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Looking Back: Millie Proegler, beloved school principal

January 13, 2019

When Franklin School on Kankakee’s North Side was renamed Millie Proegler School on Aug. 23, 1981, it represented a number of “firsts.”

It was the first time a Kankakee school was named for a teacher or principal, the first for a woman and the first for a Kankakee resident.

It also was long overdue: A proposal to rename the school had been made shortly after her death on June 2, 1953, but failed on a tie vote by the Kankakee School District 111 Board of Education. About 28 years later, the board, once again, considered the name change. This time, the “yea” vote was unanimous.

So, who was Millie Proegler, and why was she honored by the name change?

Born in Chicago on June 3, 1890, she came to Kankakee as a small child and attended Kankakee schools, graduating from Kankakee High in 1908. After preparing for a career in the classroom, she began teaching in one-room schools near Aroma Park. In about 1917, she became principal of the Baker School east of Kankakee. (The small wood-frame schoolhouse was located on Eastridge Drive just south of Court Street. The building no longer exists, but its old school bell is displayed in the Column Garden outside the Kankakee County Museum.)

After 11 years of serving as principal at Baker School, she began a quarter century of service in Kankakee School District 111. The entire period, from 1928 to 1953, was spent at Franklin School, where she was a classroom teacher for seven years, then principal for 18.

When she began teaching there, Franklin School was a collection of structures that had grown throughout the years on the northeast corner of Mulberry Street and Chicago Avenue. The original four-room wooden building had been erected in 1892 at 520 S. Wildwood Ave., then moved to the Chicago Avenue site in 1897. (It was replaced on Wildwood by the original Steuben School.) A two-story wooden addition increased Franklin’s capacity in 1907; it was expanded again with a stone addition in 1923. By that year, classes also were being taught in an adjoining building.

Franklin School drew its students from the north and northeastern sections of the city. Kankakee historian Vic Johnson, who was a student at Franklin in the early 1940s, recalled that it “served a district populated by whites and blacks of the ‘blue-collar class.’ ... The majority of us were the first- and second-generation descendants of immigrants — Poles, Italians, Irish, Germans, Scandinavians, Greeks, an aggregation of Eastern European nationalities and African-Americans … who had been drawn to Kankakee’s north side by jobs created during the early decades of the twentieth century.”

In an era when African-Americans were widely discriminated against and treated as second-class citizens, Proegler refused to make distinctions based on the color of her students’ skin. One of her African-American students was Frank Love, who grew up to serve for a dozen years on the Kankakee School District 111 board.

“She always fought for us,” he recalled in a 2012 interview. “If the school district wanted to give us second-hand books, she always stood up and said, ‘No.’”

During difficult economic times, she often spent money out of her own pocket to make sure students and their families had food and other necessities (such as the ton of coal she had delivered to heat the home of a needy family with 11 children one winter). She also tried to expose her students to a wider world, taking them on field trips to museums and other sites in Chicago.

An avid sports fan, she regularly attended Kankakee High School athletic events and always was a fixture at Franklin School basketball games (for at least one season, she purchased athletic shoes for the entire team). In the late 1940s, Franklin won the championship of the city elementary school basketball tournament, but wasn’t awarded the championship trophy; it went, instead, to the all-white Steuben School team. Proegler was outraged, and demanded her boys be given a trophy.

Joe Bellephant, a member of the team (and later a coach in Kankakee schools), recalled, “I’ve never seen anything like it — a white woman yelling at a white man for us.”

In 1950, a dream came true for Proegler when a new, modern building replaced the outmoded Franklin School. She would enjoy the new building for only a few short years, however. On the morning of June 2, 1953 — the last day of the school year — she was rushed to St. Mary’s Hospital. She died in the emergency room at 7:40 a.m.

Her front-page obituary in the Daily Journal quoted a school district official who said she was “a steady, reliable teacher with a great, sympathetic understanding for her students.” Years later, at the school’s renaming ceremony, a former student described Proegler more succinctly: “Everybody loved her. She was an angel in disguise,” recalled James “Bubba” Cox.

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