In December 1970 a postcard arrived at L.J. Hauser Junior High School from the Park Manor Corps of the Salvation Army saying that they were having a food drive and asking if Hauser would be willing to participate.
Secretary Elaine Snyder decided to put the postcard in the mailbox of second-year teacher Cuyler “Butch” Berwanger, who was the faculty advisor to the student council.
“I thought, ‘Let’s do it,'” Berwanger recalled in an interview with the Landmark.
That first year, Hauser students collected about 5,000 cans of food, which was more than any other school in Illinois collected for the Salvation Army that year.
Fifty years later, the Hauser food drive is still going strong.
This year’s drive got off to rousing start on Feb. 26 when Berwanger, who retired in 2006, came back to Hauser for the kickoff of the food drive, which also attracted WGN TV Morning News “Around Town” reporter Ana Belaval who did a few live shots from the school during the morning news interviewing Berwanger, two students, and food drive co-chair Lisa Gaynor.
To add to the excitement, Hauser Principal April Mahy and Assistant Principal Christine Mullin braved the cold and snow and sat throughout the day on the roof above the main entrance in a bid to attract donations.
With the help of parents and community members, 10,111 cans of food on the first day. The food drive also collected $2,400 in cash donations Wednesday, including a $1,000 donation by Paisan’s Pizza of Brookfield.
The food drive has already raised $10,700 and the school is well on the way to its goal of collecting $15,000.
“It was a great day Wednesday at Hauser,” Gaynor said.
The cash is used to purchase ingredients for macaroni-and-cheese meals from Feed6, a nonprofit organization founded by Bill Kanatas of Riverside, which packages meals for needy people throughout the Chicago area.
The goal is to pack 50,000 of the meals on April 4 during a packing event at the Hauser cafeteria than will end the food drive. Each meal costs 30 cents in ingredients, so the Hauser hopes to raise at least $15,000. Donations can be made through the Hauser PTO website at hauserpto.org.
The non-perishable food collected is donated to both the Riverside Township Food Pantry and the Salvation Army Red Shield’s Food Pantry in the Englewood neighborhood in Chicago, continuing the relationship that began 50 years ago.
Gaynor said the Riverside Township Food Pantry serves about 40 families who live in the township.
One reason for the impressive first day haul was that Berwanger appeared at Hauser on Feb. 16 to talk about the history and meaning of the food drive. Hauser parent Terri Hickey, who knows Belaval, convinced them to feature the kickoff of 50th annual drive.
“We had to get the kids excited to bring cans before the TV thing,” Gaynor said.
Not that the students needed much encouragement. From the start, Berwanger organized the food drive as a competition between the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades.
Last year, the sixth-graders won, led by Cole Rubio who collected about 900 cans of food by himself. After being interviewed on live TV by Belaval, Rubio spoke to the Landmark. He said he hoped to collect even more food this year.
“I might put some of my own money in this year so I can get a few more cans,” said Rubio, who makes money by shoveling snow, cutting grass, and raking leaves.
While Rubio says that he just wants to help feed the hungry, there is another inducement.
“If we win the competition I think we get a free Friday where we can just like do whatever, but I also feel like they want to help out people in need too,” Rubio said.
Berwanger, whose father was the first recipient of the Heisman Trophy, said that he is not surprised that the food drive is still going strong.
“The kids just rallied around it; they loved doing it,” Berwanger said. “It’s become a tradition.”
Berwanger is glad the food drive has continued to grow after his retirement. Gaynor was a student of his and one of his reporters for the school newspaper. Another of his former students, Marella Harrington, now teaches seventh-grade science at Hauser.
“These are the greatest kids in the world, and if I was the general, they were the army,” Berwanger said. “They have new generals now.”