In June, we sat down for an hour-long interview with beloved hall monitor and tennis coach Chip Hardesty. He spoke about Baltimore, Mr. Bacon, and the nature of the universe.
City High Review: Tell us about your childhood, your family, your hometown.
Chip: I was born in Chicago, and then we lived in Elgin, Illinois. I remember a lot about Elgin, though I moved from there when I was about four and a half. I went to kindergarten in the basement of a Lutheran church which is odd. It must’ve been overcrowded or something. We had a vacant lot right next to our house that we played in and then right next to that vacant lot was what we called the water house – Elgin’s right on the Fox river, so they had this pumping station there. It was dirty inside, you couldn’t see anything. We thought there were goblins and bad things there.
CHR: How did your high school compare to City High?
Chip: We moved to Cedar Rapids when I was five, and I went through the rest of kindergarten and grade school living in the same house, all through high school. I went to both junior highs because they changed the boundaries after seventh grade. High school was tenth through twelfth then. The high school was roughly comparable in size, 1500 students. My class was 500 and some students though – big class. And Cedar Rapids Washington demographically would have been very comparable to City High, at least then. It encompassed the poorest parts of Cedar Rapids and the richest. In that sense it seems the same.
I remember it being more rigid as far as groups and cliques, probably less so today generally speaking. There’s more crossover among groups. It was a top-rated high school. I didn’t have any trouble getting into college, even though my grades were not what you would call – I mean I wasn’t a valedictorian or anything. I did okay.
CHR: How did you arrive at City High? How did you get out of law?
Chip: Well I get out of the law because I didn’t like it. I was not married and I had an aunt and uncle who were Methodist missionaries in Japan. They were quite liberal Christians. My uncle had gone to Yale Divinity School, actually. They had lived there a long time, near Kobe. My plan was to quit practicing law. I had been a law clerk to a Supreme Court justice in Iowa before that. My plan was to live with them for a while. I had some money saved, but you can make money teaching English in Japan, they told me. So my plan was to live there for six months, let’s say, and then make enough money to keep travelling. I was gonna go around the world – slowly, but around the world. But then I met the woman that I later married – fairly quickly – because I was convinced that I was in love. She thought she was too. Well, it didn’t work out. So, suddenly I did not travel around the world. I was married. I suddenly had a family. She had a daughter by a previous marriage. “I need to make a living!” So then I continued to practice for a short time. I had also been a volunteer – in fact I had been the board president of United Way, in Cedar Rapids, and I’d been board president of American Red Cross. I was on a lot of boards, as a volunteer. And I got to know the executive directors of these agencies. And I thought that would be a more interesting life. So I was looking for the right opportunity. And it came: I became executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters in Cedar Rapids and I did that for a while. Then I moved to another larger agency and I ran, at various times, two to three different programs for at-risk kids. Some of them I did directly and others I supervised. I did that for a long time.
What really made sense was that a friend of mine was teaching here. Two of my programs lost their funding. So I was early-retired, but not willingly, particularly. I didn’t want to just sit around. She said “There’s a job opening at City, basically across the street. So think about it.” I thought about it. And I came up and they hired me.
CHR: How do you think City has changed since that time?
Chip: I think there were a couple of years where there was an influx of people, and that put a strain on the high school. We were not quite prepared for the influx. The euphemism is Chicago, although it was obviously more than Chicago. People just didn’t know quite how to deal with that. Once we got that leveled out – and I think it has been – we’ve been doing just fine. There used to more stuff in the hallways. We would have more fights. Not on a daily or even weekly basis. I try to remember one year we had a bad week, or a bad day. There was a fight in the morning and that led to one in the afternoon. That led to a big melee. But that was really the worst of it. Otherwise I think we keep getting better and better, it seems to me.
CHR: Do you think you’ve gotten better at working with high school students?
Chip: For me it’s relatively easy. I’ve had a fair amount of experience. When you work with at-risk kids, those are very difficult personalities, and almost completely different psychology, I think. What passes for their families were often very difficult. I also had some experience dealing with homeless teenagers in Cedar Rapids. One of the programs that we did was working with them late at night and early in the morning. So I had some experience with that, and it wasn’t that difficult a transition.
