The old gym from North Catholic High School is still standing, having been used as a community center. Not long ago, Royal alumni gathered there and played some of the old music that had filled the same building for dances in the 1960s.
“There was a lot of bonding,” says Meridee Kaiel, a 1969 graduate who grew up just a few blocks from North Catholic and recently bought her old family home. “A lot of us are still friends. I see people at work and church all the time.”
Kaiel, a member of Holy Cross Parish, is typical in her recollections of familial student life at the school, open from 1958 until a fire closed it in 1970. It was the only co-ed Catholic high school in Portland’s city limits.
“We were all involved and we all knew each other,” says Kaiel. “I could tell you where everybody lived. We had a strong parent group. We couldn’t get away with anything.”
She was Meridee Willis as a student, a cheerleader and member of the Rose Festival Court. She now works at the University of Portland in the office of student life.
She recalls afterschool trips to Rhon’s Restaurant nearby, where she and her girlfriends would grab the round table, then order cherry Cokes and a big plate of French fries.
Her mother was the first lay teacher at the old St. Cecilia Grade School in North Portland and her father an ink salesman who counted the Sentinel among his customers. She married Gary Kaiel, a 1965 North Catholic graduate.
“It was like a small town,” says Sara McHugh, a 1969 graduate who went on to be a newspaper publisher and now serves as chief operating officer for Oregon Catholic Press, which publishes the Sentinel.
“It was a special place — small and co-ed,” McHugh recalls.
Female students wore royal blue blazers and gray flannel skirts. Sister Ruth, the disciplinarian, would at times ask girls to kneel to make sure the hems were long enough to touch the ground. Some girls recall being sent home for skirt violations, or for having bangs that hung in the eyes.
Students brought brown bag lunches, but there was a snack bar, where ice cream cones could be had for 25 cents.
Yearbooks show page after page of organizations: Honor Society, German and Spanish clubs, math club, Red Cross, speech club, a huge pep club, service club and newspaper.
One organization, Young Christian Students, would explore social situations, judge them on gospel values and come up with a plan of action.
Academics would be ranked high with the likes of the brainy Sister Paschal teaching chemistry and physics. Sports, especially football, would succeed in galvanizing the entire neighborhood, who came out for games by the hundreds.
Each May, there would be a day for Mary, with prayers, talks and floral crowning of a statue.
Students collected food for the needy, picked up litter in the neighborhood (especially after football games) and sold candy to support their school. Fashion shows also raised money.
Each year at graduation, the school bestowed the St. Edward Award for leadership and the Most Holy Trinity Award for scholarship.
In 1964, the school staged a “cheering welcome” for Sharon Arneson, a 1964 graduate who was crowned Rose Festival Queen, the first candidate from a non-public school to earn the honor.
Inevitably, there were comparisons with Central Catholic and Jesuit. Smaller and newer, North Catholic sometimes felt like a younger sibling.
By 1969, the North Catholic library was enlarged and students could choose from electives in black history, chorus, drama, debate, art, slide rule, vocation search and history of China and Russia. Also that year, with the Vietnam War raging, three seniors won prestigious appointments to military academies. Richard Christensen was invited to attend all three.
A 1967 graduate and basketball player, Keith Arneson, joined the army and was killed in the initial surge into Cambodia in 1970.
In 1968, student pollsters had asked peers and faculty if they supported the war in Vietnam.
Early on July 14, 1970, an arsonist would bring the North Catholic experiment to an end. But Catholic co-education would prevail and a new Catholic high school would open in the neighborhood more than 30 years later.