Decatur, Illinois

Decatur, Illinois
Curve-In, Fairview Avenue

Thursday, May 27, 2010


Salutatorian. What does that even mean?

Everyone thinks they understand the role of being the Class Valedictorian, as best they can, not being one. MacArthur's Class of 1965 happened to have a Valedictorian, Barbara Dyar, who won the D.A.R. Award, and two Co-Valedictorians, Jeanne Bullock and Carole Steele. But it only had one Salutatorian. A guy.

The definition of valedictorian is almost universally understood; it quickly labels the person or persons in the class who obtained the best grades. But how does the salutatorian feel about the runner-up role? What does it mean to us and to that person. Mac '65's Salutatorian was John Robert ("JR") Coutrakon.

In David Wallechinsky's book, Midterm Report: The Class of '65 (NY: Viking, 1986), the author quoted a salutatorian's thoughts, which I shall share here. I won't tell you the name of that salutatorian until the end, after reflecting a bit more about JR.

In the Wallechinsky's book, "The Salutatorian" remembers: "The summer before my senior year, I was chosen to take part in the Governor's Honors Program...four hundred kids from all over the state getting together with the best teachers in the state. My main discipline was physics. I was sort of the top dog in my high school. I thought I was really something. Then I went to this place and I was just like everyone else, and couldn't compete with these guys. But it was a great time. It was just one fantastic mix of people.

"I was salutatorian in my class - second-best grades - but I always beat the other guy on the achievement tests. I gave the salutatory speech at graduation. By that time I was ready to get away...."

Wallechinsky's salutatorian goes on to tell of college, of his time in Vietnam, and his return to the States. "Back then I didn't care if people were against the war, and I didn't care if they were for it. I thought it was something that people could differ on. Besides, it didn't make any difference what I felt anyway, because I was there and was going to be there awhile," he said.

Being interviewed 20 years after his graduation, the "Salutatorian" overviewed his life: "I had a rough time at age thirty-five. I had not accomplished the kind of things that I thought I was going to accomplish back when I thought there were great people in the world. I thought maybe I would be one of them. It turns out that not only am I not one of them, but that there aren't any! Lately - and this may be temporary - what I do for a living is not as important to me as it once was. I seem to enjoy just being around a lot more. The kids are getting into new things."

I can't interview our salutatorian for the reunion book, as he's not here any longer.

It is difficult for us to know how and what JR Coutrakon, our Class Salutatorian of '65, thought or felt about his role. One thing is for certain, JR was a kid that was universally well-liked.

I have heard nothing but overwhelmingly sad feelings about the loss of JR from the Mac Class of 1965. He clearly was friendly to all kinds of people, from a wide spectrum of groups. I recall "knowing him," as much as one got to "know" anyone that was in one of the many groups that floated around high school.

JR wrote a great personal note in my 1962 Yearbook, focussed on me and my interests in a way that several others did that year. But JR added a level of humor, uncommon for a high school kid. He penned this:

"To Abominable Snowman Hunter, Are you really going to hunt the Snowman?? If you can get one, send me a tit-hanger Snowman. Wow!! (Be sure to run downhill or it will get you.)
Good Luck!!
John Coutrakon"

Coutrakon's achievements in the 1965 Cadet were vast: four years of wrestling, Summer Science Institute as a sophomore and junior, and Monitor, NHS, Class Sergeant of Arms as a junior and senior, to name a few.

Then he traveled West.

JR Coutrakon, who was born on January 10, 1947, died in a wreck involving a logging truck, according to what his friends have shared.

His obituary was published in the Decatur Herald & Review on Valentine's Day, 1987. The sterile details in the paper give little hint of how awful the crash was. "John Roberts Coutrakon, 40, of Brookings, Ore., formerly of Decatur, died Tuesday (Feb. 3, 1987) in Coquille, Ore., from injuries suffered in an automobile accident."

Do you recall the day the music died when he was killed? February 3rd, no less, is a highly symbolic date to the 1965 grad generation.

The article gave a mere glimpse of what JR had been doing at Mac and beyond. "Mr. Coutrakon...was salutatorian and a champion wrester of Decatur MacArthur High School class of 1965. He was a founding partner of the law firm of Coutrakon & Badin, Brookings, and a member of the Oregon State Bar."

JR was survived by his father, mother, and brother.

He left them and us too early, of course. He shall be one among too many missed in June 2011.


BTW, who was Wallechinsky's "Salutatorian"? That would be Plains High School Class of 1965 member and salutatorian Jack Carter, son of a future president named Jimmy Carter.


Tim Henebry said...

Loren. Really good of you to put up this article on John "JR" Coutrakon. You really struck a chord with me on this one. A few reflections. I knew JR pretty well and did "hang out" with him some at school--often times at the library during honor study (not that I was much of an honor student). I think you're right about him being well-liked by just about everyone. He would also take time to help out others in small ways that I'm sure were appreciated by the person themselves but didn't really draw much notice. I saw him frustrated at times, but never truly angry at others and certainly not one to hold a grudge. I've often referred to him over the years as possibly the smartest kid I ever knew. He was very quick on the "uptake" but didn't call attention to it in any way--just taking his abilities as a matter of course. I never heard him talk about his grades or make any reference to his "standing" in that way--so my guess is that he didn't feel too badly about being a second-place Salutatorian--certainly not "second best". Not only was he a top-notch wrestler and involved in a lot of school activities but (I believe) he also worked a night job at UPS during much of his senior year. He was pretty broad-spectrum for a high school boy. JR was one of the very few of our classmates that I bumped into, briefly, about a year or so after our '65 graduation. In fact, it I saw him over at the Fairview Plaza as I was coming out of a store (Walgreen's?). I was with some others and we didn't talk long, but what struck me most was how much he'd become big physically. John was at least 2-3 inches taller than he'd been in his senior year and, no longer the rail thin wrestler, but had become a very sturdy looking presence. I never saw him again after that. Some others then told me that after college he went to California and was doing the "beach bum" thing for a while. Years later, I'd heard he'd been killed in the auto accident you describe. This was a bit eerie to me for a couple of reasons. First, John and I were both probably living in Oregon at the same time--I was there through the early 80's--but didn't know he was out there. Secondly, in the late seventies, I came very close to having a truck in the wrong lane hit me head-on along the same stretch of coastal highway on which John was killed. I understood that he and his law partner were on their way back home from a trial in Coos Bay, which they'd won. His passing was sad and he died way too young. My guess however is that he had a very good and deliberate life where he was living. The Brookings area is a very beautiful rural and isolated area--by both mountains and forests--on the southwest Oregon coast. A place you don't likely end up unless by intent.


Barefootlotuss said...

For some reason I had the thought yesterday to try and find something on the internet about John C. I have searched for years. . and there was this post. . .that very same day. . that's remarkable. Anyway, I knew John not in High school, so thank you for letting me write here, but met him the year he graduated from Stanford, 1971. We had a relationship for a time and parted ways later that year and I never saw or heard from him again. I have wondered a lot, and am grateful to you for posting this, the only info I've found so far. If you have more references I'd be grateful. John was a poet (yes, phenomenal) and a scholar. . .student of literature, especially history, and a rather radical student of American society in the era we grew up in.