Is St. Joe’s Prep Still a Power Factory?

It produced scores of the city’s ruling class, including Michael Nutter, John Dougherty and Jim Kenney. But can it keep going?

St. Joe's Prep school in Philadelphia has produced community leaders like Michael Nutter, but is it still a power factory?

John J. Dougherty looks ready to fight. His mouth is set in a grim line, his hard eyes are wide open, and his eyebrows are arched like the back of a cat prepared to pounce. Mayor Nutter wears a well-practiced smile. He comes across as friendly and self-possessed, but seems to be holding part of himself back. Councilman Jim Kenney resembles a shaggy, good-natured dog; his colleague William K. Greenlee looks a bit like a turtle, and Councilman Brian O’Neill sports a cocky grin. Then there is Vincent Joseph Fumo, with his handsome features—indeed, they’re almost delicate—arranged just so, hinting at the hauteur to come.

These early glimpses of Philadelphia’s political elite all have the same source: the yearbooks published by St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, the North Philadelphia institution that is the city’s preeminent power factory.

This Jesuit-run school for boys has educated two of Philadelphia’s last five mayors, three current members of City Council, political operators like Doc and A. Bruce Crawley, and a large chunk of the more anonymous elites who make this city run: attorneys and high-powered bureaucrats, CEOs, judges and journalists.

And it’s no accident. “We want to influence power,” Father Bruce Maivelett, the Prep’s director of mission and ministry, tells me matter-of-factly. “And that is one of the primary reasons why we’re involved in the ministry of education.”

For most of its 161-year history, the Prep has influenced power by taking Philly’s smartest and most ambitious middle-class Catholic boys and turning them into men who are inclined to wield power, and unusually adept at doing so. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Prep, for better or worse, has helped to define Philadelphia’s political culture. Its graduates—both those in the public eye and those who prefer the back rooms—exercise that much clout.

[Click here to see high school yearbook photos of some of Philly’s most powerful men.]

But the Prep is changing. Indeed, it’s been changing for some time. Tuition there has increased sharply, and so has the percentage of wealthy suburban students. There are far fewer bright, streetwise city kids in the Prep’s hallways today than when Nutter and Dougherty were enrolled. The Jesuits themselves are in shorter supply at the Prep as well. Even the long-bleak blocks surrounding the school at 18th and Girard Avenue are changing, as gentrification pushes north.

All of which means the Prep is now manufacturing different sorts of leaders than in years past. Some worry that the new generations will be less interested in pulling the levers of power in Philadelphia. And that’s possible. But there’s also reason to hope that those students who take up the Jesuit call to influence power will be better at it than the Prep-trained leadership class we have today.

On the second-to-last day of January in 1966, a blizzard swept into Philadelphia. The temperature dropped to 10 degrees, and 8.4 inches of snow fell on the city. These little details have been carefully recorded because at 5:20 a.m. that morning, a fire broke out in the basement of St. Joseph’s Preparatory School. Within four hours, two-thirds of the school lay devastated, the remains still smoking even as they were sheathed in ice.

For the school, the most obvious—and easiest—answer was to leave. To take the $2 million in insurance money and get the hell out of North Philadelphia, a neighborhood in rapid decline. But the Jesuits flatly refused. Their work was in the city.

That call—the decision to double down on North Philadelphia just as everyone else with means was bailing out—cemented the Prep’s status as the training ground of choice for the most talented kids in the city’s working and middle classes. Kids like Michael Nutter (class of 1975), who probably would have gone to a military school had a nun not convinced him to apply to the Prep. He describes it as a place where “those with virtually no means meet up with those of lots of means. But you’re all the same at the school. You wear a jacket and a tie, you speak well, and you do your work.”

