For many Baltimoreans, it's not your job or your car or your clothes that matter. The most important thing about you is where you went to high school.
-Illustration by Andy Ward
You don't have to be born-and-bred Baltimore to have been asked The Question, much less posed it to someone else—the mark of a true Baltimorean lies in the answer. The Question is, of course, "Where'd you go to school?"
Why do we ask The Question? How did this tradition come to define a person? And does it still matter the way it once did?
Let's call on Stefanie DeLuca. Three and a half years ago, she got the biggest break in her still-young academic career. The Chicago native jumped at the job opportunity she'd been offered at Johns Hopkins University as an assistant professor of sociology. She'd been born and raised in Chicago and even stayed local for college, attending the University of Chicago and Northwestern. So she found herself homesick and confused early on in Charm City. Mainly because people kept starting conversations with The Question.
"It was awkward for me," she says. "This was happening to me a lot at the Downtown Athletic Club, where I'd get to talking to people and they'd ask me where I went to school. And my first response was: 'So what?' I went to college and then to grad school and it would get confusing because I just had no idea about it, and it would end up being embarrassing."
People like to point out that Baltimore is a big city with a small-town feel. Some people say it wistfully—others, with a sneer. But whether people love it or hate it, they acknowledge it. They see it reflected in Charm City traditions, from the rowdy, communal nature of eating steamed crabs in a large group, to the celebrity status of the local news anchors and weathermen, to the postmodern worship of Baltimore's Hons.
The tradition that goes the furthest in fueling the "smalltown" argument—the one that causes folks to label the town as "parochial"—is our obsession with our high schools. And we're not talking stamp collecting level of obsession, we're talking Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. In some cities, people might be judged on what part of town they're from. Others might be judged on what they do for a living. In Baltimore, where you went to high school speaks loudest. All at once, it tells people where you grew up, just which rung you (and your family) cling to on the social ladder, and sometimes even gives a pretty good indication of what you do for a living. Heck, it even susses out whether you're from Baltimore, as anyone not from around these parts assumes you're referring to their college alma mater.
For the sake of clarity, let's outline what we're assuming are most people's presumptions—that Baltimore has certain "Power Schools" whose reputations are of excellence, whether it be in the arts, sciences, athletics, or even religion. When someone in town asks you where you went to school, these are the alma maters that carry the most weight. And they're pretty widely agreed upon: Baltimore School for the Arts, Beth Tfiloh, Boys' Latin, Bryn Mawr, Calvert Hall, City, Dulaney, Friends, Gilman, Loyola, Maryvale, McDonogh, Mount Saint Joseph, Notre Dame Prep, Park, Poly, both St. Paul's schools, and Western.
Tom Kiefaber owns and runs one of the lasting icons of a bygone Baltimore era, the Senator Theatre. This is appropriate because, after a peripatetic adolescent tour through Baltimore's public, private, and parochial school systems, he possesses rare insight into The Question.
His elementary school years took him to McDonogh once and Gilman twice (he points out that this doesn't deter Gilman from calling him every year during fundraising season). And by junior high, he was a genuine adolescent Odysseus, wandering from school to school.
First, he was back at McDonogh. The next year, he branched out to Boys' Latin, then Baltimore Institute, then
Roland Park Public. Finally, he strung a couple years together at Baltimore Lutheran—long enough to edit the school paper and become school president as a senior, graduating in 1971.
So these days, when asked The Question, Kiefaber says he "learned to cut to the chase and shorten the exchange by responding that I didn't go to St. Paul's or Friends."
Out-of-towners are usually forced to adapt similarly. After a couple decades of answering The Question, some of them get savvy enough to respond with a convincing "Oh, I went to the 'Gilman' of Boston" or possibly "the 'Maryvale' of Poughkeepsie."
DeLuca, on the other hand, tried to dig up the roots of the tradition to satisfy her curiosity—after all, her forté is studying the effects of social context on adolescents.
