Using the 70s sitcom “Mork & Mindy” as a launching pad, Robin Williams rocketed to international fame. But his classmates in Lake Forest had front row seats to the incredible talent of Williams a little over a decade before.
“I was in English class with him in Mr. Bright’s class at Deer Path and we were all assigned to memorize a poem and recite it to the class,” remembered classmate Joan Edwards, who went to school with Williams in the early 1960s. “Robin memorized ‘Gunga Din’ by Rudyard Kipling and recited it in an amazing sense. We were blown away that he could recite a poem in such a way as he was so quiet.”
Like Edwards, many of Williams’ fellow Lake Forest school chums remember the actor as quiet, but showing occasional flashes of the comedic acting prowess that came to light in his roles as Mork, Mrs. Doubtfire or psychologist Sean Maguire in “Good Will Hunting,” just to name a few. Williams died Monday after an apparent suicide in his California home.
Classmate Deni Eads also remembered Williams’ recitation of Kipling.
“He got up in front of the class and he used the whole thing with a British dialect and he was so very funny. I also remember standing with him in line and he would always have funny things to say about people,” she said. “He would take rubber bands and then pull them out of his nose.”
Eads added she was at the 45th high school class reunion just a few weeks ago and one of the items alumni reminisced about that night was how Robin Williams was their classmate in lower grades and the funny bow ties he wore.
Williams was also very smart, placing in Deer Path’s highest academic level, according to Bruce Lutz, who had seventh-grade homeroom with the actor.
“He was a really intelligent kid, on a whole different wavelength from the rest of us,” Lutz said, recalling how Williams shared interesting perceptions of the world. “I can just remember that we’d look at him, like ‘Whoa, where’d that come from.’”
Watching Mork & Mindy with classmates years later, Lutz said he wasn’t surprised at Williams’ comedic brilliance and off the cuff style.
“None of us were surprised that he reached that level,” he said.
Tributes poured in on Facebook and Twitter from others who knew Williams.
He was born in Chicago and spent time in Lake Forest and Lake Bluff before moving to other parts of the country.
“We weren’t living in a mansion,” Williams told WBBM-TV in 2013, remembering his time on the North Shore. “It was just a really nice little house in Lake Forest, but it was really lovely. I remember that being really good times for me.”
One of the people he spent a lot of time with was Greg Jon Welsh, an author and poet who now lives in Arlington, Va. Welsh recalled living a quarter of a mile away from Williams in Lake Forest.
“I remember a number of the playdates we had,” Welsh said Monday night. “His father had a big Army parachute and we would play in that. We went up in the attic and played board games and joked around and made funny faces and played characters of one kind or another.”
Some of the particularly fun times the pre-teen Welsh and Williams had in those couple of year involved horsing around on the roof of the Williams garage. Williams had a huge collection of toy soldiers, and the two would go on top of the garage and light the soldiers on fire. As they dropped, the lead in the soldiers would melt, and make the same noise as a bomb falling, Welsh recalled.
As for the night of the “Gunga Din” recital, Welsh himself gave a presentation of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.”
“That was my moment on stage with Robin Williams,” he joked.
The Williams family apparently left the area after Robin completed seventh grade.
“I don’t recall ever saying goodbye to him,” Welsh said. “The school year was over and they were gone.”
He never talked to him again, but Welsh said he had been thinking about reaching out to Williams recently but did not think it was an appropriate time given the star’s recent trip to rehab after a battle with substance abuse.
Amid the grim news of Monday night, Welsh was thinking of some of Williams most famous performances, particularly his appearance on the second-to-last broadcast of Johnny Carson’s reign as Tonight show host in May 1992.
He described Williams’ passing as the loss of a “prodigious talent.”
The American Suicide Foundation released a statement on Williams’ death Tuesday morning.
“He brought laughter into every life he touched; Robin also suffered from depression,” the statement said. “We have to do more to prevent such tragic deaths through greater awareness of mental health issues, warning signs, effective interventions and treatment. Suicide is preventable and we all have a role to play to end the tragedy of suicide.”