The Irish-Catholic Kenney (class of 1976) is an even more prototypical Prep alum. He commuted to the school on the subway each day with a pack of other South Philly rowhome boys trying to navigate their way safely to 18th and Girard wearing sport coats and ties. He tells a story about an after-school fight featuring two popular students—one white, one black—at a time of rising racial tension within the school: “It felt like an hour-long spectacle. One would knock the other down and wait for him to get up. It was brutal and bloody. I don’t know if anyone won.” When it was over, Kenney glanced up, and there on the balcony, watching in silence, were the Jesuits. “No one interceded. They knew it had to happen. They let us figure it out.”

The Prep of old, in other words, didn’t coddle its students. Those who could hack it say they formed deeply personal bonds by the time they graduated. Nutter leaned on a history teacher and his football coach while going through some “very, very tough times at home.” And his two best friends to this day are Prep grads. (One is the Mayor’s personal physician; the other is Robert Bynum, proprietor of Warmdaddy’s, Green Soul, Relish and Heirloom.)

A critical component of the Prep power-making formula is the multifaceted Jesuit tradition. Much of it boils down to the hokey and patronizing but somehow still powerful Jesuit credo to be “men for and with others.” Layered atop that is the well-deserved Jesuit reputation for bucking authority, both the papal and civil varieties. It’s a quality that Prep graduates prize, and one that more than a few have plainly absorbed. “It all starts with the Jesuits,” says Dougherty, recalling how they taught him to question everything, to take no answer at face value.

Start with ambitious working-class kids. Give them outstanding educations. Hone their sense of competitiveness to a fine edge. Cultivate their connections to the city. And stress the value of serving others. That has been the core of the Prep’s formula to, as Maivelett puts it, “produce men who will be influential in the power centers.”

It’s not that the Prep hooks up its graduates with positions in political organizations, or that it explicitly steers its students in that direction. After leaving the Prep, an 18-year-old Nutter thought he’d be a doctor, not a mayor. But today, he credits the Prep for making him into a man capable of doing his job. Not 48 hours after he was first sworn in as mayor in 2008, Nutter went back to the Prep to speak to the students. It was a raucous, emotional scene. “I think it should be clear to you what your mission is,” Nutter told the students. “You’re being trained right here to be leaders of your community.”

Nutter is exactly right. That’s what the Prep aspires to do. And yet as admirable as the Prep is as an institution, its record in generating political leaders is undeniably mixed. Too many of the school’s powerful grads have been men for themselves (or their factions) and not men for others. Fumo in particular is a stain on the school’s reputation that just won’t wash out, which its leaders readily acknowledge. “We failed to help him do enough self-reflection to understand his weaknesses,” says Father George Bur, president of the Prep as well as an alum. A soft-spoken man, Bur doesn’t hesitate to examine the Prep’s shortcomings: “I often ask myself, ‘Why isn’t our city better?’ I mean, we’ve been here for 160 years. So why isn’t it better? I’m always a little embarrassed that we haven’t done a better job.”

One obvious problem—if we’re judging the Prep as a power factory—is its single-gender status. Philadelphia is a city starved for high-level female political leadership. To date, there has been only one credible female mayoral candidate in the city’s history. And the Prep, given its interest in producing graduates who will pull the levers of power, probably has something to do with that.

Another theory I heard in talking to alumni is that the Prep’s intense commitment to Philadelphia has infused the school with a parochial quality that is altogether rare in the world of elite private high schools. The Prep of old drew its students from a relatively limited area, and most of its graduates went on to Catholic colleges and universities located either within or not far from Philadelphia.

“The Prep absolutely has the potential to send kids to the same schools that Exeter does, but they’re not reaching out enough,” says attorney Conor Corcoran, class of 1995. I ask him, doesn’t the city benefit when its best and brightest stay here? “If you go to St. Joe’s Prep and then St. Joe’s University, and you live at your mom’s house in Fairmount, you’re not going to bring the perspective to the city that it needs in the 21st century,” says Corcoran. “And the Prep should know that.”

Given the insular nature of Philadelphia’s political class, this critique hits on something important. And yet, as I listened to Corcoran, his appraisal didn’t sit entirely right with me. And I think that’s because the Prep of 2013 isn’t the same school it was when the city’s current crop of leaders was coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, or even when Corcoran was graduating almost 20 years ago.

