September 20, 2012
Dr. Harold Banser, the first superintendent of Adlai E. Stevenson High School District 125, died Tuesday in Peru, Illinois at the age of 84.
UPDATE 9/21/12: Visitation will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday, September 28 at St. John Lutheran Church, 2000 Luther Drive, in Peru, Illinois. The funeral will take place in the church at 10 a.m. Saturday, September 29.
Banser served as superintendent from the district’s creation in 1965 until 1976, and his three daughters graduated from Stevenson: Nancy (Class of 1970), Michele (1972) and Kim (1977). He was honored with the district’s Heritage Award during the 1997-98 school year.
The Aurora native spoke the most famous phrase in school history at Stevenson’s official dedication in November 1965, remarking that the school was "born of a conflict, nurtured by adversity, and destined for greatness." His words are featured prominently inside the school’s main entrance.
Conflict was an apt term for the circumstances that led to Banser taking the reins of District 125. In 1964, residents of the Ela-Vernon school district voted to build a second high school, in Prairie View, which would serve children in the eastern part of the district. (Ela-Vernon High School in Lake Zurich served the western part.) Banser, who was an assistant superintendent for Ela-Vernon at the time, was scheduled to oversee the new school and was expected to be the eventual successor to Ela-Vernon Superintendent H.L. "Wes" Wesner.
However, long-simmering tensions within the district overflowed and led Lake Zurich-area taxpayers in June 1965 to create their own school district, now known as Lake Zurich District 95. The move, which occurred less than three months before the new school was to open, left residents in the eastern portion of the former Ela-Vernon district with an unfinished and unnamed building, no school board or administration, and no teachers.
Several people who had been serving on the Ela-Vernon school board but lived outside its revamped boundaries were voted onto the newly created District 125 Board of Education. One of them, Dan Schuffman, was instrumental in bringing Banser over.
"He became president of the Stevenson board, and was one of the main reasons why I decided to come over," Banser said in an interview for the Minuteman magazine in 1997. "The (new) board convinced me it was going to be a great opportunity. They saw an opportunity to create something new and vital."
Banser faced a great challenge in hiring staff, developing curriculum and having materials ready in less than three months. The process was far from smooth: On opening day in 1965, for example, some classrooms had no desks because the furniture had been shipped mistakenly to Prairie View, Texas.
Years ago, retired SHS teacher Dave Hanson wrote a brief, informal history of Stevenson, The Palace on the Prairie, which among other things outlined some of the initiatives that were implemented during Banser’s tenure. Among them were oral exams for graduating seniors; a four-day school week featuring a modular schedule of 72-minute class periods; and "Freshman Studies," a cooperative curriculum in which teachers from different academic departments worked in tandem with a cadre of ninth-grade students (similar in concept to SAIL – the Stevenson Academy for Integrated Learning — which existed briefly in the late 1990s).
Banser’s tenure was cut short in 1976 when he was ousted by the school board in a controversial move that led one local newspaper to run an editorial cartoon showing a knife sticking in his back. He bounced back quickly, becoming superintendent of the LaSalle Elementary Schools in 1977 and remaining in that post until his retirement in 1992. After retirement, Banser served as executive director of the LaSalle district’s educational foundation. He continued to live in the LaSalle-Peru area for the remainder of his life.
"I’m still very proud of my years at Stevenson, and I’m also proud of what I accomplished in LaSalle," Banser said in the 1997 interview. "It’s satisfying to see how well Stevenson has done."