Initially, she says, "my gut reaction was that Baltimore's a small town with a lot less turnover. So this is simply more of the local tradition, because you have a solid population that doesn't change as much over time. It's a good bet that someone's going to know what you're talking about. And they're going to have gone to high school here. It's largely not something that people even think about."
DeLuca went first to the census data, hoping that something might leap out at her to explain Baltimore's intense love affair with its high schools. "I was trying to think of things that would change the cultural milieu here," she explains, "and which would explain some of what might seem provincial or parochial, but which I look at as culturally traditional." No luck.
But when asked about drawing a parallel to the close ties most people create in college fraternities and sororities, DeLuca acknowledges some similarity. "In the South, fraternity and sorority involvement is for life," she says. "Because it's a status thing. And I think that's what all of this comes down to. I don't think the specifics of whether it was Delta Phi Epsilon or Calvert Hall are what matters. It comes down to when people are interacting socially, there's just a little bit of getting a footing when it comes to social status. It's a common denominator. And it's a way to get a better handle on who you're talking to."
Social institutions, she explains, are simply shortcuts that we take. We take them because they're easy and we take them because sometimes they actually get us somewhere quicker.
"It either serves a purpose of sussing out who you're talking to, or it's just a force of habit and the specifics are irrelevant—it's just a way of entering into a conversation with somebody," she says. Either way, it's the Baltimore version of asking people where they're from or what they do for a living. It's a more polite way of asking "Who are you?"
"I think it may be related to our provincial past, when your classmates often reflected your social class," Kiefaber offers. "Although the clear delineation in the past has blurred somewhat, it remains a method for efficiently establishing where an individual may fit in the Greater Baltimore Scheme of Things."
When two Baltimoreans are involved, he says, The Question is always followed by a quick game of Who Do You Know? "Since indigenous Baltimoreans tend to stay put, there are fewer degrees of separation here and the 'Where did you go to school?' inquiry is still an effective search engine that beats Google every time."
Writer Laura Lippman, who started at Western before transferring to Wilde Lake, nods in vigorous agreement. "Baltimore is obsessed with high school because, in general, no one ever leaves," she says. "I've heard newcomers say they've never known a place that was so obsessed with high school. And the old high schools—Western, Poly, City, Eastern, Forest Park, etc.—had very strong identities once upon a time. It was a very convenient way to stereotype. Why do you think I'm so quick to invoke [my] one year at Western? It's a total brainiac credential to have been A-course."
And boy, does Lippman have a point— Baltimoreans love to stick around. Proof of that lies at the heart of this very discussion. DeLuca points out the obvious: If the best of Baltimore's high-school alums always left town, there wouldn't be much point to asking The Question.
Fortunately, most of those alumni have remained in and around Charm City, helping to lead and shape the city over the past half-century. More importantly, those school ties are as instrumental as ever in getting alumni into colleges, boardrooms, and elite social circles.
"I often have kids who are seniors who are getting jobs at some point," says Barry Fitzpatrick, principal at Mt. St. Joe. "And they say 'Wow, Mr. So-and-so hired me because I'm a St. Joe grad and so is he.' You have people giving a little bit of a preference in hiring to guys from their high school."
Fitzpatrick's counterpart at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute—always shortened to "Poly"—agrees. "The hand has always reached backward to pull folks along," says Dr. Barney Wilson, Poly's principal and a class of '76 grad.
Last year, for instance, Willard Hackerman, construction magnate and Poly alumnus, established a scholarship for three Poly grads each year for the next 25 years who go on to attend Johns Hopkins University.
"When I went to Pittsburgh for college," says Wilson, "there was an article in the paper that there were some Poly students at Carnegie Mellon. The vice president of Westinghouse at the time immediately called the school and took 15 of us to dinner and paid for it and said to us: 'Welcome to Pittsburgh. I know that Carnegie Mellon's going to be okay because there are 15 students from Poly and Western here.' Anything he could do to support his schools, he would do."
