The morning we stopped to meet Peggy Mullin, wife of the late Gene Mullin, who was a much loved Lake Forest High School (LFHS) teacher for more than 35 years, she was surrounded by hundreds of handwritten letters. “It’s been so surprising,” Peggy says. “Since Gene died, I’ve heard from people that we hadn’t talked to in years. But they wanted to make sure I knew what Gene had meant to them or what he had meant to their children.”
Gene came to Lake Forest in 1950, where he accepted his first job as an English teacher at LFHS. To Gene, there was nothing more important than reading. For this reason, he started a reading laboratory at the school in the ’60s. The “lab” was an inviting space with tropical plants, colorful art, and no desks—just a sign with an arrow saying, “This way to happiness.”
“The thing about Gene is that he believed in all of the kids,” remembers longtime friend and former colleague Denny Herrmann. “He knew that not all kids were meant to be Rhodes Scholars. But that didn’t matter to him. He made them all feel important and that they were worth something. He helped them believe in themselves by introducing them to all sorts of books.” Gene’s approach to reading was always a soft sell. “Mullin’s my name and reading’s my game” was as forceful as he’d get. He intrinsically knew that once a child found a book he liked, he’d typically find another.
“Gene could always tell a good story,” says Denny, who taught the woodworking and shop classes during Gene’s tenure at LFHS. “I knew there were kids who really liked my classes better, but Gene would win them over, acting something out or playing an instrument,” he says with a laugh. There was never any question how much Gene loved his students, and he would always make sure that they knew it. Gene had a soft spot for those who struggled and that didn’t leave him when he retired from LFHS in the mid-1980s. He quickly became involved in different ministries offered at the Church of St. Mary in Lake Forest.
“When I retired, I was looking through the St. Mary’s bulletin to see if I might find something to do,” says Tom Kerf. “It seemed that just about every job had Gene’s name attached to it.” Tom and Gene became fast friends as they partnered in the day-old bread pickup they did around Lake Forest, then transported their finds up to what’s now called Holy Family Food Pantry. “This was pretty heavy work, and Gene did it until he was well into his 80s,” says Tom. “And he wouldn’t just make one delivery to the food pantry. There were always two or three elderly shut-ins that he’d stop and visit along the way and leave some of what he collected.”
About five years ago, Gene did finally realize that collecting the bread may be more than someone his age could handle on a weekly basis. It was at about this time that a Waukegan elementary school that knew Gene had a fondness for sketching asked him to come in and sketch the kindergarten class. “Gene had such a good heart,” recalls Tom. “Of course, he accepted the school’s request and headed to Waukegan every day with his sketch book. What started as a project with a few children was soon the entire class. And before Gene knew it, he was sketching every child in the school so they could give the pictures to their mothers for Mother’s Day.”
As the love of Gene’s life, married more than 60 years and having once shared an apartment over Market Square, Peggy is adjusting to her new life without him. “I’ve been so touched by all of those who’ve reached out to me,” she says. “What Gene did, he did very well. We had a wonderful life together. Lake Forest has been very good to us.”
—Ann Marie Scheidler