If you know a student who in the past 10 years attended a public school in Wheaton or Glen Ellyn, chances are you’ll be able to find in their bookshelf or backpack a paperback dictionary courtesy of Ted Utchen.
Since 2002, the Wheaton man has been a welcomed visitor in third-grade classrooms in the west suburbs, where he delivers a 35-minute presentation on the importance of good grammar and leaves each student with their very own crisp dictionary to take home.
This month, Mary French, the director of the non-profit Dictionary Project, visited Utchen in Wheaton, capping 10 years of his service.
"He’s excited about it, and that enthusiasm crosses over to the classroom with the students," said Kathleen Bossier, director of curriculum for Wheaton Warrenville Community Unit School District 200. "They benefit from his passion."
Utchen, a retired attorney who declined to give his age, said it irked him when memos from colleagues would be peppered with spelling errors and other typos. A lover of the printed word and a big reader, Utchen pursued the chance to help out with French’s project when he read about her efforts in a feature in the Wall Street Journal, he told District 200 officials and French during an informal gathering this week in Wheaton.
"I think I’ll always be concerned with language," he said. "That’s just me."
French’s Dictionary Project, which started up in the mid-1990s, has reached more than 17.5 million kids across the country. Many Rotary and Lions clubs have made the project one of their staple annual service endeavors, and others, like Utchen, do it on their own, according to the group’s website.
"He has a great way with the kids in the sense that he’s very serious. He takes this very seriously," said third-grade teacher at Emerson Elementary School in Wheaton, Bridget Moore, recalling his visit to her classroom. "He made it seem like getting a dictionary is a big deal, and they believe it."
Clare Kocher, who will enter high school at Wheaton North this month, said she keeps the dictionary from Utchen in her room and checks it every once in awhile when she comes across a word she doesn’t know while reading. Kocher’s little sister, Ella, got her dictionary this past school year, she said.
"I was excited to read it. I already read the whole thing," said Ella.
Even in the day of video games and electronic spell check, French said dictionaries remain relevant and useful for young students, especially those trying to learn a new language.
French said some of the children who’ve written to her over the years have said the dictionary they get in third grade is the first book they’ve ever owned.
"They might have all the latest video games but they don’t have books in the house," she said.
The Dictionary Project is coming up with an online dictionary to eventually roll out to students, French said, but she doesn’t see eliminating the paperback copy from the project any time soon.
And Utchen said he doesn’t plan to stop hitting the classrooms each year with fresh copies, though he said sometimes his voice gets hoarse after having to talk over the students, who usually become chatty after he hands out the coveted books. He learned to not mind it.
"All of a sudden it dawned on me, this is good. They’re really wrapped up in this and they’re talking with their neighbor about words," he said.