Quintessential people

Bill Palmer: Making It


by David Rutter | Photography by thomas balsamo

Bill Palmer was 17, and he was a mess. A flat out “on his way to a disastrous life because of bad choices” sort of mess. He was the prototypical kid for whom the term “at risk” seemed to have been invented.

He’d been marginalized starting in third grade. The years that followed led to chronic underachievement. When he began high school at 14, his lack of achievement was disastrous. The years that followed defined the label of a misguided youth. Three high schools in three years—Notre Dame, Niles West, and then Barrington—“my dad’s bright idea”—as the culmination and last chance in what he laughingly calls his high school career. “Yes, I surrounded myself with peers who were a lot like me,” he says. “We all had the same attitudes about life. It was a race to the bottom.”

One day he was offered the opportunity for a full day of work as a wrought iron welder trainee through the work program he was enrolled in at Barrington. He took the day off from school; one day became two days, then three…well you get the picture. He never went back to complete his senior year at Barrington High School. That was 1969.

He was officially, irrevocably, and unalterably doomed. He was a high school dropout. “Yep, I was a greaser. And all my friends were greasers, too.” So long, Bill Palmer. Sorry about the missing pieces for success-in-life.

Except that Bill Palmer did not disappear. In fact, he is a prominent figure behind his thinning hairline and ponytail he wears; perhaps it’s to remind himself that he is never too far removed from the teens he now teaches. He instructs students who are modern variations of Bill Palmer. “Yes, they know that I get it,” he says. “I tell them that if we were the same age, we would probably be friends.”

But he is more important now than a good friend. He is their teacher. “I think I’m probably their safety net,” he says.

Unexpected heroes

And when you consider unusual, unexpected heroes in life and what made them heroes, Palmer has earned the title honestly. Those who know Palmer best—all those students he has tried to help avoid experiencing the pitfalls that once owned his life—would have no doubts about his identity. He’s never missed a commencement. He knows each of his students. Many cry as he greets them in the Honor line on their way back to their seats after receiving their diploma. Their tears are often matched by his.

If there are real heroes in Barrington—people of spiritual grit and fortitude who rise above themselves and everything that might thwart them—then Bill Palmer most certainly is a hero.

He talks about the subject if asked, and his pending book about that life that will do much of the speaking. He’s two years away from retirement now, though he insists he’s unlikely to retire in the larger sense.

He is what he does. He is a teacher, and does not expect ever to be otherwise.

If you have lived in the Barrington area for as long as he has, there’s every chance that you know Palmer by his unannounced, hidden treasures—that is, the young people he’s guided. They live in this community, some are parents; some may sit next to you in church on Sunday; they are co-workers. They are your neighbors. Your friends. They might be you.

True heroism is never easy; otherwise the magic would lack the innate drama of true achievement. He’s been that hero ever since 1993 when he walked back into the same school he had walked away from out of indifference and inertia. He left a successful career in the private sector and came back to teach. “Yes, I am the dropout who came back to the same school to teach,” he acknowledges.

Palmer developed the curriculum and teaches a specialized course titled “Social Interactions.” Since 2008, he has also been the sole teacher of Barrington’s “Resource in Interpersonal Communication” classes, another specialized course.

The classes are the heart of Palmer’s contribution to many of Barrington’s students. He teaches them how to close the gap between their intellect and their achievements. That gap contributes to the potential for failure in school.

He had come back to Barrington to finish some unfinished business. “I was making six figures in the commercial real estate business,” he recalls. “I was a window office guy on Wacker Drive and later moved to an office in Oak Brook to complete the liquidation of a substantial portfolio of land holdings with two business partners. But I realized I wanted to do something more significant with my life. After accomplishing our business plan objectives, I knew the time was right to turn to the career that I had contemplated for a long time. At this point I was reasonably secure financially. Not rich. But enough.”

So he went back to school—again—and became a teacher focusing on adolescents who were challenged much like he was. Jeanne, his bride-to-be some 20 years earlier, had been there to encourage him as he studied to pass the GED exam. This was followed by an associates from Harper College, and a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Northeastern Illinois University. “It took me six years to earn my high school equivalency diploma and 3 ½ to earn a bachelors,” he says with a laugh.

After earning his first two college degrees he became “a suit.” Big money. Big office. He’d made it. But there always was that itch he could not quite reach. He had to go back. Luckily for everyone, the high school welcomed him.

Barrington is a nationally recognized top tier academic high school, in part, because of the profile of its students and the teaching staff. It’s a school designed for high achievers who employ the benefits of a supportive family who often need only marginal extra coaxing.

