clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The real story behind the Fallon/Emanuel Polar Plunge

All eyes will be on Chicago Sunday — more specifically, on our ice crusted North Avenue Beach, between 10 a.m. and noon.

That’s when Mayor Rahm Emanuel; former Chicago Bear/now Detroit Lion Israel Idonije; “The Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon; and seemingly just about everyone, plans to go jump in the lake, or bear witness to a celebrity-tinged Polar Plunge.

So how on earth did we get to where Twitter conversations between Emanuel and Fallon were among the week’s top news?

Would you believe it started with an elementary school principal who wanted to excite his students about reading?

That principal was Nate Pietrini of Hawthorne Elementary Scholastic Academy, who told his students last school year that if they met specified reading goals within a designated amount of time, he would hit the roof — literally. They did.

And that meant Pietrini camping out in a tent on the roof of the North Side school last May, broadcasting video webcasts at night where he read those students bedtime stories.

“That’s how I got the idea,” said Emanuel in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “When I read about it, I called him and said, ‘Where’d you come up with that?’ He said, ‘I was just looking for a way to challenge them.’ I was swimming the next day, and it came to me. I’d take a page out of his book.”

The mayor threw down the gauntlet for kids in the Chicago Public Library’s “Rahm’s Readers” program, which runs June 17 through Aug. 10. If they could read 2 million books, he said, he’d plunge for the annual Special Olympics fundraiser.

Kids in the program, which is part of the city’s Summer of Learning initiative funded by foundations and corporations, had read 1.5 million books in 2012.

“I thought it was a high goal, and I’d never have to do the plunge. But as the numbers started racking up, I said to the library director and Israel, ‘O.K. You gotta do this with me’,” Emanuel said.

On July 3rd, his office issued a press release that not only Emanuel, but Idonije — an Emanuel Library Board appointee — and Library Commissioner Brian Bannon would do the deed if the goal was met. And of course, it was.

“I was at an event, and the mayor said something like, ‘Izzy, I’ve got something going on. Are you in?’ I said ‘Absolutely, you know you can count on me,’” Idonije said from Detroit.

“It wasn’t until later that his staff called and said, ‘By the way, you said you were in for the Polar Plunge.’ I said, ‘What? Jump in Lake Michigan? In March?!?’” Idonije said.

“And then I’m watching these kids achieve the goal so quickly! I was like, ‘Come on, Mayor! It should have been 6 million books!’ But it was a worthy goal,” he said. “I’m passionate about kids reading. Next year, though, I told him it’s gotta be no less than 10 million books.”

Seemed simple enough. But then came Sun-Times’ TV Critic Lori Rackl’s interview with Fallon, in which he told Rackl he’d love to get Emanuel on his show. And this mayor is never one to miss an opportunity.

“I saw where he was saying I ‘initimidate’ him, and that he’d have me on the show anytime. So I called him,” Emanuel said. “After I told him all about ‘Rahm’s Readers,’ and the challenge, he just loved the whole idea. He told me, ‘Let me check it out.’ He had to look at his schedule, because we didn’t leave him much plan time,” Emanuel recalled.

And voila! This Sunday, the New York-based funny man joins the Second City’s mayor, an NFL player, county prosecutors, Chicago teachers and many others who’ve announced they’re plunging, which might just be about “This, I gotta see.”

But Bannon says Chicago’s library system, ultimately, is the beneficiary of the hoopla. An international study last month ranked it No. 1 in the U.S. and No. 3 in the world — ahead of libraries in Shanghai (5th), Singapore (7th), New York (9th), Beijing (13th), Hong Kong (17th) and London (30th).

But the news out of the Information Science Department of the Heinrich Heine University Dusseldorf in Germany garnered little attention, folks being more interested in how much snow was coming. So Bannon is hoping to milk the exposure.

“Hopefully, we’ll all wear t-shirts talking about ‘Rahm’s Readers’ and how great the library system is,” Bannon said.

“I’m looking forward to Fallon taking the plunge with us, and then going to enjoy our great city afterward,” Idonije said.

“I’m personally ushering in warmer weather,” said Emanuel.

“I’m begging for it, but it’s not looking good. I’m running in, dipping in and getting out. This is the one time my lack of patience will really work for me.”