Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Eureka College

President Ronald Reagan’s 1982 Eureka College Commencement Address


It was twenty-five years ago today that I graduated from Eureka College. Although I was only there for two years (I was a transfer student) everything good about my life started back then.

This is a very important speech by Reagan. In many ways, it was the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

“Thou hast it now, King, Cawdor, Glamis all….”

One of the things that I have always been proud about my past were the two years that I attended Eureka College, a small, Christian (Disciples of Christ) Liberal Arts College located in Eureka, Illinois (about an hour west of Peoria, Illinois) from 1985-1987.

There is a lot to be said about attending a small college versus a much larger school. I am happy that I had the chance to experience both—the three semesters I attended Southern Illinois University (as well as two years of graduate school at Western Illinois University) and the two years I spent at Eureka. Inasmuch as there are numerous advantages of attending a larger school—from academics to career opportunities—the same advantages exist at a smaller school, but the difference, at least what I found out when I attended Eureka is that at a smaller college the education is more personal and intimate. Likewise, this intimacy also presents plenty of opportunities to get involve in extracurricular activities such as sports, music, and theatre that might not be available to most students at a larger school.

Such was the case when I got involved in a number of theatrical productions when I was at Eureka including the Bard’s most famous tragedy, “That Scottish Tragedy” (oh yes, I still believe in the superstitions surrounding this play even—mentioning its name here).

I probably wouldn’t have gotten involved in theatre had it not been for my very good friend and teacher Kevin McQuade. It was Kevin, who upon seeing me—decked out in a leather jacket, faded jeans, Black Converse High Tops and looking too much like the “ Fifth Ramone”—one brisk autumn day standing outside Burgess Hall, later told some of his students (including a girl a sort of dated) that he wanted to get me involved in theatre. Eureka was quite conservative and I was everything but conservative back then (and still today, but a little more rounded on that liberal edge I have carried through life). I might not be your “rebel without a cause” but I was definitely known for my rebellious, “freewheelin’ Sparks” attitude.

Kevin’s brother Luke was also attending Eureka at the same time and as fate would have it, ended up as my roommate. And come every Sunday, Kevin and his wife Linda invited Luke and I over for Sunday dinner not to mention watch those Monsters of the Midway, Da Bears. 1985, remember?

I have always been very close to Kevin and Luke. As for Kevin we both have shared our joy and dismay with the Cubs and the Bears over the years as well as our tastes in music, literature, movies, and whiskey (Jamesons, please). And it was Kevin who inspired me to write more as well as get involved in theatre the two years that I was there. I owe a lot to Kevin for helping me to develop my artistic sensitivity and opening my eyes to the world around me. I would not be the person I am today had it not been for Kevin and other teachers and friends I got to know at Eureka.

Putting on “That Scottish Tragedy” was a lot of fun and it taught me, not only a lot about theatre and being a part of a theatrical tradition, but it also made me more sensitive and aware of the arts—both performing and visual arts as well as literature. Kevin, who had taken part in a modern adaptation production of Hamlet at the Wisdom Street Bridge in Chicago (a production that incidentally featured a rising new star—Aidan Quinn) wanted to do the same thing with Eureka’s production of “That Scottish Tragedy.”

Eureka’s Theatre Department production of that play turned out to be an exciting post apocalyptic punk rock interpretation that featured among other things Macbeth (brilliantly played by Dave Steele) and Banquo as members of a street gang and the three witches as bag ladies. And when the Banquo’s ghost appeared later in the play to haunt Macbeth, the ghost appeared on video monitors, part of a close circuit television network that Macbeth had installed in his fortress to appease his paranoia after the deaths of Duncan and Banquo.

There’s no question that it was an ambitious project and nothing like it had been staged at Eureka before. The show opened on October 6, 1986 and ran for six nights including a Wednesday afternoon matinee. The success of the play had a lot had to do with Kevin’s vision and passion as well as the support and guidance of the head of the Theatre Department, Bill Davis.

I always have believed that everything we are today, everything that has touched and shaped our lives is part of this collective, cosmic critical mass consciousness that exists through academia and the arts and that has been passed along to us. It is up to us to make the most of this knowledge, artistic sensitivity and awareness that has been passed along to us and to share it. You know, to make this world a better place and when we finally to leave it one day, to leave it better than it was when we entered it.

I might not have thought about this when I took part in “That Scottish Tragedy” back in October 1986, but since then I can see how important being in that play was—especially as a writer. It was all about developing this artistic sensitivity that becomes more and more important to me as I write more these days, making up for a lot of lost time.

I am proud that I went to Eureka College. It just took me awhile to truly appreciate just how important it was for me to attend a small liberal arts college and to take advantage of the opportunities that I did—like playing Banquo in “That Scottish Tragedy” and getting to know some very special people like Kevin, Luke, Dave, Bill Davis and others.