There's no question that this is how Baltimore's school ties have remained so strong—and why The Question is still relevant.
"If someone asked me today about where I went to school," Wilson says, "the last thing I'd think about is college. The very first thing I'd think about is Poly. When I'm out and I see a City or Western ring, I immediately engage in conversation and we immediately have some common ground." He's even met fellow Baltimoreans in such farflung locales as Africa and Australia simply because he spotted their school rings.
And although the "provincial" and "parochial" labels don't always carry such savory associations, Baltimore's school ties are admirable in their ability to go beyond race. "Poly now is predominantly African- American," says Wilson. "Before 1960, most of the folks were white male. But they still have the same love for the school and the love for the students who are there, because they're Poly students and race doesn't really come into it." It may seem insignificant, but it's apparently refreshingly different after some of the things he's seen in other places.
"In New York, a lot of the alumni at some of the stronger schools have abandoned the schools because the population has changed," he says. "The rigor didn't change—the schools are still producing topnotch students who can compete nationally. But the alumni support has waned. Baltimore, to its credit, has not abandoned its schools along racial lines."
It's clear that Baltimore's high-school alums haven't abandoned Baltimore either. A look at some of the most notable alumni of Baltimore's schools reads like a who's who of Baltimore's elite over the years. And in many cases, it serves to reinforce the reputations schools have.
And that's another unique element to The Question—graduation rates don't matter. SAT scores don't matter. Class sizes don't matter. For the purposes of the average Baltimorean asking The Question, the proof of a Power School is in the pudding—the alumni.
For starters, if you want to be a politician, City College is apparently the place to be. They've turned out Elijah Cummings, Theodore McKeldin, Dutch Ruppersberger, William Donald Schaefer, and Kurt Schmoke. The Notre Dames haven't done too badly either, with Barbara Mikulski and Democratic Leader of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, hailing from IND, and Baltimore City Judge and First Lady of Baltimore, Katie Curran O'Malley, attending Notre Dame Prep.
Poly's got the market on future construction tycoons cornered, with grads like Alonzo Decker (of Black & Decker fame), Robert Poole and E. Robert Kent, and the aforementioned Willard Hackerman.
Most of the other Power Schools have prominent alums from more varied walks of life. Consider McDonogh, responsible for tennis star Pam Shriver, former Crown Central Petroleum CEO Henry Rosenberg, beer guru and Clipper City beermaster Hugh Sisson, and interior designer Stiles Colwill.
Or Gilman, whose alumni list includes Governor Robert Ehrlich, Moxley's Ice Cream owner Tom Washburn, Sylvan Learning founder Doug Becker, Living Classrooms CEO James Piper Bond, and restaurateur extraordinaire Tony Foreman.
Of course, not all civic leaders spring forth from City College: City Councilman Keiffer Mitchell attended Boys' Latin. Maryland Attorney General Joe Curran came out of Loyola Blakefield, along with former Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro III, and Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith. State Senator Lisa Gladden and Maryland State Schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick both graduated from Western High. Walter Sondheim matriculated from Park School. And Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, went to Pikesville High.
There's no shortage of scribes and inkstained wretches on the rolls of our alums either: Laura Lippman came out of Wilde Lake, H.L. Mencken walked the halls of Poly long ago, Leon Uris was a product of City College, Tom Clancy graduated from Loyola, Anna Deveare Smith went to Western, and Gilman boasts both Frank Deford and Walter Lord.
Baltimore also claims some serious Hollywood power as well, with alums like Fox Filmed Entertainment's Tom Rothman, of Park School; producer Marc Platt, of Pikesville High; Columbia, TriStar's Steve Mosko, of John Carroll; and actor Edward Norton, of Wilde Lake. Even Charles Theater co-owner John Standiford came from Friends School. And a list of important Baltimoreans in the performing arts is almost too long to consider. Milford Mill Academy has produced successful performers like Mario, Mo'nique, and Maysa Leak. Baltimore School for the Arts and Carver Center for Arts and Technology are responsible for world-class musicians, actors, and actresses year after year after year.
