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Plans to shut 2 Catholic schools prompt sadness

The plan to close Cardinal Dougherty High School in East Oak Lane and Northeast Catholic High School for Boys in Frankford was received yesterday with an intimate grief normally associated with family deaths.

At Northeast Catholic High School for Boys, students (from left) Max Shuster, Christian Cepeda, and Eric Stankiewicz protest closing plans. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)
At Northeast Catholic High School for Boys, students (from left) Max Shuster, Christian Cepeda, and Eric Stankiewicz protest closing plans. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)Read moreDN

The plan to close Cardinal Dougherty High School in East Oak Lane and Northeast Catholic High School for Boys in Frankford was received yesterday with an intimate grief normally associated with family deaths.

That's not surprising, alumni said, given the emotion, triumph, and hard times that high school can represent, not to mention the importance and influence of two schools that helped shape so many successful Philadelphians.

"High school is a fragile, fearless, hopeful time," said 1971 Dougherty graduate Mary Lou Quinlan, now chief executive officer of the Manhattan women's marketing company Just Ask a Woman but once a high school girl with big dreams. "It's a coming of age. And you can never not be bonded with the people you were with back then. We were all rowhouse kids, pure Philadelphia."

The shutterings, scheduled for the end of the school year, were lamented on Facebook, as well as in distant cities and on the streets of Philadelphia.

In a city of neighborhoods where people traditionally have identified themselves by their parishes, the Catholic high school has been a core institution that has offered life guidance, social instruction, and not a little fun.

But 14-year-old freshmen and accomplished alumni were left wondering why so drastic a fate had to befall their beloved schools.

"It's not fair," dejected Dougherty freshman Taihisha Osson of Cheltenham said yesterday afternoon outside the sprawling building. "We just started getting used to it."

"I wanted to graduate from the same school as my sister," said her friend, Linda Rivera of the Northeast. "She's my role model."

William Sasso, chairman of Stradley Ronon, a regional law firm, graduated from Dougherty in 1965. Back then, Dougherty was a behemoth, the largest Catholic high school in the world. It had about 6,000 students, many of whom went on to become lawyers, judges, business people, and professional athletes in basketball (Cuttino Mobley of the Los Angeles Clippers) and football (Florian Kempf of the old Houston Oilers; Jim Cooper of the Dallas Cowboys; and Harry Swayne, with three Super Bowl rings from different teams).

It also was the first Catholic high school in the area to admit boys and girls, though the two genders were taught in separate sections of the campus.

One of Sasso's more vivid memories was being asked to deliver a note from the boys' side to the girls'.

"You were just overjoyed at the opportunity to cross that great divide," he said and laughed. "It was an absolute delight you can only understand having gone through puberty in a Catholic high school."

For Tony Conti, former managing partner of the Philadelphia office of PricewaterhouseCoopers, the highlight of high school was being the drum major of Dougherty's marching band in 1966. The band performed in more than two dozen European cities in 1966 and won the world band championship in the Netherlands after playing for both the pope and Princess Grace of Monaco.

"You learned discipline, teamwork, performing under pressure," he said. "And you carry these values for a long time."

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery, another Dougherty alumnus, recalled how the school helped rocket many working-class kids into the middle class and beyond. So beloved was the experience that graduates still wear their class rings, McCaffery said.

"The loss of the school is a crushing blow," he said. "The archdiocese was looking at the [reduced] school numbers when they decided to shut it, but it didn't take into consideration the memories and camaraderie."

For his part, Bishop Joseph McFadden, who oversees high school education for the archdiocese, explained yesterday that those numbers really did matter. In the 1950s and early 1960s, when it wasn't unusual for families to have five or more children, parents worked at industrial jobs in Philadelphia neighborhoods. The teeming communities needed large high schools in specific geographic areas to accommodate all the students.

But by 1993, the archdiocese had switched from assigning students to neighborhood schools to open enrollment to accommodate lower enrollments, McFadden said. Jobs had moved out of the city, residents followed, and families were getting smaller, he said.

No diocesan explanation, however, seems to mollify school alumni who cannot grasp the notion that the places that made them who they are will no longer be. People with ties to North, as Northeast Catholic is known - a school famous for Family Circus cartoonist Bil Keane; John Doman, an actor on HBO's former series The Wire; and the late Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War – expressed their despondency yesterday.

Growing up in Frankford, Michael Ferris remembers his mother had one wish: that one of her five children would go through 12 years of Catholic school.

The Ferrises managed to send their youngest, Michael, to North, where the motto is "Be who you are, and be that well."

"I feel sad," Ferris, 45, and a member of the Class of '82, said of the school's scheduled closing. "Next to my family, North contributed more to the man that I am today than anything else.

"That motto, that's what we are. You treat everybody with respect. You don't ask for what you don't deserve. And you work for everything you get."

Ferris, a former football player who is an active alumnus, runs a blog for the school's sports teams. His hope was that the school would live on and help future generations as it did him. But even now he's taking a cue from his former teachers: "This is a time when being a North Catholic guy really matters. How you conduct yourself in adversity."

Lou Szojka, who graduated from North Catholic in 1973 and is a class representative in the alumni association, said last night that the decision to close the school saddened and angered him. Szojka and his classmates were introduced to excellent teachers and priests at North Catholic, he said, as well as rich traditions that bonded them as adults who felt passionately about their alma mater.

The alumni association has worked hard in recent years at the urging of the archdiocese to help offset the school's deficits and help students with financial aid, he said. "We've done what was asked of us."

At dismissal yesterday afternoon, dozens of North students stood on the school steps, singing the school's fight song and chanting, "Keep us open."

Some held signs of protest as passersby honked their horns in support of their cause.

Said red-haired Thomas Saunders, 16, a sophomore wearing a red North Catholic hoodie: "It's a second home for us. I don't want to graduate from anywhere else. This whole neighborhood loves North. Cardinal Rigali should have talked to us before he decided to close our school."

Saunders was already planning a fund-raiser, a haunted house for Halloween, to raise money for the school.

"We want to fight for our school because we love it," he said.

He and his friend Alex Sheldahl, 15, talked about going through freshman orientation as Munchkins.

Sheldahl, a sophomore, travels from Pennsauken to attend North, his grandfather's alma mater.

"I wanted to come here because he loves this school. As the oldest grandchild, I wanted to carry his tradition on. That it might be closing is pretty lousy."

Kathy Johnson said her 16-year-old son, Kevin, who has a severe speech impediment, had blossomed at the school: 4.0 GPA, vice president of his class, and active in several clubs.

"This is a great school," she said, sitting in her car as her son chanted nearby with his fellow students. "With all his school and extracurricular activities, my son comes here at 6 in the morning and I can pick him up 10 at night. That's how much he loves this school. For him it's an outlet. It's a shame for them to close it. I can't believe it."