The people who define me — One of my best friends & baseball, football, and political cohorts, Luke McQuade

Yeah Luke, this blog’s for you.

(And I swear you look like Alec Baldwin in this photo of you and your daughter!)

I have been blessed with a lot—especially the people I have met on this amazing, and sometimes strange journey through life—and although I don’t always get around to saying it, (and personally those people who have made a difference in my life) I couldn’t have made it this far without them, like my friend Luke McQuade.

Luke’s become a regular visitor to this blog and leaving some very thoughtful and insightful comments about some of my posts. I would expect nothing less from someone like Luke whose friendship is very dear to me.

I first met Luke back in 1985 when we were both starting Eureka College—Luke as a freshman and myself, a transfer student. We both lived in Gunzenhauser Hall, one of the oldest student dormitories on campus and would soon become roommates for one year.

What I remember most about that autumn at Eureka was Luke and I going over to his brother Kevin’s house every Sunday for dinner and Da Bears. Those were some special times watching the Bears during that championship season. Later, it would be the watching the Cubs as well as attending some Peoria Chiefs’ games.

That was really cool how I got to become very good friends with Luke as well as his brother Kevin when I was going to Eureka.

I have always respected and admired Luke for taking a stance and articulating what he believed in whether it was political or philosophical. Nowhere was this better illustrated than the time Luke hung a banner (actually a sheet) with “U.S. out of Nicaragua” from his dorm window. (Luke had gone to Nicaragua and done some volunteer work with the church group Witness for Peace.)

Hanging that banner outside his dorm window was a ballsy move on his part, especially given the fact that Eureka College was Ronald Reagan’s alma mater and Reagan just so happened to be President at the time and this whole Iran-Contra/Oliver North fiasco was going on.

That first year at Eureka, Luke and I were pretty tight as friends. In addition to being roommates we also worked in the Commons (the school cafeteria) and also were involved in theatre (more so our second year when That Scottish Tragedy was put on by the EC Theatre Department—definitely one of the highlights of my two years at Eureka). We hung out a lot during the summer between my first and second year at Eureka and the summer after I graduated I stayed around for most of it working in the cafeteria again and also helping Luke on the paint crew.

Luke got me that job and what I remember most about it was us working at night because it was so hot during the day. We had to prepare the rooms that were going to be painted by spackling any nail holes as well as covering up the moldings and the windows. We had a lot of time to talk and think about the future and everything that we wanted to do.

At times I think Luke thought of me as another older brother.

We went to Peoria Chief’s games, saw Galileo at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, went to a Cubs’ game (a field trip for the Class of 1987) and listened to a lot of rock and roll.

After I graduated from Eureka Luke and I stayed in touch, but we only got to see each other two times. I came back to Eureka only twice—once for Homecoming weekend in 1987 and in 1989 when Luke graduated (Kevin and I had gone to O’Hare to pick Luke up when he came back from England where he had studied for a year). And then I was off to Japan a few weeks later.

The last time I saw Luke was in the summer of 1990. He came down to the Illinois Valley for a few days. I showed him around the LaSalle-Peru-Oglesby area, took him to the Igloo for a “pork with the works” and finally we ended up going to the Oglesby Celebration Days where we saw Peter Noone (of Herman’s Hermits fame) in concert.

We’ve kept in touch on and off over the years—more off than on—and now, I feel that our friendship has come full circle. I know that as I rapidly approach 50 in one more month I am doing more to re-connect with people I haven’t stayed in touch with as much as I should have all these years. I am happy Luke and I are staying in touch more.

Eureka, Baseball and Greek Town — Part 2

The next day, it was an early start for those of us heading to Chicago (I have recently gotten in touch with one of my former classmates who went to the Chicago that day, Tina Blisset). We left early enough to get to the city, park and make it to the entrance to Wrigley Field where Kevin was already waiting for us with our tickets. I have been to a few Cubs’ games, but there has to be something really cool and special to watch a game from the centerfield bleachers on your birthday.

On that day, the Cubs were playing the Reds and it was a rather historic occasion to be able to watch Pete Rose play in one of his last seasons.

Now the thing I liked about going to a ballgame with Kevin is that he is very vocal. He really gets into the game and loves to razz the players. When Red’s player Eddie Milner tried to score on a hard hit single by Rose and was thrown out at the plate, Kevin let Milner know about his base running when he went out to centerfield at the end of the inning. 

(Kevin, his brother Luke and I also went to some Peoria Chief’s games that summer and the following summer where we got to watch rising stars like Mark Grace, Joe Girardi, and Rafael Palmeiro play. And yes, we let the opposing players know how “well” they were playing.) 

