After 60 years, classmates at St. Louis School are together again

Patricia Angotti came from Indianapolis to participate in a reunion ceremony of the St. Louis  School on Swope Parkway. She placed the yellow rose under a statue of the Virgin Mary at the altar of St. Louis Catholic Church in honor of the one missing member of the class of 1954. Other class members placed white roses during the Saturday ceremony. Master of ceremonies Larry Pellegrino is in the background.
Patricia Angotti came from Indianapolis to participate in a reunion ceremony of the St. Louis School on Swope Parkway. She placed the yellow rose under a statue of the Virgin Mary at the altar of St. Louis Catholic Church in honor of the one missing member of the class of 1954. Other class members placed white roses during the Saturday ceremony. Master of ceremonies Larry Pellegrino is in the background. Special to The Star

Jim Enright rummaged through a box filled with memorabilia one day in 2011 and found a nearly 60-year-old surprise.

Staring back at him was a photo book from his grade school graduating class of 1954 at St. Louis School in Kansas City.

The late Sister Georgeanne (Florence Desch), a Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth nun, was principal of the Catholic school, on the southwest corner of 58th Street and Swope Parkway. She taught the combined seventh- and eighth-grade graduating class that year. And she made a photo book by hand for each of the 35 graduates.

Students each had a page in the book, which included their nickname, activities they took part in and a snapshot of them. Sister Georgeanne tied each book with a red satin ribbon.

Enright’s mother had saved his book for him. He pulled it from the box, brushed it off and thumbed through it, and the memories started flooding in.

Before long, from his home in Monrovia, Md., he was tracking down his former classmates on the Internet. He found some of them, and they started helping him find others.

Eventually, a group of eight constituted an organizing committee for St. Louis School’s 60th reunion, which took place over the weekend.

They held planning meetings using Skype and continued to look for former classmates. They discovered that 13 of the 35 graduates had died. Of the remaining 22, the group found 21.

Sixteen classmates attended the reunion, which was held Friday evening at the Holiday Inn Country Club Plaza. About 25 people attended the event, including spouses and others.

The classmates sipped hot chocolate and munched doughnuts at breakfast Friday morning, just as they’d done every Friday during their final year in grade school, 60 years earlier. It was one of many gifts given to them by the nuns who taught them.

“They gave us the tools to face life, the nuns,” Enright said. “They were full of life and they wanted to teach us and they did.”

Enright went on to a career of more than 40 years in newspaper advertising and marketing, for the Chicago Sun-Times and other newspapers. He’s married and has a daughter and a son.

Many other classmates stressed the importance in their lives of the discipline the nuns demonstrated and required of them.

“It was the foundation for the rest of my life,” said Frank Nickle, who lives in Leadville, Colo.

Nickle worked for Safeway Stores for nearly 30 years and then Haviland China for more than 20 years. He owns a general store in Leadville. He and his wife had six children, five of whom are living.

The nuns at St. Louis School tried to prepare their students for living, and “they expected a lot of you,” Kansas City resident Kenneth Martin said.

“And they made you put out more effort than what you normally would’ve done,” he said. “They were nuns, and it’s not like today. If you got out of line, they’d smack your wrists. You never got it unless you deserved it.

“The nuns had a vocation and, by God, they wanted you to learn. And they instilled that in you. I think that just carried on into life.”

Martin’s life took him through many years in the trucking industry. He and a partner started their own trucking company in 1996. He’s married and had four children, three of whom are still living.

The nuns at St. Louis School also loved music and saw it as integral to life, Indianapolis resident Patricia Angotti said. Most of them were musicians themselves.

“I don’t remember a lot about class,” Angotti said. “I took piano and violin, and I was in the orchestra, and they really instilled a love of music.”

That orchestra was “the only grade school orchestra in Kansas City,” said Theresa Padovano. She remembered “the joy and richness of community” that she learned from the nuns at St. Louis School.

“I remember them as very kind and intelligent, but no nonsense,” Padovano said. “We all played together. We played sports and music. We learned to dance and pray.”

Padovano lives in Morris Plains, N.J. She became a Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth nun, taught elementary school and decided “it was time to take a turn in the road.” She left the order, got married and had four children.

The St. Louis School classmates’ learning unfolded during post-World War II America. They graduated on June 6, 1954, 10 years to the day after D-Day. It was an optimistic time for the nation and for Kansas City. It was a simpler time, many of the graduates said.

“At the time it just seemed normal,” Nickle said. “I was just growing up as a kid. We played a lot. Everybody knew everybody. We played softball in the street. It was an innocent time, looking back. It was a great time growing up.”

Enright remembered Kansas City’s streetcars and stockyards — whose odor would at times waft its way at least as far south as where he lived, near the school.

“Our life revolved around the parish,” he said. “In the early ’50s, we all walked to school. The crime was nothing. I just remember having a very normal childhood. We’d go to the school auditorium on Friday nights for movies. It was a cliffhanger movie, so you had to wait until the next one to find out how it ended.”

When they graduated in 1954, many of the former classmates had only faint visions of how their own cliffhangers would end.

“I assumed I’d live in Kansas City, get married and have kids,” Angotti said. “I never had any kids. I traveled the world and had my own business.”

As a youngster pursuing the business of graduating from grade school, “you’re thinking about getting your driver’s license,” Enright said. “I didn’t have expectations.”

Class president Larry Pellegrino, though, did have some well-defined hopes.

“Right before graduation, I had my heart set on becoming a priest,” Pellegrino said. “Back then, they took boys into the seminary right out of grade school. Dad said wait until after high school and then decide. A little later on I got interested in newspapers, in being a sportswriter.”

Newspaper ink stayed in Pellegrino’s blood. He worked for The Kansas City Star as a copy editor after he graduated from college in 1965, and he retired in 2002 after 30 years with a Louisville, Ky., newspaper. He lives in Hilton Head, S.C., and he has a son and a daughter.

St. Louis School — the proving ground for helping form these former students’ habits and directions and points of view — closed at the end of the 1989 school year, said the Rev. Michael Coleman, diocesan archivist for the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, who attended the reunion.

When it closed it was called Saint Martin de Porres School. Blessed Sacrament School had consolidated at the site and the school got a new name, Coleman said. The diocese sold the property to Renaissance West in 1990. It is a women’s residential addiction-rehabilitation center.

With their own changed points of view shaped by six decades of living their lives, the classmates and their spouses gathered Saturday at St. Louis Church, on the northwest corner of 60th Swope Parkway, shortly before the 4 o’clock Mass.

The classmates lined up in the church’s middle aisle and, one by one, walked to a small wooden table to the right of the altar. It sat under a white lace-veiled statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Each one carried a white rose and placed it in a vase on the table as Pellegrino read the names of the deceased classmates whom the roses commemorated.

A yellow rose was placed in the vase for the classmate the group had been unable to find.

The classmates returned to their places in the pews and waited for Mass to begin. They paused a few moments as they sat together once again, and some undoubtedly saw themselves 60 years earlier, like a movie projected on a screen.

They saw themselves bent over their papers at their desks, working their pencils furiously. They saw the nuns who’d demanded so much of them and given so much to them and loved them.

They heard their own laughter, and the music.

They ran the playground one more time.