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Streetwise: Looking Back at 1968

by Frank Dunnigan
October 2018

Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

It still feels as though it all happened just yesterday.

Fall of 1968: a new school year had just begun, and all of us in my St. Ignatius High School Class of 1970 were juniors, and exactly halfway through our time on Stanyan Street. The “new school”—still called that today by many in my generation—had been in the planning stages for years, with students selling candy bars and raffle tickets as fund-raisers since the time JFK was in the White House.

Work at the 37th Avenue site began in 1967, though financial difficulties and construction delays all but guaranteed that the Class of 1970 would finish out our high school days on Stanyan Street, with the new school serving as home only to younger generations of "S.I." students—and that was just fine with us.

Things did not turn out that way.

Let’s go back…Between classes, extra-curricular activities, and just hanging with friends, most of us spent 12+ hours each day on Stanyan Street—more time than with our own families—and even today, fifty years later, those memories remain clear.

Cover and montage of new vending machines at St. Ignatius in November and December issues of 'Inside S.I." in 1966., 1966 - WNP Collection

At the time, a majority of St. Ignatius’ students lived in the western neighborhoods and relied upon one or more MUNI lines to get back and forth to school each day. Bicycles were simply not cool back then, and only a handful of seniors drove each day. There was the occasional parental drop-off, but nothing like today’s long lines of cars.

Richmond District students had easy access via the 1-California, 38-Geary, 31-Balboa, and 5-McAllister lines. For those living south of Golden Gate Park, though, it was a bit trickier—often beginning with the ever-crowded 28-19th Avenue bus before transferring to the 5-McAllister at 25th Avenue and Fulton Street. Some students found it easier to take a streetcar (K/L/M lines) to Forest Hill Station, then transfer to the 10-Monterey bus, and then onto the 5-McAllister at 10th Avenue and Fulton.

Many who utilized the 10-Monterey link reported positive social outcomes from some casual encounters, deep in the cool spaces of Forest Hill Station, with girls from Catholic high schools—namely, the promise of a weekend date. Sadly, for those riding the jam-packed #28 bus each morning and afternoon, there were no similar opportunities to mingle or chat up other passengers.

In conformance with S.I.’s dress code, most of us were clad in similar attire. Duffel bags for carrying books were a freshman-era accessory that alerted parents to exactly how much homework had been assigned each day. By sophomore year, most students were smart enough to bring home no more than two books and a binder full of class notes, knowing that everything else could be reviewed, either before class or during lunch period, with input from classmates. To this day, I confess that most of my knowledge about The Merchant of Venice, Pythagorean theorem, Triple Entente, Latin verb conjugations, Spanish vocabulary words, and the Periodic Table stems from lunchtime conversations with my classmates in the school’s basement.

Hallways in the 1929-era building were lined with individual lockers—freshman on the first floor, sophomores and juniors on the second, and seniors on the third. Classrooms held 35 or so students in rows of battered lecture desks with attached writing surfaces. Only one Jesuit, Father Raymond Pallas, known to generations of S.I. students, still used a traditional “lecture platform.” This was a large wooden surface at the front of the room that elevated him about eight inches above the floor and a throwback to teaching methods of a bygone era that had been discarded from all the other classrooms years earlier.

The school relied upon bells to control student movements between six class periods of 55 minutes each and a mid-day lunch period. The hallways and narrow staircases were regularly packed with students, and in retrospect, the old building was one gigantic firetrap. By 1966, the basement cafeteria had undergone a transformation that removed all traces of hot and nourishing food prepared onsite. Instead, the school had just contracted with a vending service to line up a series of coin-operated machines that dispensed daily doses of sugar, fat, and salt to hungry students.

Seniors had off-campus lunch privileges and congregated at a tiny store on the northwest corner of Stanyan and McAllister Streets known as the “S.I. Store”—never by its official but unadvertised name, “Acme Grocery.” The place was operated by a Mrs. Welch and her daughter Mrs. Mersich who stocked a far better food selection than the cafeteria—though they operated under the school’s watchful eye. Warning signs on the back wall announced boldly: “S.I. STUDENTS—DON’T RISK SUSPENSION!! FATHER (name of current Assistant Principal pasted over prior names) ASSURES US THAT ANY STUDENT CAUGHT CARRY SODA BOTTLES AWAY FROM THE FRONT OF THE STORE WILL IMMEDIATELY BE SUSPENDED!!” Suspension for walking off with an empty three-cent soda bottle? It was a different era then.

On Friday nights, many students congregated at the A&W Drive-In located on the northeast corner of Alemany Boulevard (now John Daly Boulevard) and Lake Merced Boulevard in Daly City. It was a scene out of American Graffiti, with cars circling the lot for parking spaces, rent-a-cops directing traffic, and the presence of many Catholic high school girls. There was car-to-car visitation as Top 40 hits blasted from the speakers of car radios—this was THE place to be and be seen by others. Detailed reports of who was there (and doing what with whom) were exchanged at school early on Monday mornings. By the mid-1970s, though, that bustling Friday night scene was gone, with just middle-aged parents and toddlers quietly munching burgers in family station wagons.