That fact worries Jim Kenney a bit. His affection for the Prep knows no bounds. But like a lot of alums, Kenney has noticed that the Prep’s student body isn’t comprised of the same sort of kids he went to school with.

Philadelphians account for only about 20 percent of today’s Prep students. The rest are drawn from an ever-widening swath of Southeastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey. Tuition has reached $19,275. That’s still a bargain compared to, say, Friends Select ($28,580 in the upper grades). But the Prep is now well out of reach for many working-class families, even with financial aid.

And yet despite that, much of what made the old Prep so special survives. On an unusually balmy December m­orning, halfway through Latin class, I looked around and realized the scene could have been almost any day in the Prep’s past,
as rows of boys in rumpled dress shirts and sport coats bent over the same text—
Caesar’s commentaries—that Prep students have devoured for decades.

Every student I spoke to was self-
p­ossessed and courteous, and almost every student appeared genuinely engaged in the classwork. The faculty today is short on Jesuits, but the teachers—many of them Prep grads—have embraced the best of the Jesuit philosophy, and the students say they are, as a group, approachable and deeply engaged in their students’ lives, while also extremely demanding. Indeed, sharp criticism is as common at the Prep as it is rare in the legions of schools where self-esteem is valued over competence. At a public-speaking class in early December, Prep basketball star Steve Vasturia delivered a monologue from the film version of A Time to Kill. He was terrific. His pacing was spot on; his delivery was clear and convincing. But he wasn’t perfect, and the teacher and fellow classmates said so: “Don’t drag your feet.” “Use your arms.” “You didn’t pause before saying ‘Thank you.’”

On an earlier visit, I watched as the dean of students berated one of his ch­arges—at length, and with real gusto—for some unknown offense, in full view of his classmates in the cafeteria. They didn’t blink. And, in fact, neither did the offending student. It seemed to me that the faculty has the same basic outlook as those tough Jesuits of old: These boys are here to become men, and that won’t happen if we treat them like kids.

Indeed, many of them are working longer hours than their parents. Most Prep students wake before the sun rises, spend an hour or so on the bus before even reaching 18th and Girard, and don’t get home until 11 or 12 hours later. These kids might sleep in the suburbs, but for four years, the city is where they work and play. Which means that even as the student body has changed, the Prep’s urban setting is as much a part of the educational experience as it always has been.

The new makeup of the Prep’s student body is significant, though perhaps not in the way some city-centric alums fear.

For Kenney and thousands of other working-class Philadelphia Catholic kids like him, the Prep was the only elite school that was remotely attainable. That’s just not the case for most Prep students today. These kids are more privileged and far more worldly and sophisticated than past Prep freshmen. The chances that these Prep grads will be infected by the parochialism that afflicts some alums seem greatly diminished.

Most Prep students today have other options—access to quality public schools, the means to pay for tuition at other equally elite (and closer-to-home) private institutions. And yet they and their parents choose the Prep. They choose it partly for the tradition, partly for the access to the regional power club, and partly for the exposure to Philadelphia itself, in all its gritty glory. Daniel Hilferty, the CEO of Independence Blue Cross, didn’t go to the Prep, but he wanted his sons to. “The fact that it is in that neighborhood, which is working-class and changing in a lot of ways, that was something that was very appealing for us and for our sons,” Hilferty says. “The school connects them to the fiber of Philadelphia.”

Virtually all prep schools are training grounds for the privileged. The old Prep was an exception: an elite school that wasn’t only, or even mostly, there to serve elites. That has indisputably changed. But the Prep isn’t an Exeter, not remotely, and thank God for that. Instead, it’s become the academy of choice for a certain slice of the regional elite—a slice that values access to power, that gives a damn about the City of Philadelphia, and that wants its sons to endure mandatory Latin and four years of being told their job is to be men for others. The power factory is still humming.

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