Fifteen years after David Letterman playfully mocked their hometown, high school students taught by an Illinois State alum are sending a message right back to the retiring late-night host.

Back in 2000, Letterman mockingly sent two gazebos to Kankakee after the Illinois community was named America’s worst place to live. They’ve been up ever since.

Bill Curtin ’05 teaches at Kankakee High School, and students in his American Experience class were upset last fall when they read about the gazebos’ origin during a local history project.

“They said, ‘This doesn’t reflect the Kankakee that we know and grew up in,” he said.

Soon, Curtin’s students embarked on a grassroots campaign to replace the Letterman gazebos, sparking a passion for civic engagement while learning soft skills like public speaking and persuasive writing.

Bill on two desks teaching

Illinois State alum Bill Curtin teaching Shakespeare to his students.

They’ve been successful. One of the gazebos was taken down February 4, with plans to send Letterman a rocking chair for his retirement made from its scrap wood. Letterman’s Late Show is sending a crew to Kankakee in March to film a segment to air before his last episode May 20.

“We’re taking skills from all over the curriculum and applying them to the real world,” said Curtin. “It’s really impressive to see their growth, and I couldn’t be prouder of what they’ve accomplished.”

Their tongue-in-cheek response to Letterman has earned Kankakee High School lots of local and national media attention, including in the Chicago Tribune, CBS News, and The Associated Press.

Curtin wasn’t searching for national media attention when he launched his innovative American Experience class this school year. Along with co-teacher Steve DiSanto, Curtin leads students through a hybrid curriculum of history and literature, starting with present day material and working backwards. They’ll study the 2008 financial crisis, for example, and then look at which laws set the stage for it to happen, and then study how it’s actually connected to the Great Depression.

The class doesn’t even have a textbook. Students just use the Internet on school laptops.

Curtin's students are interviewed

Curtin’s students are interviewed about the gazebos by a CBS television station in Chicago.

“This has been the greatest thing to happen in my educational career,” Curtin said.

Curtin majored in English education at Illinois State, with minors in history and Spanish. He had “great professors who taught me the sky’s the limit.” Among the courses Curtin remembers most was Semantics, in which he learned the meaning and power of individual words.

“That provided me with the philosophical grounding to go out into the education world and put my ideas into practice,” Curtin told STATEside.

When his students read about the gazebos, a funny idea emerged: What if they gave them back? The students brainstormed together and then broke into committees to divide up the work. One team wrote draft after draft of a letter to the Late Show producers about the rocking chair.

Others focused on the politics, preparing for a presentation to city hall. They honed their argumentative skills, presented both logical and emotional appeals, and even practiced gestures.

 Letterman gazebo in Kankakee

One of the Letterman gazebos in Kankakee.

“The hardest part was convincing the mayor this wasn’t just a bunch of kids with a hair-brained idea,” Curtin said.

They did get permission, and the first gazebo is already down. Now, after an outpouring of financial support in Kankakee, students are thinking bigger. Plans are in the works to build a new outdoor pavilion and stage for a music festival, as well as improvements to a separate park in a blighted neighborhood.

The students hope the Late Show segment, when it airs this spring, will help reverse negative stereotypes about Kankakee, a city of about 27,000 south of Chicago.

“We have an increased level of civic engagement among these young people,” Curtin said. “I hope they come back to Kankakee and give back to their community later in life. Now they’re invested in it.”

Ryan Denham can be reached at