CHICAGO — It's not every day a high school can say Playboy founder Hugh Hefner came to save the day.
But that's what happened at Steinmetz High School in Chicago's Belmont Cragin neighborhood, where Hefner, a Class of 1944 graduate, got his start in writing and publishing.
Hefner sent the school's newspaper, the Steinmetz Star, a pledge of $37,500 over five years (or $7,500 a year) to preserve the paper's more-than-80-year tradition of printing after Chicago Public Schools officials announced in December the Star's print edition would have to cease because of cost concerns.
The plan to cut out the print version came amid a censorship flap between student journalists and the school's principal.
In a Feb. 16 letter to the Star sent by Hefner's assistant Amanda Warren, Warren wrote that throughout his life, "Hef has personally fought to uphold the First Amendment so that all journalists — student and professional — would be guaranteed the same protections under the Constitution."
"He and everyone here at Hugh M. Hefner Foundation were pleased to hear that the recent censorship issue with the Star was resolved in a positive way."
Sharon Schmidt, a journalism teacher at Steinmetz who helps advise the Star, said Hefner's work "championing the First Amendment is an inspiration" to her students, who feel proud to know they're supported in having their voices heard.
"We were encouraged by the thought — when we were fighting the principal at Steinmetz for his recent censorship of student reporting — that our benefactor Hugh Hefner has always taken a stand for the First Amendment and is against censorship," Schmidt said.
As a Steinmetz student, Hefner was "an average student, despite having an IQ of 152," according to a profile posted on the Steinmetz Alumni Association site. He contributed to the school paper as a writer and cartoonist. He was also class president.
In a biography of Hefner, "Mr. Playboy," author Steven Watts says Hefner became the leader of a group of friends and, at 17, "created the persona of an imaginative, romantic figure" which "became a template for his life."
He started referring to himself as "Hef" and once described his character as "a lanky Sinatra-like guy with a love for loud flannel shirts and cords, and jive for music."
In short, Hefner once said, he became "the teenager that I wanted to be."
Hugh Hefner is seen in this yearbook photo from Steinmetz.
The decision to cut the Steinmetz print newspaper and move to an online-only platform was made by CPS officials as a way to try to explain Principal Stephen Ngo's early morning email Dec. 26 to 11 teachers and counselors with the subject line "Journalism" that read, "Scratch Journaism [sic] for next year. We will not be offering it anymore. There will be no more Steinmetz Star. I'm still deciding what to do with it for the second semester."
Michael Passman, a CPS spokesman, said earlier that he "couldn't explain" the comments made by Ngo fully, but believed what Ngo meant to say was that a previous $50,000 grant from Hefner would run out the following school year. Because of that, Passman said it was likely Steinmetz would move to an online-only format — an idea staunchly rejected by Steinmetz students and staff.
Ngo's email came after student McKenzie Lacefield posted an article originally meant for the December edition of the Star (that was later published in February) critical of CPS changes to start times.
The story was delayed after Ngo and CPS Network Chief Randell Josserand insisted students write more about the positive affects of the start time changes — a move Lacefield and others considered a form of censorship. CPS has never cited sleeping in later as a reason behind the move to change bell times, as many schools moved to an earlier start time of 7:30 a.m.
In January, Ngo and Josserand came to visit Star students to talk about the story and handed out literature that cited statistics on the benefits of sleep they said students should use in their story.
In the meantime, Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago) introduced a bill Feb. 11 that would strengthen the rights of student journalists and limit what content school administrators have control over.
Despite the controversy, Schmidt said she and her students are grateful for Hefner's continued support and encouragement.
"I'm so grateful for Hef's support," Schmidt said. "The professional printing we're able to do, thanks to Mr. Hefner's donation, inspires our student reporters to work on a professional level. The newspaper staff and the readers in the Steinmetz community really value the Star, in large part because of Hef's involvement."
Read Hefner's letter to students below, written by longtime personal assistant Amanda Warren.
A letter sent to the Steinmetz Star student newspaper from alum Hugh Hefner, who started his career in writing at the high school. [Provided]
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