Alumni bid final farewell to beloved North Catholic
Tom Kempin graduated from Northeast Catholic High School for Boys 75 years ago. To this day, he still lives by the things he learned there, Kempin, 92, said, gripping his cane and standing on the steps of the venerable school.
Tom Kempin graduated from Northeast Catholic High School for Boys 75 years ago.
To this day, he still lives by the things he learned there, Kempin, 92, said, gripping his cane and standing on the steps of the venerable school.
"What they taught me was, 'Don't worry about where you're going tomorrow. Be who you are today, and be it perfectly,' " Kempin said of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, who staffed the school, and of his classmates, most of whom are gone now.
Kempin, of Mayfair, was one of more than 1,000 men who returned to North Catholic, as it is known, for a final farewell on Sunday. Because of declining enrollment, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia will close North - and Cardinal Dougherty High - for good this month.
"I wanted to see this through," said Kempin, dressed smartly in North's colors - white shirt, red pants, white shoes.
Inside North's vast, unairconditioned auditorium, alumni and their families gathered for one last Mass. They snapped photos in classrooms, pored over yearbooks, greeted old friends with handshakes and hugs, reminisced about legendary North disciplinarian Rev. Thomas "Knobby" Walsh.
Bob Pacitti and Mike Staub, Class of '73, met in geometry class their sophomore year. They've been friends since, and attended the open house together.
"Hey! These are all new - we had all blackboards," Staub said, motioning to whiteboards in a corner classroom that was already cleared of desks.
"Too many ghosts in here," Pacitti said.
Standing a few feet away, Jim O'Connor, Class of '61, shook his head.
"Some great memories here," he said. "This never should have happened, closing North Catholic."
This year, the school enrolled 551 students. At its peak, North was bursting at the seams with more than 4,000 students in the early 1950s.
Enrollment has dropped 29 percent in the last decade.
Supporters of the school had hoped to turn it into a private Catholic academy in the fall, but ultimately said they did not have enough time to do so. They still hope to revive North as a Cristo Rey school in 2011.
Shawn Adair, Class of '79, is from a North family - his father and all his brothers graduated from the school on Torresdale Avenue in the city's Frankford section. He brought his video camera "to take photos of an old friend," he said.
North means memories, Adair said. It means tradition.
"My parents had nine kids, and they still found a way to send us all to Catholic school," he said. "The least I can do is come back and pay my respects to a place that treated me so well."
Ten members of the Janda family did the same.
Gene Janda, Class of '71, said it felt like the right thing to do. His father never forgot the Oblates, who he felt helped him on the right path in life when he was a young and motherless boy.
"Dad thought the world of North Catholic," said Janda, a retired Philadelphia firefighter now living in Havertown. "This place is who we are, and what we're about."
Shamus O'Donnell had always assumed that would be him someday.
"From birth, I was raised to go to North," said Shamus, who is finishing his freshman year. "When I heard it was closing, I was pretty upset."
He will attend Roman Catholic High in September. His classmates are scattering to Roman, Archbishop Ryan, Father Judge, he said.
"I guess nothing's forever," said Shamus, his white-and-red Forever Falcons T-shirt a nod to the closing school.
Bill MacAllister snapped a photo of his friend Bob Malaczewski with a student dressed as the school mascot. It's important to preserve North memories, he said.
"I've been in airports, been on the boardwalk in a North shirt, and I meet other alumni," said MacAllister, Class of '76, who lives in Ocean City, N.J. "Our motto is, 'Take hold, don't let go,' and it never lets go, ever."
Ed Grzeskiewicz wanted a visible reminder of North, so he went to a tattoo shop Thursday and got the falcon inked on his leg.
It hurt, he said. But it was worth it.
"This is a tribute to the school," said Grzeskiewicz, Class of '87, of Hatboro. "It almost feels like a family member is dying."
It was tough for Vincent Russo to fight back tears.
Standing on the gym floor, Russo, Class of '02, remembered the first time he saw the banners lining the walls - pieces of cloth representing sports championships and archdiocesan rivals.
"It made you feel like you were part of a family," said Russo, who still lives nearby, in Juniata. "Even though we were from all different areas, we were all from working-class families, working-class neighborhoods. I always loved that."