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Return to Grace Gym for 'Bells' game will be emotional
By Bob Frisk | Daily Herald Columnist

Wally 'Pappy' Grace

 

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Published: 11/28/2008 12:00 AM

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I am a very emotional person.

I may not show it on the outside, but I feel it on the inside.

You should have seen me in June when the Daily Herald gave me a wonderful daylong celebration for my 50th anniversary, a rare milestone in any business.

Now it starts all over again.

The next two weeks should be the ultimate test of that emotion, and I have to prepare myself. It's not going to be easy. I can't lose control.

Retirement is tough enough. Yes, I have resolved that decision in my mind, but that doesn't mean it wasn't very difficult. You don't walk away from a company after 50 years without experiencing some extreme anxiety over what you're doing.

However, before I walk out the Herald door and have my phone, computer and security badge shut down, I have a fascinating nostalgia trip to take, a trip that should bring every emotion to the surface.

I'm going back to The Bird Cage.

The "Sleigh Bells" game lives again.

The legendary gym at the old Arlington High School, now Christian Liberty Academy, will be open for business Saturday night, Dec. 6, when two Mid-Suburban League teams meet there in boys basketball for the first time in 24 years.

The fact that they're reviving - to a degree - the old "Sleigh Bells" game and doing it in my honor will be the real test of my emotions.

In a way, this game on Dec. 6 will be played by teenagers from Buffalo Grove and Palatine but enjoyed the most by those of us who either are senior citizens or closing in on that milestone.

We're the ones who can recall what it was like to be a part of standing-room-only crowds in that Arlington gym at sectional tournament time.

We're the ones who witnessed the drama of those "Sleigh Bells" games between Arlington and Palatine, an annual trophy battle that was initiated in 1943-44 by the Arlington Dad's Club to put some "spark" into the Arlington Cardinals, who had lost 10 straight to Palatine's Pirates.

The "Sleigh Bells" games became major sports events that were at their peak when played annually before overflow crowds on Thanksgiving Eve. Even college students didn't want to miss the spectacle. It was the place to be seen in your new college colors or wearing your new fraternity or sorority pins.

However, the game I remember most was in my senior year at Arlington. Palatine's Al Eck scored the winning basket in the final five seconds for a 61-59 victory.

Arlington had just tied the game at 59-59 with 10 seconds left when Denny Maher slipped by the Pirates' defense for a layup and was fouled. The gym was rocking. Everybody was standing.

After Maher made the free throw, Eck dribbled the length of the court (nice defense) to score just before the buzzer sounded. That ended Arlington's streak of 10 straight "Sleigh Bells" victories.

I always kidded Al, who died in 2002, that I was still very bitter about that crushing loss.

Was I really kidding?

I obviously have a special fondness for this old Arlington structure that is called Grace Gym in honor of Wally "Pappy" Grace, who helped design the gym and was a legend in these parts as a coach and athletic director at the school. It was dedicated in his name on Feb. 17, 1967.

Mr. Grace, who lived into his 90s, was one of the dearest men I have ever known, and I will be thinking about him on Dec. 6 when I return to that gymnasium.

The construction of the gym began in January 1950, five months after I entered Arlington High School.

As students, we were very proud of that structure, which, the Board of Education emphasized, was going to be well ahead of its time.

They were right.

The multipurpose auditorium, which was dedicated during my sophomore year on Feb. 15, 1952 when Arlington played Hinsdale, could accommodate 4,000 spectators at a game with its 58 rows of bleachers and 10 rows of permanent seats. An additional 1,000 to 2,000 folding seats could be placed on the gym floor for concerts and other events.

Each of the two balconies provided an area approximately 81 by 25 feet for gymnastics and special gym classes and activities.

Overflow crowds - and there were many - usually ended up on the stage, and we hoped the local fire officials looked the other way. Parking became a serious problem, and the neighborhoods were lined with cars.

This classic gym, our own Bird Cage because of the Arlington Cardinals nickname, even appealed to Hollywood and was used in scenes in the 1985 movie "Lucas."

Yes, I know I probably get too caught up in a longing for and writing about the past.

Yes, I know we senior citizens always think our high school days were better than today.

Please, let us enjoy our memories.

Of course I am going to be choked up when I return to Grace Gym on Saturday night, Dec. 6, and it will be impossible to check my emotions at the door. They'll enter with me.

Bob, take some deep breaths.