Some of our landmark local businesses are owned and run by Baltimore alums too. Advertising impresarios Allan Charles and Steve Eisner attended City and Park, respectively. Severna Park High lays claim to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti. Bread winners Sam and Alfie Himmelrich graduated from Park. And Maryvale grad Patricia Brown is the president of Johns Hopkins HealthCare.
Then there's sports—an arena unto itself, as it were. If you're hoping to play in the NFL, you could do worse than Woodlawn, which produced three current NFL players. No mention of Towson High would be complete without world-class swimmer and Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps. Towson Catholic graduated an Olympic medalist and an NBA star— Anita Nall Richesson and Carmelo Anthony. Legendary ABC sportscaster Jim McKay attended Loyola Blakefield. Rangers first-baseman Mark Teixeira hails from Mt. St. Joe. Dundalk High turned out Oriole Mike Bielecki and skateboarder Bucky Lasik. The NBA's Juan Dixon and ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. both share the same alma mater in Calvert Hall. And Kisha Ford, a Bryn Mawr alumna, became the leading scorer in Georgia Tech history before moving on to star in the WNBA.
The list of local notable alums goes on and on. But it's easy to see why schools are so proud to invoke the names of their greatest grads—and why it's so easy to apply reputations to the schools completely outside of their geographical locations and tuition costs. A constantly changing student body would seem to make a consistent reputation for academic or athletic excellence difficult to achieve, but most of the Power Schools have done this. That's what makes The Question still relevant.
It's also easy to see why that old list of Power Schools needs to be updated and expanded. Schools like Pikesville, Milford Mill Academy, Archbishop Curley, Wilde Lake, and Carver have earned a measure of respect thanks to their alums who've gone on to bigger things, whether they stuck around Crabtown or moved on.
"The problem with the term," Mt. St. Joe's Fitzpatrick points out, "is that there are other schools out there who are doing a really good job who aren't 'in the loop' or wouldn't be identified as 'power schools.' They get overlooked in the mix, and they're every bit as good as those traditional power schools."
The extensive list of accomplished Baltimore alumni suggests that there's some symbiotic relationship between the student and the institution. That great schools attract great students, and that, during their four years together, the best qualities of each are imparted upon the other.
Dean of Howard University Law School and former Mayor of Baltimore
City College, Class Of '68
"My first day was a culture shock for me because I entered as a 9th grader at a time when high schools were primarily 10th grade through 12th. So going to a very big, all-male high school with 4,000 young men as a 9th grader was a little intimidating.
I had a great time in high school. Sports played a big part because I played varsity football and varsity lacrosse. Every cliché about team sports applied to my experience at City College. It built wonderful friendships, I enjoyed the camaraderie of the team, had outstanding teachers as coaches, and it was a real boost to my college prospects and thus the rest of my career.
George Young, who was the general manager of the New York Giants back when they won the Super Bowl in the 1990s, was my football coach. I stayed in touch with him for many, many years up until his death a few years ago. A number of English teachers were extremely helpful as well. John Pense in particular. Up until his 90s, he was sending me notes about things that he read, interests that he had. Harold Greenwald was a real supporter of the arts in Baltimore and an outstanding teacher at City. These are the kinds of people who took an interest in students in an ongoing way.
The most nerve-wracking part of high school was my junior prom because I got my license just five days before prom and if I had failed the exam, then I would've probably lost my date. Things went well though. No trauma."
Wilde Lake, Class Of '77
"Baltimore was still working on the old 7th-9th junior high school paradigm when I was kid, but I was recommended for the 'A' course at Western, which meant that one entered the school in 9th grade.