But out of Barrington High’s 3,000-plus students, there is also a significant number of students who are facing challenges they might lose without help. “Many of these young people struggle with negative influences that are very difficult to navigate without support. There are often family and social issues, educational challenges, issues with their sense of self-worth, and then they come to school,” Palmer says, where he does his best to keep them from being thrown into “the meat grinder of high school life.”

For 23 years, Palmer has been a calm, assuring, insistent voice within the Department of Special Services, where collaboration between school psychologists, social workers, and others funnel students toward Palmer’s classes.

The night school, “Alternative Pathways,” is another source of pride for Palmer. “Pathways is a general educational program which addresses the educational and social needs of its students. Some are moms and dads,” he says. “Some have to help their families financially, and others come to the program to avoid social stressors that exist in the day school setting.”

But they haven’t given up on getting their diploma, and Palmer never gives up on them.

“Special needs” and “at-risk” are so large a catch-all that it sometimes limits outside understanding because the idea’s shape is too large to easily digest. “In my case as a kid, I came from a family that experienced a lot of alcohol abuse and domestic violence.”

*Palmer gets the teens for whom every aspect of life—their skills, their aptitudes, their fears, their hidden life of childhood anguish and social pressure—has disconnected them from their potential to achieve greater success.

Getting the diploma is always his gold standard. It means something deeply symbolic to Palmer. He teaches that it signifies integrity and self-determination.

Palmer’s assignment in both the day and night school programs is not easy. “There are academic standards to be achieved. But what I am doing is teaching them how to think for the first time,” Palmer says. “Some are angry and frustrated and feeling defeated. But they know that I know who they are. What most of the kids have not learned is how shaping emotions leads to thinking, that leads to actions.”

“Yes, I’m not teaching them what to think, but how to think,” he says. “Too many kids are never taught the process of thinking about their thinking.”

As if on cue, a former student stops by Palmer’s table at a downtown Barrington restaurant. She is a recent graduate who works as a server during the lunch shift. “Hi,” says Palmer as he waves to her across the room. “Yeah, she’s one of my kids.”

She glides over. “Oh yes, I was in the meat grinder before joining Pathways,” she says. “Mr. Palmer is like a father figure to me. I would have dropped out. I wouldn’t have made it without him.”

This is the beginning of her moment. Next month she starts school at Harper College and plans on entering the college’s nursing program. Palmer helped her with the transition services, securing scholarships and grants to fund her Harper College education.

Her life has become hers to live now. The future belongs to her and she now knows it. She knows that whatever life brings, she has the ability to seize that life.

After all, she’s one of Bill Palmer’s kids.

Here are some words that others shared about bill palmer

Jeff Aron, Former Colleague

I joined the BHS Special Education department in 1983. In 1991, I was tasked by the superintendent to develop an early intervention program for students struggling with various issues. By 1993, the program had grown to capacity and William Jefferson Palmer was hired to join the program. Bill was the logical choice as he had subbed for me on several occasions. It was apparent that he “got it” and had the skills necessary to deal with the complexities faced by individual students, as well as how to implement behavior change. He fully grasped the concept that the students needed to give him permission to influence them and that this permission was only granted if the student felt unconditionally accepted and safe. Bill’s tenacity has served him well in working on behalf of the best interest of each student.

Bill and I spent the next 15 years working side by side as teaching partners until my retirement in 2008. Those were great times. Among the nicknames we acquired were “old and even older” and “bald and even balder.” Bill was also known as “tassel man” due to the style of shoes he wore. Our journey together was one of great challenges and greater joy. Any success we were able to achieve would not have been possible without the support of the District 220 administration and the many staff members of BHS.

Joan Bell, Colleague

Bill Palmer and I have worked together for 17 years at Barrington High School. His work in Special Services and my work as a counselor often finds our professional paths crossing. Bill is one of the most compassionate and insightful educators I have had the honor to learn from and work with. Bill has a natural ability to develop connections with students that truly change their lives in profound ways. Bill works with students who are facing significant challenges in life. These students quickly learn that Bill provides honest, grounded, caring, and empathic lessons to empower these young people to transcend their struggles. He is an educational artist who sees each individual student as a canvas to transform something, often damaged, into someone strong, unique, and beautiful.

Elizabeth Croucher, Former Student

In almost every person’s life there is a teacher that leaves a lasting impression on them. A teacher that motivates them, believes in their abilities, and pushes them to be the best version of themselves. For me that teacher is Bill Palmer.

