I just read the Tribune article this morning that the Chicago’s own South Shore Drill Team will march at President Obama inauguration parade next month. Now I’m sure many of you heard of the drill team, they are internationally known but I will tell you of their early days and why they should be a sense of pride for all Chicagoans but especially those of us with south side roots.
I attended Paul Revere Elementary School from 1st grade to 6th grade (in the early to mid 80’s), and the school is just west of south shore at 72nd & Ellis, right off of the Metra Electric line just west of Stony Island.
The drill team was founded by the always dapper Arthur Robertson. Mr. Robertson was a teacher at Revere and the drill team was our in house entertainment.
Having known Mr. Robertson personally, he is a strict disciplinarian (in his latter days at Revere he served as just that dean of discipline), but very cool. I was fortunate to have had him for some subjects in the fourth grade and he was teacher everyone wanted. Not only because of his association with the drill team (which we all wanted to be a part of), but because his style of teaching was more “upper grade style” then our usual primary teachers (which my mother was one of). He didn’t baby you, he presented the subject and material and you were expected to know it. He made you take ownership of your education and be prepared to prove you knew it. For 8 & 9 year olds, being given that kind of trust was seen as great respect.
But make no mistake Mr. Robertson had high expectations in the classroom and did not play. It’s easy to see how the drill team has become successful because Mr. Robertson has great leadership skills and he makes you want to do better both for him and yourself.
In those early years the drill team would perform at school assemblies. Mr. Robertson had what seemed to be the biggest boom box we’d ever seen. Like what’s on the cover of L.L. Cool J’s 1985 album “Radio”. Mr. Robertson would put in a tape of instrumental music, usually house music (which we all loved anyway), and the drill team would start, they had military style precision even then. And in the early years, the members were mostly elementary school students but he had them trained well. They often practiced in school on Friday afternoons (to the dismay of some of the staff at Revere), with their music and all.
The drill team was not only a sense of pride for the school but for the area, the neighborhood around the school was not great. South shore was to the east and Park Manor to the west and Chatham was to the south and west. Those areas were significantly better than area around Revere at the time. My grandparents lived in Chatham at the time.
But the drill team gave us something to aspire to and gave us school spirit. Sure Revere had a basketball team but the drill team had style, presentation, slick outfits and cool arrangements.
While I was at Revere in 1986, the drill team had a small part in the parade scene in the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. That was source of pride for all of us at school; we felt like the drill team represented us and gave us excitement.
I know Mr. Robertson put so much of his time and his own money to make the drill team what it is today.
But even more than that is how Mr. Robertson gave so many young people an alternative to the streets. There were multiple street gangs in the Revere area and there was gang talk among kids as early as 5th and 6th grade. Not to mention as we rose in the grades at Revere so many kids left the school and area for better for education opportunities. For all of us, our ambition was to get into a good junior high and high school and Revere was a school that struggled academically. I represented the school in two science fairs and an academic Olympics, trust me those schools from Park Manor & Chatham were ahead of us but not for lack of effort on our part.
But people knew about the drill team, the word was getting out, they made more appearances, Bud Billikin parade, other major events. Some of the staff at the school wondered (out loud), if the drill team was bigger than the school. But the principal at the time knew the importance of having such an outlet for students and inspiration to the rest of us.
I knew many of the early members of the drill team, they have gone one to become instructors and work with the next generation of young people to come into the group. They did a special performance at my mother’s retirement party in 2000. Right in the parking lot of the old Martinque on west 95th street in Evergreen Park. I got to talk to some of my old friends as well as Mr. Robertson, they were now well renowned and put on a great show as always and my mother was grateful.
I hear Mr. Robertson retired from teaching 7-8 years ago and now the drill team calls the beautiful Gary Comer Youth Center on South Chicago Ave.
When Gary Comer was alive (he was a Revere alum), he was a generous donor to Revere school and a supporter of the drill team.
So after a week of such disheartening news about children, schools and violence, remember we have a success story that has been going on for over 30 years right on the south east side.