The Cubs did not let me down (not to mention the rest of my birthday entourage) on my birthday by beating the Reds. 

If my memory serves me right, after the game we stopped off at this Punk/New Wave record store that was next door to the Metro, a music venue just up the street from Wrigley Field. (It was either this time I was in Chicago with Kevin or later that summer.)  

Anyway, there was this woman working there who I knew from SIU (I had gone out with her roommate Christine) and the year before, I had run into her at a Cure concert in Chicago that I had gone to with Chris Vasquez. Turns out her boyfriend had ditched her at the concert and she was feeling pretty bad. She had no ride back to Carbondale and no money.  

I had gotten a backstage pass from one of Chris’ friends and seeing her looking so sad and depressed I gave it to her. I figured she needed it more than I did. 

We were both surprised to see each other again and after we got caught up on what had happened the past few months, she told me that she ended up hanging out with the band on the road a for a few weeks before coming back to Chicago. 

“Thanks for that backstage pass,” she said. “You really saved me that night.” 

“I’m happy that everything worked out for you.” 

It did. She had eventually found her way back to Chicago and was getting her life back together. I wonder whatever happened to her? I wonder whatever happened to other people who I knew from SIU in the fall of 1983 like Savich? (He was the inspiration for Sexton, the main character in Going After Sexton, a short story I wrote for my Creative Writing Thesis at Western Illinois University.)

That’s been one of the more bittersweet underpinnings to my life, all those people walking in and out of my life; or was it me walking in and out of their lives? It seems the older I get, the more I think about this. 

And then it was off to Greek Town. 

Before Kevin had come to Eureka (the same year I started) he had taught speech and theatre at a performing arts school not far from Greek Town. He had been quite active in theatre in Chicago that included working on a play that starred Willem Dafoe (at Wisdom Street Bridge) as well as working on another production with one of Chicago’s more famous theatrical/artistic directors Robert Falls. (I saw Falls’ production of Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo starring Brian Dennehy at the Goodman Theatre later that year. What an unbelievable production!) 

Kevin recommended Diana’s, one of the more famous Greek eateries. How famous? Judging from the autographed photos of Anthony Quinn and other Greek notables who had eaten there, I guess it was quite famous.  It was also the first time I had Greek food (other than the gyros Chris Vasquez and I used to indulge in at Athens Gyros in the Peru Mall before it closed in the mid 80s) as well as Roditys Wine (as well as some shots of Ouzo that I had already had before).  

What I have always liked and admired about Kevin is how vivacious and jovial he is when he is out with friends. It’s hard not to smile or have a good time when Kevin is in the room, or in this case a Greek restaurant screaming “Oh Pa!” (similar to “cheers”) when the saganaki was lit and the flames from this flaming cheese dish nearly scorching the ceiling. 

I was really glad that I could get together with Kevin on my birthday. He would have a major influence on my life while I was at Eureka. 

It was just too bad we had to drive back to Eureka that night.

Eureka, Baseball and Greek Town — Part 1

There are a lot of cool things that a person could do to celebrate their birthday besides just getting hammered or having a party with all the trimmings. Sometimes, you might even end up doing something that you never imagined you would do.

I might not have had the chance to have a big birthday bash, but I have been fortunate to do some pretty cool stuff on my birthday with some people that I have been lucky enough to know on this long, strange journey through life. It’s the people who have defined me that have made everything worthwhile.

In less than two months I will be celebrating my fiftieth birthday. Sadly, I do not anticipate doing anything special for this “golden” birthday. With my Mom quite ill and being away from On and Bia, I have a lot more to worry and think about then what I will be doing come May 28. Although I might be having a rough go this second “tour” of Korea and my life—as I turn 50—kind of falling short of youthful dreams and aspirations, I have much to be thankful for, including some very special birthday memories. 

In May 1986 I had just finished my first year at Eureka College. It had been a bittersweet year, one marred by the tragic death of a close friend of mine in December, just a few days before the term ended. On the other hand, I became very good friends with Kevin McQuade an instructor at Eureka (Speech and Theatre) whose brother Luke was my roommate. I have been blessed throughout my life having known some very wonderful people and Kevin is right there at the top of the list.

I had decided to spend the summer at Eureka working in the cafeteria and making a little extra money as well as catching up on some much-required reading. My birthday that year was my “golden” birthday because I was going to turn 28 that year. It was Kevin who came up with the idea of meeting in Chicago (he was going to be in the city for a few days with his wife who worked for some small company) and taking in a Cubs’ game and having dinner in Greek Town. He would even spring for the tickets! I just had to get up to the city.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a car, (Eureka is about 150 miles southwest of Chicago) but one of my friends offered to drive. We would be joined by two of my classmates who were excited to take part in my birthday celebration in the Windy City.

