Few months, if any, in the history of St. Joseph’s Academy and Dowling Catholic High School are remembered more than May 1972.
A month of ceremonies marked beginnings and endings, celebrated the past and heralded the future, and left memories on which the St. Joseph and Dowling Classes of 1972 will reminisce during their 50th anniversary reunion this summer.
The girls of St. Joseph’s Class of 1972 were the last graduates of their school. The boys of Dowling’s Class of 1972 were the last seniors to attend class in the tired, aching, aging buildings on the old campus in Des Moines.
Their joint commencement ceremony on May 26, 1972, is a significant benchmark in the timeline of Catholic education in Des Moines, but at the time, those seniors occasionally referred to themselves as “the forgotten class.”
They weren’t a part of where much of the school was focused – the pending merger of the schools and the move to a new campus in West Des Moines where school would resume in the fall.
In fact, on the very evening the Classes of 1972 assembled at Vets’ Auditorium for their joint graduation, many of their underclass schoolmates rested after a day of loading desks and lab equipment and band instruments and wrestling mats and library books onto trucks bound for the new campus.
Faculty and returning students would be up bright and early the next morning to finish the job.
As the St. Joseph’s yearbook staff aptly put it in their 1972 edition entitled metamorphosis ’72, “Committees sprang up to plan for the ‘new school.’ Juniors ordered and wore their ‘Dowling’ class rings. ‘New school’ activities involved only three [classes], leaving the seniors feeling neglected.”
They were a memorable class, however. The Stepperettes marched to national and state championships. The football team won another Metro title. The songs of Fiddler on the Roof and The Music Man echoed from stages. Don Percival and Tom Ascheman went to national debating events. Queen Cindy Hecht reigned over the Homecoming Dance at the Val Air. The seniors spearheaded fundraisers and service projects for Muscular Dystrophy, the Kidney Foundation and the March of Dimes.
And, two months after graduation, Christine Sarcone did something no 18-year-old had ever done. She served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention.
Yes, the classes of 1972 were also coping with the realities of what it meant to be 18 years old.
The boys could be drafted into the U.S. Army as the war in Vietnam continued. And they were eligible, for the first time, to vote, hence Sarcone’s role in the nominating convention.
“My memory of my senior year at St. Joseph Academy is how invested in being prepared to participate in the political process we were,” said Kathleen (Carroll) Miller of the SJA Class of 1972.
“We would be the first class of 18-year-olds that would be eligible to vote in the national election. How at 17 and 18 we were discussing national and world events that would prepare us to participate in an informed manner.”
On May 13, 1972, however, most seniors thoughts turned to prom at the Val Air. Chris Nelson presented Queen Pam Nemmers with a bouquet of roses on an evening appropriately named “The Last Dance Will Last Forever.”
A week before the prom, on May 7, St. Joseph Academy alumni, friends and supporters celebrated the school with an open house on the Grand Avenue campus and a festive banquet that night at the Hotel Fort Des Moines. The events gave alumni one more chance to tour the school and campus. Bishop Maurice Dingman celebrated mass at the campus chapel and presided over the dinner.
The next weekend it was an historic Dowling class that took centerstage. It was the 50th reunion of the Dowling Class of 1922, the first senior class many of whose members had enrolled as ninth graders the year the school opened in 1918. They were the first four-year graduates. The 18 surviving members of the class were all present for a weekend of events.
They were the honored guests on May 15, when the new school was dedicated on Buffalo Road. More than 2,000 people turned out, including the students who would fill the school’s hallways and classrooms in the fall. Archbishop Luigi Raimondi came from the Vatican to celebrate mass at the dedication. Bishop Dingman concelebrated.
Almost two weeks later came the joint graduation ceremony for the two classes. Joint ceremonies weren’t new. St. Joseph and Dowling had held joint graduation exercises since 1961, when Brian McGarvey was among the 157 Dowling boys and his twin sister Anna McGarvey was among the 163 St. Joseph girls to graduate.
The 1972 ceremony was at Vets’ Auditorium. The speaker was U.S. Sen. Harold Hughes, a former Iowa governor who flirted with a presidential run and who, three years later, gave up politics and dedicated himself to lay religious work for two Christian foundations and a lifelong campaign to help those battling alcoholism and addiction.
His parting words to the St. Joseph and Dowling graduation gave a hint about the passion that led to his career change, but also captured the persevering spirit which permeated the Classes of 1972.
“The love that human beings have for one another is real. So is the immortality of the human spirit that lifts mankind to heights of generosity and sublime achievement … so are the ideals of young Americans like you,” Hughes told the graduates.
Diplomas were distributed. Prayers were said. Hugs were aplenty. St. Joseph Academy closed.
“SJA was an institution where tradition reigned and those traditions centered around the Seniors,” the editors of metamorphosis ’72 wrote.
“And, when the time came, it was with the spirit of pride and sadness that the Seniors led the school to solemnly close the pages of 88 years of history.”
That tradition of spirit and pride was true for the Dowling boys of 1972 as well.
There was “no greater camaraderie than the Dowling Class of 1972 because we knew we were the last of a Catholic Community of young men going to class in less than first-class accommodations, and we toughed it out,” Mike Egan remembered recently.
“That old school and those priests and teachers made us men. … Even though I was a marginal Catholic student and mostly a thorn in the sides of the teachers, the discipline was much needed, and helped me tremendously in life.”
Indeed, “the forgotten classes” of 1972 carried on the great tradition of Leaders for Life, Centered on Christ.