Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Cretin High School Class of 1961

Photo courtesy of Jerry Hoffman

I used to think it a bit gauche to brag about one’s high school. But not anymore. I think it’s OK to reflect back on those building blocks that one takes, absent of conscious thought, that end up making a major impact on future decisions and choices. Pulling back my curtain of past lives, I realize now that I was fortunate enough to attend one of the best high schools in Saint Paul back in the late fifties. Turns out it was a brief window of opportunity, unseen and unappreciated back then but relished now. I hope my friends feel the same way, no matter what school they attended. It’s a nice moniker to hold on to.

I have a friend who went to Saint Joseph Academy for Girls at about the same time. She once told me she thought her school was secondary to OLP (Our Lady of Peace). Funny, I never felt that way. The girls from Saint Joe’s were always more accessible and real to me. They were like us.

My sister went to Our Lady of Peace. Now they seemed to be a little more aloof. While not as status-conscious as Visitation, Derham Hall, or Villa Maria, there was still an aire about those girls. Of course, they probably would have said the same thing about those jocks and military boys from Cretin.

Then there’s an old acquaintance of mine who went to Monroe High School. They called themselves the Green Wave. He takes great pride in his school even from the warm confines of his Florida retirement home.

Another friend went to Highland Senior High his freshman year, then transferred to Cretin his sophomore year. Nevertheless, he still sees himself as a Cretin grad, four years running.

What each of these folks share is a deep respect for and love of their old alma mater. It was for them the very best school around and they were proud to be a part of it.

For many of us, high school proved to be a pivotal point in our lives. Even more than college, it was where the stumbles of youth were corrected by the realities of our teenage years and finally solidified into the more mature footsteps that carried us through our collegiate and/or skill building future.

Reflecting back on that time period in Minnesota history and my own historical tracks, I realize now that attending Cretin High School back in the late 50’s and early 60’s was a unique experience. Of course, I never realized that until our fifty-year class reunion made it bubble up to the surface of my consciousness.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Hoffman

In retrospect, it was also a turning point in the history of our country. The beginning of the end of that idyllic plain vanilla existence our parents loved so much and wanted us to emulate. The old neighborhood was morphing through all kinds of changes just as we were. It was end of Doris Day and her’ Doggie in the Window.’ It was Frank Sinatra and his version of cool slowly turning cold. It was hot rods and tail fins and poodle skirts that only hinted of secrets underneath. The Cold War was inescapable but it hardly permeated our existence the same way Rock and Roll and the first warm feelings of affection for the opposite sex did.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Hoffman

 Cretin High School was a different kind of school but those of us attending it really weren’t any different from our friends at other schools. We came from all walks of life but for the most part were solidly middle class. Back in the late fifties, Cretin’s tentacles spread out across the Twin Cities in one last grasp at prospects before newer Catholic High Schools in the suburbs started to pick from the litter.

There were two military schools in town back then. Now there is only one and it isn’t Cretin. The program was called Junior ROTC (Reserved Officers Training Corp.) But for most of us it wasn’t a career choice, just a curriculum that followed the thinking of the day. A boy’s military school taught by the Christian Brothers, mostly male teachers and gruff RA (regular Army) sergeants. Their motto was: Teach them discipline and academic success will follow. It was a regimen that worked very well for most of us.

Taken down to the basics, it meant woolen uniforms that stunk when they got wet and were sweltering straightjackets in the springtime sun. Crack drill marches and drill review didn’t help the sweat glands either. It was simply part of the package that one accepted when attending a military school back then.

But for all the pomp and ceremony beneath that military cap of muted brown, there was a long-standing tradition of respect, discipline, and expectations from our leaders and ourselves. Even with our young malleable minds, we knew we were different. Chain of Command be damned, we were among the best. Even if we weren’t entirely sure just what ‘the best’ meant to anyone else but ourselves.

Without fanfare or published categories, freshmen were segmented into academic tracks based on their entrance exams and elementary school records. A large portion of the class was slotted into the pre-college track. Among the graduating seniors were 25 National Honor Society members, 26 Four-year Merit Medal winners, and seven National Merit Scholarship winners.

For the rest of the class of 1961, the administration saw our future in a secure government job, a skilled trade, or the military. There were only a few of us who clawed our way through the classroom trenches, scrambled over the academic barriers and slipped into college anyway.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Hoffman

School dances were a necessary evil tolerated by the Christian Brothers and predominantly male teachers. I don’t think they really wanted to encourage the mixing of male hormones with the virginity of the visiting opposite sex. Most of the dances were awkward cardboard rituals where the boys lined the gymnasium floor like wallpaper while the girls circled them and whispered in each other’s ears about the hottest dudes in the room.

Formal dances for the junior and senior military officers were dressed up affairs with shiny brass buttons, sheathed swords, and formal gowns. A sterile playground with everyone trying their best to be very cool and polite at the same time.

Unbeknownst to us at the time, our secure insulated world was on the cusp of major changes in 1961. Old Saint Paul was dying and a new city wouldn’t appear for many years to come. The country was expanding with the growth of the suburbs and hollowing out of the core cities.

Cretin was a molder of men, a change maker, and a foundation upon which to build one’s own values, aspirations, judgements, and creative hunger. Like ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream,’ my rag-tag group of Cretin friends have scattered with the winds of time. There are only a couple of guys left that I’ve managed to string together with a loose fitting web of memories that we can cling to.

It was the best of times…most of the time. Now in retrospect, it seems even better than that.

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