Playboy founder and Chicago native Hugh Hefner had one big question before once again writing a check to help keep Steinmetz College Prep’s newspaper alive.
A bit over two months after a story written by Steinmetz students was held by the school’s principal, the director of the Hefner Foundation wanted to know whether they were “satisfied” with the outcome of the “censorship.”
“I told them I was satisfied, and that’s when I knew they were planning to continue funding us,” said Sharon Schmidt, the Steinmetz Star’s newspaper adviser and an English and journalism teacher at the high school.
On Thursday, she learned Hefner would continue to fund printing costs for the paper for five years — contributing about $7,500 a year. Hefner is renewing a five-year grant he began contributing in 2010 after a visit to the school where his journalistic career began. It’s also the birthplace of his well-known “Hef” nickname.
It’s no surprise censorship was a concern for Hefner, who founded the Hugh M. Hefner Foundation in 1964 to fight for individual rights, with an emphasis on First Amendment rights and “rational” sex and drug policies.
The student newspaper continues to report on the censorship allegation, most recently publishing its full story about later dismissal times on its front page in the January-February edition. It also printed a submission from the school’s principal, who defended his actions in saying he held the story in December so that student journalists could make it less “one-sided” by interviewing local school council members and the school’s nurse about alleged effects on the late school start times.
The story stated a later bell schedule at the high school resulted in more sleep for students but limited student activities after school and created a safety concern for some students returning home in the dark. Students surveyed 1,400 students, teachers and parents for the story.
It’s not a shocker that Hefner is still involved in the workings of the Steinmetz Star, where he was a reporter and cartoonist before graduating in 1944.
“I must say when we landed here in Chicago, there was a peaceful something going on inside of me,” Hefner told the Sun-Times during a visit to Chicago in 2005. “It really felt like coming home.”
It was during a 2010 press tour for a documentary about his life that Hefner returned once again to Steinmetz, where as student council president Hefner led a failed attempt to install jukeboxes in the lunchroom. During that visit, Hefner spoke with about 200 students about the school’s history of strong writing programs.
During that visit, Schmidt let Hefner know a lot had changed in terms of resources at the school since he left. Hefner asked Schmidt what the paper needed, Schmidt recalled. He had been contributing to the school in some fashion — including donating new band uniforms — since the 1960s.
“I didn’t know what to ask for so I made a list. And I sent it over. He [Hefner] said, ‘I want to help with printing the paper for five years,’” Schmidt said.
Hefner also donated computers, cameras, photo copiers and scanners, which were among the items on her wish list for the newspaper staff.
The newspaper, which prints from five to 10 issues a year, would have been funded by Hefner until November 2016. But in January, Schmidt became concerned that the paper would no longer see its product in print due to budget cuts.
Schmidt attended the school’s Local School Council meeting in February to discuss the newspaper’s funding. There she talked about the impact the newspaper had on the community and its staff.
“Even without the donation, we should still budget the money because it’s really valuable for the community, for the reporters and also for the kids that are being featured. You have so many kids that are saving the papers. You talk to kids and you ask whether they saw their story and they say, ‘Oh yes, it’s on my mom’s fridge,’” Schmidt said.
With Hefner’s printing commitment, the Steinmetz Star will be printed on high-quality color pages until 2021. Schmidt said about 50 students work on the newspaper, which covers news, opinion, arts and entertainment and sports.
“The printing made a big difference because it just looks great. Our paper is published in full color,” Schmidt said. “We go all out and we’ve found that people love it. Our kids are motivated to do good work.”