The day before my birthday, I had to work in the school cafeteria. Although the cafeteria was closed until June when the college hosted a variety of summer camps, the food service operation at the college did a lot of catering events. On that day, it was a catering event for the Rotary Club, which was having a small fundraiser for the college. As it turned out, it would be one of the sweetest catering gigs that I did while I was at Eureka.

All that another classmate of mine, Sam Harrod (who was a direct descendant of one of the founding members of the college) and I had to do was load up a van with the food (steaks, potato salad, and baked beans) a half-barrel of beer, as well as plates utensils, and other implements of cutlery and then drive to Lake Bloomington a little over an hour away.  

Once there, we would set up everything and the members of the Rotary Club would do the cooking. After the event was over, we would bring everything back to the college, wash all the dishes and put whatever food was left back in the cooler. Like I said, it was a real sweet gig.

So, we get out to the lake, set up everything and then just waited along with the food service director. He was a pretty likable guy and really cool when it came to these events by letting us take it easy when there was nothing to do.

And that is exactly what we did. We were not just going to sit around waiting for everyone to eat their steaks and drink their beer. One of the Rotarians, who lived in one of the lakefront homes, had a boat and started taking other Rotarians for a quick cruise around the lake. With nothing for Sam and I to do, we were also invited along and got to enjoy some of the beer we had brought for the event.  

It’s a good thing we didn’t have to do anything else until the event was over because that beer was going down mighty smooth. Nothing beats some cool suds on a warm, late spring afternoon on a boat—well maybe—like some cool suds at a ballgame with a hot dog smothered with mustard, onions, and relish, but I would have to wait until the next day for that.

When we got back to the lodge where the night’s event was going to be held, a few of the Rotarians had already started to grill the steaks. There was still nothing for Sam and I to do, so we helped ourselves to some more beer and waited until everyone had their steaks. Then, Sam and I could eat and wash down those thick, juicy steaks with more beer.

Once everyone had finished eating, Sam and I proceeded to clean up everything and load it all back in the van to bring back to the college. We had to wait around for a while, but then it was back in the van and on the road back to Eureka. When we got back there, the food service director was really cool about what to do with a lot of the food and beer left over: he told us to take it. That was pretty cool I think.

While Sam and I were washing up the dishes and putting some stuff away, two of our classmates showed up. They knew it was my birthday the next day and wanted to take me out for a few drinks.

In Eureka, there were only two bars, the Chanticleer, which was actually a supper club at the north end of town, and the Outpost on the south side of town. Eureka was (and probably still is as far as I know) a “dry” town, which meant that alcohol, could not be sold within the city limits. However, Eureka’s tiny urban sprawl soon spread past these two watering holes putting them within the city limits. Thankfully, no one wanted to challenge the city ordinance and the two bars were allowed to flourish.

The Chanticleer was our preferred hangout, and that is where we headed. It was nice to get together with a few people (I even had a bit of crush on Kathryn White, one of my classmates who showed up that night) on the eve of my “golden birthday.” I have a lot of find memories of the two years that I was at Eureka College, and many of those memories were the times I spent with classmates and professors at the Chanticleer.

Paint Crew — Eureka College, 1987

Painting at Eureka College

One of the best summer jobs I’ve ever had was the summer after I graduated from Eureka College in 1987 when I worked on the college paint crew with my best friend and former room mate Luke McQuade.

I was headed to Western Illinois University in the fall to start graduate work and instead of going home for the summer, I thought it would be cool to hang out in Eureka for the summer, make a little money and spend time with hanging out with Luke and his brother Kevin.

And perhaps, I didn’t want to say good bye to Eureka College yet. Of all the things I’ve done in my life, the places I have been to, and the people I have met, I look back on the two years I spent at Eureka with many, many fond memories. Going to Eureka College was one of the best choices I have made in my life. I might have only been there for two years, but it was enough to change my life forever.

I was thinking about Eureka, painting some of the dorms that summer, and a trove of other memories because I got an email from Luke today. He’s been going through some difficult times in his life now and just wanted me to know what was going on.

I feel bad because we haven’t kept in touch as much as we probably should have over the years. I think we take email for granted in that we think we can always stay in touch more, but in reality we probably don’t stay in touch as much as we used to when we had to sit down and take the time to thoughtfully write a letter.

Looking back on that summer 20 years ago, everything was much simpler, or so it seemed. I was looking forward to starting graduate school, but still not sure what I would be doing once I graduated. Luke still had two more years at Eureka. A year later he would do a year of study in London and as for me, a year later where I would be going when I finished my graduate work would start to come into focus.

If my memory serves me correct, I pestered Luke about talking to his boss to put me on the paint crew. I was already working in the school cafeteria, but I was hoping to make a little more money and at the same time hang out with Luke.

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