Bill was my resource teacher while I was a student at BHS, and has since become a lifelong friend. At the beginning of my freshman year when I first met Bill, my father passed away suddenly. He was estranged from the family and although I did not see him often, it was a sad and life-changing event. Bill became a positive male role model to me after my father’s passing, and continues to be to this day. Any motivation I needed, he was the person I looked up to. Bill is still one of the first phone calls I make when I have exciting news or need guidance. He is always genuinely excited, proud, and quick to offer great advice.

I feel if it were not for Bill, I may not have made it through high school. I struggled academically, but whenever I was ready to give up, Bill would not allow it! He always had words of encouragement. One of my favorite Bill Palmer quotes is, “It is not the event, it is your reaction to the event.” I have carried this quote with me throughout my adult life.

Bill is a compassionate and patient teacher. He has an innate understanding of his students. He embraces and accepts every individual for who they are, and this makes the best of teachers.

Lauren Day, Former Student

I graduated from Barrington High School in 2013. From my sophomore to senior year, I had the privilege of being in Mr. Palmer’s class. Even just three years out of high school now, I can talk about what an impact Mr. Palmer had on my life. He is the most kind, caring, giving, and selfless person I have ever met. With Mr. Palmer you gain not only a teacher but a friend, a mentor, and someone who is always on your side. When I graduated from high school I gave Mr. Palmer a quote that said, “Dreams begin with a teacher that believes in you.” Still to this day, that quote resonates with how I feel about Mr. Palmer. In high school I wanted so bad to graduate early and move to Colorado. He knew it was my dream and helped with everything from talking to my parents about the move, to helping me figure out where I would go to school. High school was a rough time for me, I was lost and I didn’t yet know my place, but in the midst of that craziness I met someone who helped guide the way and lifted me up. I will forever be grateful to have met him!

Claire Di Bella, Colleague

Bill uses his whole heart when working with students at Barrington High School. He cares deeply and is able to make important connections with students that are hard to reach. I’ve worked with him on several difficult cases and he is passionate about helping students succeed not only academically, but emotionally, as well. Bill will work tirelessly on behalf of students’ needs not because it is his job, but because he cares so deeply.

Terry Gano and Deb Drew, Friends

I have known Bill Palmer for almost 45 years, and those 45 years have been quite an adventure! We met in the fall of 1972 as school bus drivers for the Niles Township schools. Our common “affliction” for the Chicago Bears and Cubs and our love for rock and roll music are among many of the things that formed the basis of our friendship and, in part, kept our friendship strong.

After a variety of jobs, we both returned to college. Bill attended Northeastern Illinois University and a few years later, because of the encouragement and support from Bill, I enrolled at Northern Illinois University. Completing my college degree was a life-changing event that has positively impacted the rest of my life in many ways.

After graduation, we both entered the teaching profession: Bill in special education, and I as a high school history teacher and coach. As an educator, Bill can best be described as authentic. He presents the trials of his youth in a way that inspires his students to overcome their own difficulties. Because of his authenticity, his students have the tools to build healthy, happy, and productive lives.

A much smarter person than me once said that if you are lucky enough to have one friend in your life that you can always count on, you can count yourself among the most fortunate. Over the years, Bill has been that friend—not only to me, but to countless others—my wife, our circle of friends, his extended family, and to the youth who are fortunate enough to call him teacher.

Nida Haider, Former Student

I’ve known Bill for a few years now. He plays a big role in my life as an honorable mentor and a dear friend. I met him at the high school during a very difficult time. Bill was one of the few people that taught me the meaning of hope.

If you are ever in a tough place, you can trust that you will walk out of Bill’s classroom feeling less beaten down by the world. The confidence and respect I have for myself now are true gifts. I remember being in a very lonely and sad place at the time of meeting him. He helped lift me out of there and gave me a place to take down the walls I had up throughout the day. He has always been there to provide that. He has to be one of the most wise, kind, and honorable people I know. I feel truly blessed to have met him when I did. I take his words of wisdom with me wherever I go.

Anybody who takes his words to heart is left with a very permanent footprint in their lives. He handles people’s insecurities, and deepest troubles in the most inspiring way. The power he holds to help turn somebody’s life around is remarkable. I would use inspiring as another word because of how confident, and independent I felt leaving the school. I wanted to conquer the world with all the lessons I had learned from Bill. I can only hope to leave the kind of powerful and inspiring imprint in people’s hearts that he leaves.

