history. He also was an literary editor and lectured on English literature at universities in the Midwest. Payne passed away in 1909.

Lucy Lamb Wilson—History teacher for 40 years until her death in May 1925.

George Clayburg–Principal of both West Division and McKinley, retired in 1925.

George A. Powles–English teacher for 37 years, retired in 1927, had two generations of daughters and students, never was tardy or absent a day as a teacher.


about the history of West Division/McKinley High School. Facts and figures are fun to read about, but we also accept photos of the school, teams, or key individuals, and memories are great, too. Please email your information to or send it to us at:


6439 North Neva

Chicago, IL  60631

Chicago McKinley HS 1932 Graduation Booklet
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Submitted by Marc Anzuini
Chicago McKinley HS Grad Ceremony 1932
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Chicago McKinley HS 1932 Graduation Ceremony
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Chicago McKinley HS Graduation Pledge 1932
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Chicagso McKinley HS Grads Honor Roll 1932
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Chicago McKinley HS Graduates A – M 1932
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Chicago McKinley HS 1932 Grads M – Z
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