KIRKLAND, ILL. — Not much of a town, Kirkland. Never really has been.
The population, 1,600 or so 30 years ago, is down around 1,400 now. The days when thousands of sheep
were shuttled in daily from Omaha for a drink and a haircut are long gone. So is the train station. The hemp mill. The drug
store. The oil well. The hotel.
Hiawatha High School-named not for the fellow by the Big Sea Water but for a train-stands where the
racetrack was. There are, today in Kirkland, three taverns, one restaurant, one gas station, one barber chair in Pat`s shop,
a huge grain elevator and little else.
Signs proclaiming Illinois Highway 72`s brief conversion to ``Main Street`` from either direction say
``Welcome to Kirkland: A place to call home.``
Might as well. The phones work, and there`s not much else to do. Nice town, really, just not a lot of
Says Gene Lamont: ``You just go through there, I guess.``
But the man hired this winter to manage the White Sox did more than go through the farm town midway
between De Kalb and Belvidere 75 miles northwest of Chicago. He grew up there, went to school there, still has family there,
still has friends there, still loves it.
``It`s small,`` he said, ``but I enjoyed it, and I still go back all the time. It`s kind of a close-knit
town. Call it a one-horse town or whatever you want to call it, but it`s quite a place.``
Kirkland left its mark on Gene Lamont. Gene Lamont left his mark on Kirkland.
Make that plural.
- In 1964, senior quarterback Lamont, leading a shotgun offense redesigned for his passing
ability, carried Hiawatha`s Hawks to a 7-1 record and their only Little Eight Conference football championship. The season
included a victory over ever-mighty Genoa-Kingston. ``We just could never beat `em,`` Lamont said. ``I don`t think we`ve beat
`em much since.`` He was named the team`s Most Valuable Player.
- Two Lamont school records in baseball still stand, both set as a junior, for triples (six)
and home runs (five) in a season. ``We probably averaged five major-league scouts a day at all our home games,`` said Rich
Dubek, then basketball coach and athletic director at Hiawatha. `` `Here come the Cadillacs and the lawn chairs.` `` As a
senior, Lamont was named the team`s Most Valuable Player.
- In 1964-65, the basketball team went 24-3, losing by a point in the districts to Hampshire,
with Lamont battling a 104-degree fever. In all, 16 school records established by Lamont in basketball at Hiawatha still stand,
including his 26.3-point scoring average (as a junior) and career records in scoring, free throws and rebounds. As a senior,
he was named the team`s Most Valuable Player-for the fourth straight season.
He earned 12 varsity letters and spots on 11 all-conference teams, plus a couple of all-state
teams. Played in the band for four years, sang in the chorus for four years, was Homecoming King, made National Honor Society.
``I always tell everybody, `I graduated eighth in my class,` `` he said.
``I don`t always tell `em how many were in it.``
There were, he said, 41. Or 44. It doesn`t matter.
Kirkland was settled in the 1840s-children`s graves in the Franklin Township Cemetery, across from the
high school, give harsh testimony-but was incorporated formally as a village in 1882. As part of its Centennial, each year
was given a highlight: 50 hitching posts purchased in 1894, a store-opening in 1901, a local man losing his life in World
War I in 1917, the start of garbage pickup in 1946, a firehouse in 1955.
The highlight of 1965: Gene Lamont signs with the Detroit Tigers.
In Kirkland, in all the games, he was the best there ever was.
Then he left.
Gene Lamont signed a scholarship to play basketball at Kansas State. He never got there.