There’s no time left on the clock. You just made your first free throw to tie the game against your bitter conference rival, and every member of the crowd stands breathless. You walk to the line and catch the ball from the referee.
You grasp the basketball before raising your eyes to the hoop. Never has a Friday night felt such silence as in that moment, and you think of your team, your family, your town … and then you release the ball.
You hear the crowd scream. You’re lifted above the dream.
Kenny Fisher and his sister Kelly Johnson — both Tiskilwa High School (THS) graduates — decided to open a watering hole/eatery in the town they love right around the turn of the century. A few years after Kelly’s Place opened on Main Street in Tiskilwa, Fisher was introduced to an idea that would ensure the spirit of the Tiskilwa Indians would never diminish in the Gem of the Valley.
“Doug and Dave Compton came up with the idea for the trophies,” Fisher said, stating the old high school roof was leaking and some of the old THS trophies were getting wet and deteriorating. “They said bring them up to Kelly’s Place, but I didn’t know where to put them or how many I could fit.”
Fisher talked to then-Mayor Bill Hamilton and received permission from the Tiskilwa town board to display the trophies in his establishment and renovated the ceiling of his business so the trophies could fit above the bar. Fisher reiterated the trophies do not belong to him, but to the generations of student athletes who earned them, and his goal in displaying them has always been to keep the flame lit on the rich history of THS.
“When we went down to the high school to haul the trophies over, I teared up as I walked across the gym floor,” Fisher said, overwhelmed by the positive impact THS had on his entire life thereafter. “When we consolidated, we lost a lot of our identity, and many businesses in town closed down not too long after.”
Driven by the logic that greater academic opportunities and social development would result from consolidation — as well as various multi-dimensional economic factors — THS students were sent to Princeton beginning in 1996. As with any decision of such magnitude, some community members agreed, while others did not.
“I’m older now, so when you look back you realize how special it really was,” Fisher said, emphasizing the size of the hot rod parking lot on any weekday afternoon and the tenure of faculty who expected the best efforts available in the classroom or on the football field. “You couldn’t ask for a better place to raise a family, so what happened here is sad to me because so many good memories of the glory days come back each time I think about it.”
Fisher’s family moved from Arlington Heights to Tiskilwa when he was 8 years old, and he said it was one of the finest privileges of his life. Nobody locked their doors or was ever bored — even without cell phones and only three channels on the antennae — because if you weren’t fishing at the canal you were heading to the park to earn a roster spot for the pigskin pick-up game.
“If you go look on that all-conference board, you’d find a whole bunch of guys who you knew from grade school on,” Fisher said, speaking of the results of community continuity regardless the population of a town. “High school should be some of the best times of your life, and I feel a lot of the people who graduated from Tiskilwa felt that way.”
Fisher acknowledged the reality of consolidation eventually reaching Tiskilwa, but said the high school was less than two decades old and the town was not broke when it did happen. He voiced his belief politics were pushed on those who opposed consolidation, and although a former THS Indian houses biased blood, he said the school was never lacking for quality.
“Some of the greatest minds in this world come out of one-room schoolhouses, and if you were a walking, talking, breathing male you played football — and felt like part of the team,” Fisher said, rejoicing the efforts of every teacher and coach he had, recalling them as second to none. “The teachers were beyond awesome, and you were going to learn something in their class because they demanded the greatest approach.”
Fisher said he is honored when old-timers come into his establishment and point at the trophies with the words, “Remember that game …” drifting through the air. When he sees a local legend come through the door, he stops what he is doing to offer a warm hug or handshake.
When he was young and made those free throws to win the tournament, high fives would accompany him through the weekend, but as Fisher has grown older and wiser he realizes all he needs to describe what his heart celebrates is two simple words … thank you.
“If I won the lottery I’d buy back the high school and make something out of it because it meant something to play beside those guys and be led by individuals who touched so many lives,” Fisher said, using the trophies to deter the forgetfulness of history.
“I wish my kids and grandkids could have experienced what we went through because it wasn’t just the teachers, the school, the sports or the culture. It was everything.”