Lots of places in Cedar Rapids are far worse than any place here. My old neighborhood, which was near the old elementary school, was far worse than any school in Iowa City. There were shootings and a lot of drugs. Typical urban problems and things I was familiar with from having lived in Baltimore, actually.
I lived in Baltimore from 1965 to 1966, right after undergraduate school, and just before law school. Those were more turbulent times. Black Muslims were active. There was a Black Muslim temple just around the corner form where I lived.
CHR: Did you join?
Chip: I did not join.
We were a part of a district program called Vista, similar to Americorps, that required you to live in the neighborhood in which you worked. I lived a half a block from where I worked and I taught P.E. at a Catholic grade school. I did freelance social work, sort of: people being evicted, police putting their stuff out on the street, literally. We’d help them find places to live.
I got very used to living in what really was a segretated city. Less so now, but it certainly was then. I got used to living in that extreme urban environment. I was helped by a lot of people in the neighborhood – about where to go, where to not to go, where to stay away from, and so forth. And it was a time of riots in major cities, so the government warned us about how we had to have an escape plan.
We had one car and three other Vista workers and myself. It gets hot in Maryland, earlier than it does in Iowa, and we slept with the windows open in March, I remember, and you’d hear bottles breaking in the streets, and you’d think, “Oh, is this the start of something?” But I liked Baltimore and that was a really good experience for me. I was a young, arrogant college student, thought I was helping the poor, in crappy jeans and workshirts and stuff, ’cause I thought that’s what you would wear. This is how arrogant and stupid I was.
Finally one of the guys who was living in our house, a college student whose mother waso our landlady – one day after we got to know each other a little bit, he said to me, “Your parents are pretty poor.” I said, “No, no, they’re pretty middle of the road, why?” And he said, “Well, the clothes you wear . . .” So I mean right there, not being a complete idiot, I figured out that dressing down like a young Bob Dylan or something was really stupid. So I just started wearing regular clothes, and I went to parties with this guy and with other people, and I got a really good slice of life there that I think very few white people would.
I remember it being so black, it was so black. Everywhere I went – shopping malls, movies, everything – that when I came back to Cedar Rapids for Christmas and I went to the mall with my sister, I said out loud to them, “Wow, look at all the white people!” Because I was simply struck by. . . all the white people in the mall! Your eye just adjusts…it really does. My world had just changed, which is interesting.
This is in the mid-sixties. President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and President Johnson was the president and the war against poverty was a big deal. What I was in was a rehabilitation neighborhood. The federal government gave zero-interest loans to people to fix up their houses. The other thing that we did was helping organize a great big property tax assessment appeal because the City of Baltimore, once the houses had been fixed up, came in and gave them higher property tax bills. So one branch of the government was giving and the other branch was taking away. And so we organized this mass appeal and went down to the board city assessors, and said, “We have all these appeals. We want hearings.” “Who are you?” they said. But they agreed to roll the law back, without a hearing. Now, the next year they probably jacked them right back up. It interested me. And that’s in some ways part of the reason I thought about law school, because those were the kinds of things lawyers can do .
I’ll be honest: law school is three years and this is the Vietnam War time. I didn’t believe in the war, and I also didn’t want to be drafted, because the alternative was to basically go fight there, which I wasn’t going to do. Or go to Canada. But law school was then a deferment, so I went into law school, and by the time I got out, I was twnety six. Not prime draft matieral. I had received my draft notice: “Greetings, you have to report to Fort So and So…”
It was a very long weekend and in order to get out of it you had to appeal to the White House, of all things. So I called that Monday morning. I got it on Saturday morning. I called Monday morning to the White House and I said what I wanted to one of the operators and I went through three or four different operators and finally I get to this guy and I say, “Look. I live in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I received this draft notice. I’ve been accepted into Vista, which is supposedly a deferment. What do I do?”