The school’s first floor auditorium housed would-be S.I. actors, plus aspiring actresses from local girls’ Catholic high schools, along with scenery-building crew members working on the annual Fall play/Spring musical. Detention also took place on the first floor, adjacent to the office of the Assistant Principal (the classic wooden bench outside his office was ceremoniously moved to 37th Avenue in 1969 where it remains in use today). There was a chapel on the second floor (often visited during midterms and finals), and on the third floor, Chemistry teachers provided after-school counselling to students whose lab experiments resulted in the “accidentally deliberate” production of butyric acid, with its strong smell of vomit/rotten eggs permeating the entire building. Other classrooms were dedicated to after-school activities: band, sodality, publications, and various clubs.

Athletic teams were also busy. St. Ignatius won numerous championships during its final years in the city league (AAA), and in its new membership in the Catholic school league (WCAL). Football, baseball, and track teams were constantly vying for practice time on the field, JV and varsity basketball teams competed for gym time, and cross-country runners were weaving in and out of Golden Gate Park every afternoon—a virtual beehive of activity in the neighborhood.

Tribute spread to the Stanyan Street campus of St. Ignatius with column by Frank Dunnigan., Apr 11, 1969 - WNP Collection

For many years, the school’s population was 700-800 students—a significant increase over the 500-600 that existed before World War II. By 1960, baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) began entering high school as 14-year-old freshmen, and within a few years, the student body increased to 1,000 students and 222 Stanyan Street was bursting at the seams.

To alleviate congestion, the school purchased an old Victorian house at 2580 McAllister Street in 1967 and relocated extra-curricular activities there, thus freeing up classroom space. Students had a handy off-campus spot to gather each afternoon, and even with minimal faculty oversight and the rambunctious nature of teenage boys, there were surprisingly few incidents of misbehavior at “The House."

The band practiced immediately after school in the garage, and work sessions for the Ignatian yearbook and the Inside S.I. newsmagazine often took place upstairs during quieter times, including evenings/weekends. Such gatherings were serious affairs—punctuated by massive quantities of food from Doggie Diner at Arguello and Geary Boulevards, usually picked up by the newest staff member after taking orders and collecting money from others.

Amid the cacophony of multiple transistor radios (tuned to rival stations KYA and KFRC plus spring/fall broadcasts of Giants baseball games on KSFO), ancient IBM word processors clacking away, plus the occasional ringing of a wall telephone in the old kitchen area—completed articles were being pasted-up on layout sheets. Photographers were dispatched to provide last-minute coverage of sporting events, and film was developed, with prints produced quickly in the nearby darkroom. The final step included adding article titles and photo captions—features that challenged innovative writers to slip risqué double entendres past the faculty advisor. Literary inspiration came from back issues of both Time and Mad magazines, plus copies of publications from other high schools. Among the staff, old A-graded term papers were shared, dates were arranged for the lovelorn, and anyone with a car automatically offered rides to others. The atmosphere was reminiscent of the San Francisco Chronicle City Desk combined with Animal House and the 4077th M*A*S*H.

Although these sessions took place with only occasional visits from faculty members, there were very few shenanigans. Occasional games involved gigantic balls of wadded-up rubber cement. Intramural wars took place in the hallway between Inside S.I. and Ignatian staff members equipped with carbon dioxide foam fire extinguishers, plus flame-throwers made with Krylon spray sealant and a lighted match—nothing bad enough to ever aroused the attention of the San Francisco Police or Fire Departments. Still, there were nights when someone’s worried mom would implore her husband to make a late-night check: “You go up there right now and see what those boys are up to!” On a regular basis, someone’s weary dad would show up unannounced at the front door and survey the scene—a bunch of teenagers editing, printing, and pasting up columns of text, cropping thousands of tiny photos, and aligning articles and images with an architect’s T-square device. Reporting back to his worried wife, he could only say, “Those kids are really WORKING!”

In March 1969, there was a startling announcement—neighboring University of San Francisco had just purchased S.I.’s Stanyan Street campus with a stipulation that the college could take possession by the start of the fall semester, just six months away. With an influx of cash to complete the 37th Avenue campus, construction there moved into high gear, and contractors put all their efforts into completing the classroom building, while deferring work on the faculty residence, chapel, commons, library, gym, and theater. At the same time, it was announced that the school’s name was being changed to St. Ignatius College Preparatory.

There was elation among younger students that the new school was finally coming to pass, and seniors (Class of 1969) were also pleased that they would be the final graduates from St. Ignatius HIGH SCHOOL at 222 Stanyan—S.I.’s home since 1929. Among juniors in my own class of 1970, there was apprehension and overall sadness that we would not be able to enjoy our senior year in the traditional setting that we had come to know so well. (Read my account of the first year at the new school.

During those final three months on Stanyan Street, many students began to engage in some “souvenir gathering,” with parts of the building disappearing daily, including the big mechanical clocks in the hallways, porcelain drinking fountains, desks, locker doors, bathroom stalls, and even nearby city-owned street signs. Some serious words from the principal regarding “immediate expulsion” for perpetrators soon calmed the situation, and many “lost” items suddenly reappeared in their usual places.

In the end, though, realizing that there was no official ceremony planned to mark the end of the school’s 40 years on Stanyan Street, an enterprising group of students put together an impromptu but heartfelt farewell. (For a nostalgic look back, read the second half of Streetwise: That's Entertainment.)

Even today, half a century later, most of us cannot drive along Stanyan or Turk Streets without a sideways glance to remember the place where we all came of age and formed many lifelong friendships so long ago.

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Page launched 28 September 2018.

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