Vikki and Mike Joyce, Friends

Bill Palmer or “Palmer” (the nickname he is respectfully referred to in our home) is the adult version of the kid you wanted to be best friends with growing up and is the ideal role model to whom we entrust our children. Palmer is a combination of expert personal experiences, unassuming high intellect, an everything-is-going-to-be-OK sense of humor, and he’s fluent in federal education program translation. Palmer expertly humanizes complicated school protocols while convincing parents that their children are the most important in the world. Thank you for all that you do and care about.

Lyndsay Palach, Colleague

Bill Palmer (who I refer to as “BP”) and I have worked together since 2007 in the Special Services Department. We focus on transitioning students from high school to college and/or the world of work.

BP has maintained the philosophy that students need to be available and willing to learn in order for them to achieve success, in and out of school. BP makes it his personal mission to set his students up for success once they graduate from Barrington.

BP is truly invested in the positive futures of each and every student, whether they attend day school or while working with his PATHWAYS students at night. His authentic and often refreshing personality shines through on all things BP. He absolutely makes this building a great place to be! A few years ago, my dog had passed away and just to make sure that I had a smile back on my face, he and Mary Georgeoff framed a picture of the two of them (a rather not so flattering photo with the fluorescent lights of the school), and placed it on my desk. As is now tradition, all three of us have comical framed photos of this bizarre tradition and it makes me laugh each and every time a student is in my office and asks… “Why do you have a framed picture of Mr. Palmer on your desk?”

BP has taught all of us that if you love what you do, then you are lucky enough to live authentically and unapologetically. I have been so lucky to have worked with Bill over the past several years and look to him as a highly trusted mentor and a dear, dear friend.

Landon Petrie, Former Colleague

From 1983-2007, I was a Dean of Students and in charge of building supervision at Barrington High School. I am the program administrator for the Pathways Alternative Program at BHS. Bill teaches U.S. History in Pathways and is the program manager for Pathways students with individual educational plans.

I learned to appreciate Bill in 1993, during his first year at BHS, when he volunteered to be a cafeteria supervisor. Bill demonstrated that he could work with, and earn the respect and cooperation of any student group in the cafeteria. I observed that Bill gives one hundred percent of himself to every endeavor he commits to.

Bill helps young men and women struggling to successfully negotiate the adolescent years to better understand their own behavior, the reasons behind their behavior, and the process of changing how they think and react to situations. Bill’s goal is to help each of them improve the quality of their life. He has helped hundreds of BHS students to transition into adulthood with the skills to make healthier choices and be productive, responsible citizens.

Grateful Parents

We were first introduced to Bill Palmer when he became our child’s program manager at BHS.

Bill recognizes that each student enters his classroom with his/her own reality; formed by both their history and own current set of circumstances. All of these factors contribute to the challenges they face. Bill’s ability to intuitively understand each student struggles is remarkable.

Working with them on a daily basis, Bill builds both incredible trust and rapport with his “kids”. He helps them to identify and recognize any issues which may been contributing to their difficulties. Teaching them to have the confidence in themselves, Bill encourages the use of tools which he teaches in order to overcome these challenges.

Whether it be helping a student learn to manage a chronic physical ailment along with school work, panic attacks due to learning disabilities, or the ever-so-present social anxiety among high school students, Bill is able to make it all look so simple. I remember an occasion where I was able to witness him masterfully negotiating a student who had school avoidance back to school. After carefully addressing each one of the student’s concerns over the phone, he was reassured that all would be safe when he arrived. Bill’s kids learn quickly that Mr. Palmer will always have their back, as long as they continue to do their very best.

Ken Winkley, Friend

I met Bill Palmer in 1967 through a mutual friend, Darlene Raymond. I had moved to the Chicago area only the year before. Bill was a somewhat rebellious, slightly wild young man of 15, and I was pretty much the same at 17. I had dropped out of school, passed the GED, and joined the army.

We both went on to get different kinds of an education. I did three combat tours in Vietnam. He achieved high marks in a formal education. We spent a lot of time together when I came back on leaves and after I left the service. I introduced him to his wife of 42 years, Jeanne. I was the best man at their wedding.

It is difficult to fully describe 48 years of a relationship involving two individuals with so many peaks and valleys in their lifetimes. Suffice it to say that I admire and respect Bill Palmer very much. I am happy to see him honored in this publication, and proud that I have been asked to participate.

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Publisher’s Note: Quintessential People™ is a heartfelt collaboration between our publication and portrait artist Thomas Balsamo. Our goal is to share exceptional images and words that ring true about some of the finest, most inspiring people in our community. For more information, contact QB at publisher@qbarrington.com, or Thomas Balsamo (Portraits By Thomas) at 847-381-7710, or visit www.portraitsbythomas.com.