He said, “Well, you just have to write a letter to us, appealing.” And I said, “Ok, tell me exactly – you know – how do I address this letter” And so forth. He said, “Well, you address it to President um. . . um. . .” And I’m not exaggerating; this is what he did. He couldn’t think of the name of Lyndon B. Johnson, the President of the United States, and he’s working in the White House!
So I said, “President Johnson?” He said, “Yeah, sometimes I have trouble getting there.” He must have been hung over like crazy, or else exhausted. I said, “thank you very much” and I called my local draft board, who knew everything and took care of everything. I had to appeal, but I mean this guy in the White House didn’t know who the president was. Nuts. It’s nuts.
CHR: Tennis? When did that start?
Chip: My mom signed us up [for lessons] I got into junior tennis, and I played in a bunch of tournaments, and I worked out there when I got old enough. There were three clay courts. We would sweep them and drive the thing to pack them down. It was just kinda where we hung out.
CHR: How has coaching here been?
Chip: I just finished four years and I really like it, even more than I thought I would.
The last coach hadn’t been very successful. They’d only won – in three years – a total of five matches. I did better than that. Way better, actually. The first year we won five matches. The next year we won nine or ten. That was the best team. Two years ago we won three, and this year we won four. Next season we will be struggling, unless we get – I don’t know – an Italian twin doubles team as foreign exchange students.
CHR: You’ve gotten a chance to revisit your lawyerly skills, I understand?
Chip: I am happily the mock trial coach and this grew out of John Bacon’s visit to Cedar Rapids Washington where he learned about mock trial. There were two attractive things about it. One, it’s an interesting program, and two, West High doesn’t do it. He knew that I had been a lawyer, so he said, “You’re gonna do this, right?” I like mock trial as much as anything I’ve done here. One, I’m dealing with really smart people. Secondly, part of the reason I liked being a lawyer is I liked the competitiveness.
After law school I interviewed at a bunch of different firms in Baltimore. Almost every one them said, “Why are you interested in Baltimore?” When I told them I had lived in Baltimore, they said, “You lived there? Really? We don’t even drive through that neighborhood.”
CHR: Outside of work, do you read? Do you listen to any music?
Chip: I read in an extremely eclectic fashion. I’m reading a novel by Haruki Murakami called The Painted Bird. It’s really interesting. I’m reading some junk mystery novel. There’s a new book by a guy named Anthony Demasio who was a neurologist at the U of I, which I just got recently.
I wish I were smarter, actually, so I could understand two things. One is mathematics, because that’s the language of the cosmos, and I think those large cosmological questions are really understood mathematically. Visually, philosophically, it’s beyond our language, which I think is fascinating in and of itself. The other extreme, if I were doing it over again and if I were smart enough, which I’m not sure I am: I would be interested in studying the brain and how the brain functions. It’s interesting, that sort of stuff. From the micro, to the macro.
I also wish I could play the piano really well, because I’d love to play Beethoven or Mozart or something like that. I like music and I like how it sounds.
I played the trumpet in elementary school and then I got braces, and that was the end of that. It was a bloody experience.
In hindsight, probably what I should have done is gotten my teaching certificate, because I would have been able to teach for a number of years. Yeah, if I had it to do over again, I would be there. I think it’s an interesting life, and if you’re vibrant and interested in your subject I think you can do a lot, even though there are some restriction because of curriculum.
CHR: Has it been exciting to see Mr. Bacon take over as principal?
Chip: It has, actually. I was asked to be a part of the hiring committee. there were about fifteen faculty and when he interviewed I was really impressed and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just salesmanship, but I became more convinced as we talked to references. I guess I was internally convinced because he had been at Lemme Elementary for five years and they seemed to really love him there. I think he knew that the jump to high school was gonna be a very big jump. I’m guessing he would candidly say it’s been quite a big jump.
CHR: If you were principal or secretary of education, what would you do in the school or to all schools?
Chip: The thing that seems to take a lot of time in public school is dealing with kids who are ill-prepared. My sense, having worked with elementary kids that age, is that when they don’t learn how to read early on, they have a sense of themselves – as early as second or third grade – that I’m not like the others in the classroom. These people feel set apart. Then they become behavioral problems, and they seek out other kids of a similar ilk, and it becomes a downward spiral, and they self-identify as that, and because that’s all they have, they start to act proud about it. What I think it’s covering up is a really bad academic background.
