Three Cheers for 'Anonymous'

First, of course, for the gift of $450K to rebuild Burgess Field. Second for its timeliness. And third, for showing the incredibly rare class to not seek credit, in a self-congratulatory age.

All I can tell you for sure is that it’s certainly not me.

That, and I’m not going to try to find out—and neither should you. (More on that at the end.)

Not that I wouldn’t have loved to be able to write the check to make possible what an anonymous donor of $450,000 accomplished this past week—enabling the Geneva Board of Education to solicit bids so that work can promptly begin at the end of May to rip out the muddy mess that Burgess Field has been for nearly every November of its 36-year existence, and to replace it by late August with a modern artificial-turf surface designed to stand up to four levels of football, three levels of soccer, and hundreds of marching-band practices even in the rainiest of autumns.

Indeed, for the last five years or more I had said, to both my wife and to GHS Athletic Director Jim Kafer, that if one of the MegaMillions lottery tickets we’d been purchasing every week or so ever paid off with at least, say, $10 million, that one of the first things we’d do with that fortune would be to cover the entire $800,000 to $1 million amount for a state-of-the-art FieldTurf surface.

For years, I never thought I would have said such a thing. I had long been (pardon the expression) a stick-in-the-mud traditionalist when it came to athletic venues. I’ve always thought the best two places in the world to watch a baseball game are Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. (Still do.) And back in the late ’70s when I went to the University of Illinois, I thought the first-generation artificial turf that the Illini then played on was an abomination—basically a big green plastic welcome mat thrown over a big concrete patio; horrid for players knees.

Locally at that same time, I was one of the few people who kept complaining as to why Geneva High even had to abandon OLD Burgess Field, which since 1921 had been shoehorned in between Logan and McKinley avenues just north of the Coultrap building, in fall 1974—with its wonderful old concrete bleachers, cinder track, and pressbox the size of the Mercury space capsule. And though we would hear various stories in the years to come as to various reasons why the “new” Burgess Field never seemed to drain well (insufficient drainage tiles, cost-cutting on its foundation layer, never “crowned” properly, etc.) I can tell you that old Burgess, the home of Viking football for 53 seasons, didn’t drain all that well either: Indeed, I recall the 50-yard line resembling a creek—with water actually flowing, north to south—during one rainy late-season Batavia game.

And THAT was when there were only eight-game seasons with no postseason: Just four home Friday-night football doubleheaders every fall, and maybe a total of a dozen other freshman, JV, and middle-school games played on the surface, any given autumn. Yes, Henry Pinter’s Viking Marching Band would practice and perform on the field also—but there might have been 40 kids in the band, tops.

Three-and-a-half decades later, things are VERY different.

My mind was changed on artificial turf dramatically on Nov. 20, 2004—the Saturday of the first-ever IHSA semifinal football playoff game that Geneva ever got to host at Burgess Field. (Note that Geneva also hosted, and won over Geneseo, a semifinal playoff game in November 1975. But Burgess Field was a mess and Coach Jerry Auchstetter’s team had to play the game at Batavia.)

I was astonished that day in '04, when I came down from the P.A. microphone and ventured across the field about a half-hour before the game to the Bloomington sideline to try to find out starters. Nov. 20, 2004 was cold and cloudy—but rainless. However, it didn’t matter: There had been so much rain that fall, and so many football and soccer games played, with so many hundreds of cleated shoes aerating and kneading the surface ... that, at midfield, it truly felt as though I was walking across a gigantic, slippery-surfaced, spongy Jello mold—or perhaps a flat glob of unbaked bread dough!

I have, quite seriously, had steadier footing walking across a hockey rink.

I somehow made it back up to the booth without falling on my butt, and bluntly said to my spotter, the late Chuck Lencioni, “I don’t know how the hell they’re going to play football on that mess.”

And they didn’t, very well. It changed the tenor of the game completely. Bloomington won that day, and went to the championship game, by being more successful at the day's only reasonable offensive strategy: pitches or short passes to wideouts set as close to the sideline as possible, where there was still a bit of turf for cleats to grab onto. Should Coach Rob Wicinski’s team have followed such a tactic that day? Probably yes. Should they have had to? No.

Ever since that day, I’d been convinced that, with the amount of use that GHS’ football/soccer field must endure every fall, that artificial turf at Burgess was neither a showy affectation nor a luxury, but a necessity.

Unfortunately, the public drumbeat for such a concept didn’t reach the necessary decibel level for about another five and a half years—by which time we were all smack in the middle of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

And at that point, Geneva’s Board of Education did the exactly right thing. They concluded that the Burgess Field surface needed to be rebuilt—and agreed to budget roughly an amount necessary to replace what was there: natural grass. If artificial turf was to become reality—at roughly double the initial cost—the difference would have to be made up by public donations.

But as noted just above, we were, again, in the middle of a brutal economic downturn. Local companies that might have covered 30 percent or 40 percent of the necessary amount simply couldn’t justify such a decision to their shareholders in such an environment. And local families which in more confident times might have sent a $200 or $300 check to the tireless Tom Finnberg, who spearheaded the fundraising project, instead were pulling a ten or a twenty from the wallet and saying to Tom: “Good luck, friend; hope you can do it.”  

And the sad and blunt truth was that he wasn’t going to be able to do it.

At the rate donations were coming in, it would have taken a full decade. And anyone who knows the psychology of fundraising will tell you that this same rate couldn’t have continued; the urgency and enthusiasm couldn’t have been sustained.

Enter the hero of the hour: Anonymous. An individual with enough resources and enough community spirit to write a $450,000 check—and to be able to do so.

I think I know about a dozen people around our community who could do this. But I will not speculate, now or in the future; certainly not publicly and not even privately.

Before you accuse me of being the most incurious journalist you’ve ever heard of, please consider:

Just how wonderful and refreshing is it—in today’s society awash in look-at-me narcissism, in which self-aggrandizing corporations pay millions to PR machines so they can get the most prominent possible pat-on-the-back for every dollar they ostentatiously donate to charity—how great is it, that here, we have someone who has decided to do something good for thousands of kids, now and in the future, without caring ONE BIT about what’s in it for him or her?

(I happen to work for an organization, the Moose fraternal order, full of people like that. Which is why, thanks to the Moose of Ohio, Mooseheart was able to install a state-of-the-art FieldTurf surface at its Route 31 stadium last summer.  I’ve walked and run on it—and it’s wonderful; light-years better than the hard, unforgiving AstroTurf of decades past.)     

When you have someone like that with that kind of generosity AND unselfishness, if they want to stay anonymous, you say “yes sir” or “yes ma’am,” you add a “God bless you," you celebrate your good fortune—and you emphatically leave it alone.

Jim Kautz April 11, 2011 at 05:42 PM
You nailed it Kurt. So well said.
Christine Donovan April 11, 2011 at 06:34 PM
I agree with Jim, you nailed it on the head, Kurt. I'll just add on thing. For those who were raised, & presently live in Geneva.... we are truly blessed. We live in a community that places value, & cares about the quality of life for it's residents and those in the future.
Matt Rodewald April 14, 2011 at 12:23 PM
Similar to Kurt, my mind changed while covering the Vikings in October 2003 - end of regulation after a rainy Week 9 grinder against Batavia: 0-0 - 4 Overtimes later and Geneva missed the playoffs on blocked FG chipshot.


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