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Sunday, December 25, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Large

Northwest alumni of New Orleans high school savor its lifetime influence

Seattle Times staff columnist

Rebuilding St. Augustine begins

The first floor of St. Augustine High School was flooded following Hurricane Katrina.

The second floor remained dry, and more than 300 people from the surrounding neighborhoods took refuge there, causing additional damage.

The school plans to re-open next fall. The Northwest alumni, who already donate individually, are working on group fund-raising plans.

There are gifts too big to fit under a tree. Such a gift was unwrapped in New Orleans in 1951, a new high school called St. Augustine.

The bricks and mortar were new, but the physical building wasn't the largest part of the gift. The real present was an opportunity for hundreds of black boys whose educational opportunities were limited.

Twenty-five St. Augustine alumni live in the Northwest, mostly around Seattle. I heard about the school from Leonard Young, who lives on my street and works in the accounting department of the Seattle School District. Young was bothered by the way residents of some neighborhoods in New Orleans were being portrayed after Katrina hit. The people he grew up around might not have been wealthy, but they were decent, hard-working people. A lot of stories, he felt, were making it seem as if only the worst sort of person lived in the city's poor neighborhoods.

He invited me over and talked about his old neighborhood and his high school, and showed me a book, "Between Law and Hope," testimonials and a history of St. Augustine, compiled by its first principal, the Rev. Matthew J. O'Rourke.

The school sits between Law and Hope streets, but the title also hints at the school's role.

Young, who graduated from St. Augustine in 1961, told me that until he read the book recently, he hadn't realized just how much of a gift St. Augustine was.

In 1951, public schools in New Orleans were segregated, and the ones for black children were not especially good. Catholic schools were segregated too, but there were some good ones for black elementary-school children.

As World War II ended, the diocese was planning to build several schools, including two new boys' high schools — there were already three. The archbishop decided the country was changing and there needed to be a high school for black boys, too. Someone had to prepare black men for a new America.

They made the project palatable to white parishioners by saying the Negro school would cost less that each new white high school — though the church actually spent more than it announced.

The Josephites volunteered to run the school, and they decided the personal dignity of students and staff would be at its core. Respect was their byword.

O'Rourke wrote: Calling the students "mister" would help offset the negative impact of whites calling every black male "boy" no matter what his age, his education, his standing in the community. Likewise, and for stronger reasons, the use of "mister" would serve to negate the deleterious impact of the hateful use of the "n" word.

The six graduates who met in Seattle just before the holiday rush, talked about themselves and the school.

Their outcomes are as varied as their beginnings, but what they have in common is a sense of being made better by St. Aug, a belief that whatever place they've come to is better than it would have been without the school.

James Davis, of Renton, class of 1966, came out to Seattle with two classmates, who were looking for Boeing jobs right after graduation. He worked with the Postal Service, retired, then took up driving for Metro.

Davis was one of nine children orphaned when their mother died. They moved from Mississippi to New Orleans to live with an aunt and uncle who pressed him to stay in school, get a diploma and be a good person.

St. Aug recruited him as a football player, and he played on the state championship team his senior year, but he got more than that from school.

"I was hanging with kids who pushed a lot [to achieve academically]. I wasn't the brightest student, but I could out-work anyone, physically or academically."

Davis worked evenings and weekends at the school to pay for part of his tuition.

St. Aug "taught me ... that I can succeed in life if I work hard," he says, even though the community put limits on black people. "Your chances were 80 percent better if you went to St. Aug." It was his idea to start the Northwest alumni group last year.

Most of the St. Aug students in the '50s and '60s came from stable two-parent families and scored at or above average on entrance tests.

Students come from all over the city and from both public and private schools, so there would be many students from poor families later on. But at first the only thing that separated St. Aug kids from students who had always had opportunities for educational success was skin color.

Over the years, St. Aug has provided a disproportionate share of men to the leadership of New Orleans and Louisiana — in politics, business and the law — and sent graduates off to success around the country. Eleven Louisiana judges are graduates, and the school has had more presidential scholars than any other New Orleans Catholic school.

But just as impressive is that St. Aug has sent out thousands of young men prepared for the challenges of modern life when so many other schools have failed in that task.

Jeffrey Rugon, class of '81, runs a computer-services company in Federal Way. His father worked for Kaiser Aluminum and his mother was a clothing-store clerk. He says St. Aug gave him room to be a geek and a scholar.

"Everything was race in New Orleans. When you got to St. Aug, you didn't have to worry about that." What students concentrated on was fierce academic competition. "You were driven by your peers."

David Charles, '80, says his parents were educators who always expected him to do well and go to college.

"St. Aug just complemented all that I got at home. The sad thing in a lot of the urban schools is that black kids are not being pushed enough." And even sadder, he says, is when those kids pull each other back.

At St. Aug, he says, boys were embarrassed to blow a test. People compared grades and everyone wanted to have good ones.

Young didn't want to go to St. Aug at first.

"I wanted to go where the ladies were." But his mother insisted on the all-boys school. He grew up on welfare in the St. Bernard projects, and she wanted him to have a chance at a better life.

He knew how respected the school was among black folks. In the barbershop or out in the neighborhood, he'd hear people refer to "our boys," or "our school," and he knew they meant St. Aug.

Young says he didn't especially like the school. The work was hard and the discipline strict, and he says, "I hated reading."

Eventually he found a teacher who made learning exciting for him, a white priest from a wealthy family who encouraged discussion and respected his ideas. He found himself at home reading Macbeth and looking forward to the next day's discussion.

George Cuiellette, a Bellevue entrepreneur and '66 graduate, is president of the alumni chapter. He says the teachers at St. Aug, "showed an interest not only in education, but in your development as a young man, to build character as an individual."

Albert Sebastian, '60, says his parents, a porter and a maid, sent him to St. Aug because they wanted him to have a better life and that was the path.

There are more options for young black men now, but St. Aug retains its special position because it continues to insist on academic excellence, character development and respect for oneself and others, the graduates told me.

"When you graduate from St Augustine and you are known as a Purple Knight, that means something," Young says.

It is a lifelong gift.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

"St. Aug just complemented all that I got at home. The sad thing in a lot of the urban schools is that black kids are not being pushed enough."

"Everything was race in New Orleans. When you got to St. Aug, you didn't have to worry about that. You were driven by your peers."

"I was hanging with kids who pushed a lot [to achieve academically]. I wasn't the brightest student, but I could out-work anyone, physically or academically."

Teachers at St. Aug "showed an interest not only in education, but in your development as a young man, to build character as an individual."

Says his parents, a porter and a maid, sent him to St. Aug because they wanted him to have a better life and that was the path.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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