Movie News & Reviews

Rockhurst High’s most famous student? Tim Kaine or … Spencer Tracy?

Spencer Tracy (left) and Mickey Rooney in “Boys Town.” Did a semester at Rockhurst High give Tracy a head start in his portrayal of a priest?
Spencer Tracy (left) and Mickey Rooney in “Boys Town.” Did a semester at Rockhurst High give Tracy a head start in his portrayal of a priest? File

For the moment, Rockhurst High School’s most famous alumnus is Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine.

Yeah, OK. Honor student, cheerleader, council president. Gets a Harvard law degree and becomes a pol.

But most Kansas Citians don’t know about Rockhurst’s connection to a rascal who gained real fame after scoring so-so grades at the Jesuit boys academy a century ago:

Spencer Tracy.

In 1917 the future two-time Oscar winner spent the final semester of his sophomore year at Rockhurst, when the prep school was located at Troost Avenue and 52nd Street.

His family spent just a year in Kansas City, beginning in 1916, before the truck sales job of John E. Tracy, the actor’s father, returned the Tracys to Spencer’s birthplace of Milwaukee.

Most of what little is known about his time here comes from a letter that Spencer Tracy wrote in 1940 to the motion picture editor of The Kansas City Star.

“I remember that there were some boys at Rockhurst and in Kansas City who were mighty good fighters,” the Hollywood phenom penned.

“I’ve always wondered why Rockhurst didn’t keep my attendance there a deep secret because I certainly couldn’t have been anything like a model student.”

Truth is, the school never has done much to make his attendance widely known.

“We don’t have an extensive history on him,” said Rockhurst’s chief advancement officer, Laurence Freeman. “You’d think we’d have more.”

You’d think. Decades after Tracy’s death in 1967 the American Film Institute ranked him no. 9 in its list of greatest male stars of all time.

In a time before high school yearbooks, however, 16-year-old Spencer merited but one page of documentation in the Rockhurst archives: His transcript shows he scored 72 (out of 100) in English, 70 in Latin, 76 in algebra and 74 in ancient history.

His best marks, around 90, were in bookkeeping and religion.

“Along about that time I had the wanderlust bad,” Tracy wrote in that letter to The Star. “Like many another youngster, I felt that school was only tying me down and holding me back from doing big things.”

Still, author James Curtis’ 2011 biography on Tracy cites the actor once crediting Rockhurst’s strict Jesuit ethos for taking the “badness” out of him. At a previous Catholic institution he had attended — a boarding school 25 miles west of Topeka — poor attendance prompted Tracy’s ouster within six months.

Tracy stumbled through six high schools before earning his diploma in 1920 from Northwestern Military Academy in Wisconsin. His studies were interrupted when, at age 18, he enlisted in the Navy during World War I.

His year in Kansas City may have shaped the kid more than we would assume.

Curtis writes that Tracy “entertained the idea of becoming a priest” while studying at Rockhurst. Maybe here he picked up cues for his Oscar-winning portrayal of Father Flanagan in “Boys Town” in 1938?

Also, in his letter to The Star, Tracy shared vivid memories of Kansas City’s Electric Park having “millions of lights and the fastest roller coaster in the world.

“It was a place for fun and showmanship.”

There it is! A star is born.

Hillary Clinton's choice of running mate grew up in Overland Park before launching a political career in Virginia. His parents and brothers still live here.

Rick Montgomery: 816-234-4410, @rmontgomery_r