By STEVE KAUFMAN
â€œNot too many high school presidents get to preside over their schoolsâ€™ 150th anniversary,â€ said Dr. Perry Sangalli, president of St. Xavier High School.
Heâ€™s right, of course, certainly in Louisville. St. X is the oldest boysâ€™ high school in the city. (Presentation Academy, the oldest Catholic high school in the city, precedes St. X by 33 years.)
In 1854, the Xaverian Brothers established a one-room school near where St. Boniface Church is, on East Liberty St. Sangalli believes there were three or four students in the original class.
St. X officially began 10 years later, on the South Fourth Street site near where the Palace Theater now stands. There were seven subjects offered: catechism, Bible history, geography, bookkeeping, algebra, geometry and French.
The order, established in Belgium, had been called to Louisville because the members could speak German with the cityâ€™s growing immigrant population. Their dedication was to education.
It was also, Sangalli says, â€œa difficult time for Catholics.â€ Looked upon with suspicion by a largely Protestant population in the U.S., they were under particular duress because the years around the Civil War were creating intense political and cultural shifts. There had been a series of what came to be known as the â€œKnow Nothing Riotsâ€ targeting, in particular, the growing number of Irish and German immigrants in the cities.
Eventually, as enrollment rose, the school outgrew its Fourth St. location and, in 1890, bought the Newcomb estate on Broadway and Second Street. In 1900, a gym and swimming pool were built on the grounds, though soon replaced by science labs. Athletics, at the time, played no part in St. Xâ€™s school life.
In 1961, the school â€“ with enrollment having reached 1,200 â€“ moved to its current location on Poplar Level Rd., where it has grown to a 54-acre campus of fully equipped facilities that meet all the needs of the student experience.
â€œThe goal of Catholic education is to help students recognize the talents given to them by God, and to grow those talents â€“ whatever they are â€“ so as to be able to serve the church, the community and society. Itâ€™s about the total person,â€ Sangalli says.
At St. X, he says, â€œIâ€™m most proud of seeing the reach of our students in the educational, professional, corporate and civic worlds â€“ throughout the world, of course, but especially in Louisville.â€
That spirit of excellence and service is combined with the bonding of students to each other and to the school. St. X has strong, active alumni groups in more than 30 cities around the country.
â€œOne of the marks of an Xaverian education is building community connections and spirit within every class,â€ says Sangalli. â€œWhile in school, they learn to accomplish things that are inherently good and they do it together. The tie to St. X remains strong throughout their lives.â€
The Xaverian mission has always been broader than merely religious identity. â€œThatâ€™s just one prong,â€ says the president. â€œCatholic education at its core is academically strong, and broad-based, exposing students to various disciplines.â€
At St. X, those disciplines came increasingly to include athletics. A few years after the gymnasium was sacrificed to science labs and a cafeteria, a baseball team was organized (in 1909), followed soon thereafter by teams for football and the growing sport of basketball. A new gym, â€œthe biggest and best in the city,â€ according to the schoolâ€™s chronicles, was built in 1916.
In 1926, St. X won its first important athletic championship, defeating Danville for the state basketball title.
Since then, it has gone on to impressive successes â€“ 14 state championships in football, six in baseball, 14 in basketball, 50 in swimming and diving, 23 in tennis, 20 in cross country, 14 in soccer, 19 in golf, 10 in track and field, three in wrestling.
Its successes and intense rivalries â€“ especially with Trinity High School â€“ have come to nearly overwhelm the schoolâ€™s identity.
Its alumni include players in the National Football League and National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, the professional golf tour and the Olympics. Bob Talamini blocked for Joe Namath when the New York Jets won their 1970 Super Bowl. Bobby Nichols won the 1964 PGA Championship. Chris Burke hit a home run to lead the Houston Astros to their only World Series, in 2005. Mike Silliman was on the 1968 U.S. Olympic basketball team.
Will Wolford was a Pro Bowl offensive lineman who is the current St. X football coach. Michael Bush, who played football at the University of Louisville and in the NFL, is the current president of the St. Xavier Alumni Association.
â€œAthletics is an important part of life and also a big part of the Catholic philosophy to develop physical, intellectual, spiritual and personal traits,â€ Sangalli says. â€œBut itâ€™s just a backdrop to our mission of academic rigor.â€
He says the school has many other extracurricular activities to â€œdevelop the total personâ€ â€“ drama, the school newspaper and yearbook, band and orchestra, computer technology, student government, political clubs representing both parties, a robotics club, foreign language clubs that include Mandarin Chinese, an environmental club and a huge campus ministry program.
Thus, its alumni also include Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway; Robert Shircliff, president and CEO of Jewish Hospital; Paul Varga, chairman, president and CEO of Brown-Forman; Thomas Borders, who founded Borders Books; Jim James, lead singer of My Morning Jacket; long-time public radio host Bob Edwards; John Lechleiter, chairman, president and CEO of Eli Lilly; Don Rosa, who drew the Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck characters for Disney; and “Lost” star, William Mapother.
Mapotherâ€™s cousin and fellow actor, Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, also attended St. X while living in Louisville, but didnâ€™t graduate.
The schoolâ€™s considerable non-athletic successes include a 99 percent college matriculation rate; 67 percent of its 2014 graduating class earning academic scholarships; and, of particular reward to the school president, the students having devoted 27,000 hours of local, national and international community service.
â€œOne of my major tasks is to be faithful to the tradition of Xaverian education while still being responsive to the changing needs of the students,â€ says Sangalli, a class of ’76 alum himself, who returned to teach math and religious studies in 1980, became principal in 1993 and replaced Brother James Kelly C.F.X. as president in 2000, the first non-Xaverian to head the school.
Students come from as far away as Bullitt, Spencer and Hardin counties and Southern Indiana to attend. Some, says Sangalli, even make special arrangements to stay with friends or extended family-members during the week and go home on the weekends, just to attend St. Xavier.
â€œWhen I see St. X, I see brotherhood, education, respect, humility, caring and selflessness. These qualities that we so carefully carry out are qualities that have been bestowed upon us from God,â€ a student, Andrew Willett, said before a school gathering last December, at the beginning of the year-long anniversary celebration. â€œItâ€™s important to take what God has given to us and use those gifts to help others.â€
Brother Paul Van Gerwen C.M.X., the school principal in 1864, probably couldnâ€™t have said it better.