You see all these strategies. “I have to go to the bathroom.” “I have to go to the health secretary.” “I don’t feel well today.” There’s a myriad of excuses, all of which are tied to the fact that I want to get out of this place that they’re not comfortable in. I’ve been to classes where kids are asked to read out loud and they really, really struggle. So if I were ruling the school district I would have a separate school with nothing but reading experts. They would have to be able to read, or demonstrate that because of physical, or innate, disabilities, they’re unable to.
CHR: What are your plans for the future, looking ahead?
Chip: I have no plans to stop working. I like what I’m doing here. I think I approach it in a friendly, persuasive way. I think I get people to do what we want them to do without having to yell. I don’t respond really well to being yelled at. Nobody that I know of does, and I don’t think that works.
This sounds simplistic, but my daughter went here, and I would try to treat people in the way you would want your own child to be treated. Do I get taken advantage of? Probably. I don’t care.
I think some other people in the building would think that I’m too soft on students or that I’m too close to students, in the sense that I’m gonna take their side in some things. Sometimes students are right. Sometimes rules are not rational. Sometimes rules don’t have any relationship to the end that they think they’re trying to achieve. I think it’s worth raising those questions.
[A few minutes later later, talking about gay students]
It’s irrational in some ways, what passes for religious views these days. That’s one of the stupidest things – the arguments that people use for those. If you just take out gay and put in black, or race, – things that are basically immutable. I don’t know who chooses to be gay or straight. Nobody does. When did you choose? That seems to be one of those things that you’re born with immutably. So if that’s the case, then it’s like any other status, and we don’t treat those things unequally in this country. I think it’s a relatively easy constitutional concept.
I’m a pretty old guy, and in some ways I’ve seen a similar evolution in ideas. I remember on a more trivial level, when Ms. Magazine, and Gloria Steinem, and the so-called women’s movement gained a lot of strength in the sixties and seventies, almost every late-night comedian made jokes about “Ms.” this and “Ms.” that – leering jokes. Well, those have just disappeared now. People don’t laugh about “Should I call you Ms. or Mrs.?” I don’t know that women’s equality has reached Olympian heights – there’s a lot left to achieve in that regard – but it’s much different than it was initially.
It’s the same as the civil rights movement in some ways. It was a serious business back when I was in college. People were dying for their right to vote.
CHR: Do you think, being at high school, you get to see any of these issues from an interesting vantage point?
Chip: When I was voted to be the school commencement speaker in 2008, I was trying to think of something that was beyond the usual theme you always hear. Well, one of the things that always bothered me was the literally skin deep discussion of diversity, as if simple pigmentation tells you anything about a person.
When I was growing up in Cedar Rapids, the small population of black people had to live, because of de facto segregation, within a small part of the southeast side, fairly close to this packing plant. I had a really good friend, and I spent a lot of time in his house, but his house smelled funny. I finally figured out: his house is near the packing plant! I learned that. It’s like what I learned from the kid in Baltimore who thought I was from a poor family. I tried to talk about that in my speech. You cannot paint with such a broad brush.
CHR: What are you plans for the summer?
Chip: Supposedly they’re doing our tennis courts. I’m gonna try to pay attention so that so they don’t screw it up, to the extent I have any influence, which I probably don’t. I’ll probably see my daughter and her husband in D.C. sometime in July. You know, climb the hamaya, swim the ocean – the odyssey.
CHR: If you were the commencement speaker this year, what would you say?
Chip: I would say, relax. Nothing you plan now will probably turn out the way you think it will, anyway. It’s a huge, interesting world. Don’t be afraid to participate in it. What bothers me most – and I was a little this way in high school – is people who don’t participate and take pride in that. I think they miss the opportunities. Participating and failing is way, waaay, waaaay better than not trying at all, sitting on the sidelines. What a stupid epitaph: “sat and watched.”
An abridged version of the following appeared in the Review on October 26. Audio clips are on the way!