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For '53 Grads, a Dei to Remember

Mater Dei's first class of graduates meets for its 50-year reunion and a chance to recall the start of a mighty Santa Ana tradition.

September 27, 2003|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

In 1950, Mater Dei High School didn't have traditions or the national reputation for academic and athletic excellence it now boasts. It didn't have school colors or a mascot. It didn't even have a gym.

But it had Dan Padilla, John Herman and Jim Hart, three leaders among the 64 sophomores who dedicated themselves to breathing life into a Roman Catholic high school whose name would eventually come to exemplify high achievement.

This weekend, about 25 students from the class of '53 are celebrating the 50-year reunion of the Santa Ana school's first graduating class.

It promises to be a quiet weekend, even though they've been working on it for a year and a half, said Padilla, a retired linen-supply company executive. After Friday night's welcoming reception, there is tonight's dinner ("We're too old to dance," said his wife, Virginia) and, on Sunday, Mass in the school chapel celebrated by Orange County Auxiliary Bishop Jaime Soto (Mater Dei '74), and tours of the school's new chapel, student activity center and two-story academic wing.

On Friday, the three alumni sat with a copy of the Crown, the class of '53 yearbook, remembering the days when the campus on the same 22 acres it occupies today was surrounded by bean fields and orange groves, and the few students who had cars parked them right behind the classrooms.

Herman was the student body president; Hart was the senior class president. And Padilla?

"He had the car," said Hart, a professional golfer-turned-real estate salesman.

Padilla, who appears so ... judicial in the yearbook picture in his graduation gown with black wavy hair, owned a powder blue '41 Mercury coupe that he and his friends would take to the beach or just across the street to John's Drive-In for burgers and Cokes, listening to Bobby Darin and Frankie Laine.

Their football and basketball games were played in borrowed facilities or away, but the youngsters started a home tradition of "Return to the Grotto" after every game to pray at the statue of the Virgin Mary.

"We set some of the standards ourselves by our own actions," said Herman, a retired Rockwell International administrator.

They chose the school color, red, and had a contest to name the mascot. Herman's choice of the Monarchs, taken from a Los Angeles hockey team that had just gone out of business, was the winner.

A wistful yearbook remembrance called "We Paved the Way" freezes the early years with a picture in words of what it was like on campus as construction workers continued to build the school around the students:

"Ring of hammer and saw mingled with Spanish verbs and algebraic equations ... happy faces ... excitement ... class rings ... first coed dance ... student body constitution drafted."

The varsity football team was 5-5 in its senior year, said Hart, but even when they were away, at Capistrano or St. Francis in Riverside, Mater Dei fans outnumbered the home team fans.

Padilla, who is still active in the student programs, "didn't want to graduate" said his wife, Virginia, whom he met at Mater Dei. Padilla is typical of Mater Dei alumni who are unrivaled in lifelong loyalty to their school.

The couple have eight children and 26 grandchildren. Three grandsons have graduated from Mater Dei, and two grandsons and a granddaughter are enrolled there now, "with more to come," he said.

He goes to every basketball and football game -- varsity and freshmen -- and quite a few soccer games.

And despite the recent scandal of a lawsuit accusing several educators of molesting students during the '70s, the four alumni are undaunted in their devotion to the school.

Herman said the scandal is like "any organization ... [where] there are going to be some people who don't play by the rules. And there's so much more positive" at Mater Dei than the whiff of scandal that is still an allegation, they said.

Today, the campus serves 2,200 students and is surrounded by modest homes and discount shopping centers.

And although it still does not have a football stadium, the Monarchs dominated varsity football in the state in the '90s. In 1994 and 95 they were ranked No. 1 in the nation by USA Today. The boys' basketball team was California Interscholastic Federation champion in 1992, '93, and '94. Academically, the school is just as powerful. Honors-class enrollment tops 1,200 and 95% of the graduating seniors go on to college.

But this will be a weekend of looking back, not forward, and sharing memories about that simple, carefree time of "billowy net dresses ... orchids ... dreamy tones of orchestra ... prom time."

Even the location speaks to their loyalty.

"We looked in Palm Springs, San Diego," Padilla said, "and we said 'No, it belongs here, in Orange County.' "

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