TOPMAN ¶ Online Writings by and about John Preston

A History Teacher Gets to Know His "Preppy" Student


By Arthur Zilversmit

[The following passages about John Preston's time at Lake Forest College, Illinois, were taken from several e-mails sent by Dr. Zilversmit, some in response to questions. —Ed.]

John was one of my favorite students at a time when the students were much closer in age to me. He was a very good looking young man from a distinguished family (dating to the early Puritan years of New England, but I think the family had fallen on hard times). He had very polished social manners and was a great favorite with Lake Forest matrons who often chose him to take their daughters to debutante events.

He had no facial hair and a "normal" haircut. He definitely seemed upper class preppy when I knew him.

His friend, Jim Kidney, came from a much different background but they got to be very good friends. I think that John saw his role as teaching Jim some of the rules of upper class living. I remember an incident when he and Jim went to the wash room in a fancy hotel and an attendant approached Jim with a clean towel. Jim did not know what to do in this situation and he tipped the man $5.00, which John found deliciously naive.

In class, John was bright, articulate and committed to learning. He took my two-semester course American Thought and did very well (earning the equivalent of an A), in what I regard as a tough course. That's how his connection with the Puritan Preston came out.

While at Lake Forest College he was active in the campus Episcopal group, a tutorial project and he was in charge of a conference on Scandinavia. He was also active in freshman orientation.

As far as I know there was no gay community at Lake Forest College during the Preston years. I first became aware of gay students on campus a decade or so after John left.

In those days John stayed firmly in the closet and I had no idea about his sexual orientation, which I learned about long after he graduated. I was deeply saddened when I heard of his death, although I had long ago lost contact with him.

Arthur Zilversmit is a Distinguished Service Professor of History Emeritus of Lake Forest College, Illinois.

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