Joe Conklin recalls Dougherty, in his own voice

Posted: June 08, 2010

IN OLNEY, there was the Schwarzwald Inn, the Heintz plant, the Olney Times and Cardinal Dougherty. For years I didn't even know Cardinal Dougherty was a person; I thought it was a giant company.

Cardinal Dougherty High School was bigger than U.S. Steel. At least it felt that way when I was growing up. I thought it was around for 100 years before I arrived and I figured it would be around for 100 more after I left.

But this mammoth Catholic institution on 2nd Street above Godfrey, the largest Catholic high school in the world with 6,100 students at its peak in the mid-1960s, will close its doors later this month.

Named in honor of Cardinal Dennis Dougherty and opened in 1956, the school is survived by more than 40,000 alumni and another 1,000 or so teachers, administrators and staff. In lieu of angry letters to the Archdiocese, please enjoy the experience.

I'm one of seven in my family to walk the halls of the big CD (Maureen '69, Jim '70, Joan '72, John '74, Kathy '78, Joe '80 and Eileen '82). Our house was two blocks from the school, so my familiarity with Dougherty started long before my years as a student.

The school is almost outside the city, just short of Cheltenham Avenue. But we always thought it was cool that you could see all the way to City Hall when you were walking home.

Dougherty was a constant topic of conversation at the kitchen table. I'd hear my brothers dropping the names of the school's great athletes: Maurice Savage, Billy Magarity, George Paull, Mike Dennery, Joe Empson, Stevie Conway, Kathy Bess, Kevin Kane, Jim Cooper, Lawrence Reid. CD was the big leagues. To even make one of the sports teams at Dougherty you had to be an exceptional athlete. I played a lot of intramurals.

I still can hear my sister Joan belting out show tunes from her years in the plays. I still can hear her because she hasn't stopped belting them out.

My earliest memory of CD was seeing the world-famous Cardinal Dougherty marching band high-stepping down 2nd Street when I was 5 years old. The band was bigger than life. Bold colors head to toe, dressed like the British Royal Guards, but with our colors: long garnet coats with gold sashes, bright white pants, shiny white shoes. The drum major boldly brandished a gold staff and wore a hat that was a foot tall with a tassle on top, also a foot tall. The band was followed by the drill team: 100 girls with matching berets, suits and boots, marching in lock step. Think Catholic Rockettes.

They segregated the boys from the girls at the school; it was called co-institutional. One of its most unique physical characteristics was a wall of corrugated steel running straight through the center, dividing the girls' side and the boys' side, on all floors. The curriculum was decidedly asexual. (The wall came down in the summer of '69.)

I had some great teachers at Dougherty. Mr. Frank Rauscher comes to mind immediately. Junior year, English 3, "Word Wealth." We had an athletic director who addressed students not by name, but by number. He was a grouchy old priest who set up shop in the little room in the corner of the gym. He would jump out when he heard the clicking of leather soles on the gym floor. If he caught you walking across the hardwood with your shoes on, he'd give you two demerits.

In my senior year I took advantage of a great opportunity to announce the basketball games for the legendary Bob Harrington, dean of Catholic League coaches. Once during a timeout he leaned over the scorer's table and said: "Hey, Conk. No funny comments when our guys are on the line, OK?" Yes, Mr. Harrington.

The student body that topped out at 6,100 kept dwindling, though, to an enrollment of 641 today. The neighborhood has changed and not enough families are sending their kids to this Catholic high school anymore.

Now the decision to close the school has been made. U.S. Steel started dismantling its Fairless Hills, Bucks County, plant in the early '90s, but after retooling, the complex still functions today. They got smaller and smarter. The opinion here is that Dougherty could have done the same.

But I don't live in Olney anymore and I didn't send my kids to school there, so I can't point fingers.

When I graduated from eighth grade at St. Helena's School, I brazenly threatened to go to Central High. My mother said: "No, you need the priests at Dougherty." She was right. I'm richer for the experience.

Joe Conklin is a comedian and master impressionist, the "Man of a Thousand Voices." His work is featured most weekdays on the "Morning Show" on WIP (610-AM). You can hear some of Joe's impressions and see his appearance schedule at www. joeconklin.com. In his words: "I needed the priests, the characters, the rules, the opportunities, the friendships, the microphone, the stage, the right from wrong. So raise a glass [or a can of Schmidt's] as 'our sons and daughters hail, we hail Cardinal Dougherty High!' "

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