City teachers went on strike my year at Western and we missed a month of classes. (I totally supported the strike; my mom was a librarian in the system.) I was already floundering in Algebra II and when we came back, the teacher decided to skip some segments so we could 'finish' the book. This completely discombobulated me. I managed to get an 'A' through rote memorization, but I never understood anything that was going on. I cried almost every Sunday night that spring, just thinking about the week of algebra ahead. When I got out to Wilde Lake, my adviser (a.k.a. homeroom teacher) was math teacher Lynn Collins, [who] showed me that I was actually quite good at math.
My family decided to try Wilde Lake for a number of reasons. It was about as stark a change as one can imagine, from an academically rigorous program to the open-space no-failure concept, [which] was pretty easy. And I got to do some really unusual things, such as write the book and lyrics for a novel I wanted to turn into a musical, which counted as part of my English Lit. grade one year. Ultimately, Wilde Lake was very good for me, because it was so non-competitive. Instead of focusing on what other students were doing, we tended to focus on our own work and grades."
Professional Trumpet Player
Baltimore School For The Arts, Class Of '92
"I was very, very nervous for my audition. I remember going into the room and seeing all the faculty sitting there—my future trumpet teacher, head of the music department. You sight read a selection, which I wasn't very good at. They listen to it and write down some pointers. And then they tell you a week later if you're in the school.
My trumpet teacher was very supportive of my career and what I wanted to do. She realized I had a lot of trouble getting acclimated to the instrument and was a hard learner on the trumpet. I was one of the most determined kids there, but probably not up to par on where I should have been. She was very, very supportive and through the years, she got me to where I wanted to be on the trumpet.
Many people that leave the school become successful, and I think it's because they have a good paradigm for success. There's no peer pressure. The white kids and the black kids get along. There's no pressure to wear the latest gear. Never any fights. The population varied so much, and not even everyone came in with the same goal, but everyone had a sensitivity and a goal for bettering themselves and creating beautiful art. The school teaches you about the professional world. We were always performing in front of donors. We had to be on time and be prepared. You get used to a demanding schedule, something most high school students didn't have to. Even people who graduated there and became CEOs or bankers benefited from the discipline at the school."
Dulaney High School, Class Of '72
"In high school I was thinking of three different careers. Science (astrophysicist), musician (in a symphony orchestra), or fashion.
My trig teacher told me my math skills were weak and I would only be an 'average' scientist and I didn't strike him as an 'average' person. I never recovered from feeling deficient in math, which is very funny since I employ two mathematicians to write my special design software and I use math every day in ways most people can't fathom!
My music teacher told me I was good at many different instruments but wasn't 'great' at any one. He said most likely I'd end up as a music teacher like him and he didn't see that for me.
We had an experimental clothing and pattern-making class instead of the traditional Home Ec, and my teacher, Mrs. Robinette, said that designing was where she saw the passion in me. I thought fashion was shallow and lacked real cerebral challenge—it took many years for me to change my opinion on that!
The principal gave me $500 to make 20 band uniforms for our dance band. This was a pivotal moment for me, fitting so many guys' different shapes. I had permission to skip homeroom period and report directly every morning to my very own sewing room (the band practice room) equipped with machines and irons and a big table."
You might hear all about St. Joe's wrestling prowess or Dunbar's basketball history or City's football dynasties, but what about the mathletes?
For 35 years, It's Academic has been the bowl game of choice for brainiacs. It's even been recognized by no less authority than the GuinnessBook of World Records as the longestrunning quiz show on TV, having debuted in 1961 in D.C. and 1971 in Baltimore.
Longtime host Mac McGarry reminisces about a few of the memorable moments from his years grilling Baltimore's teens.
On the show's influence: "Steven Mosko [John Carroll School, class of '74, now head of Columbia, TriStar Television] once said that he developed an interest in the TV and film business by attending an It's Academic taping. I thought that was terrific!"
On brains vs. brawn: "It gives the students on It's Academic the same attention that an athlete would get. How ironic is that? Some of the teams used to give out letters for appearing on the show. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm a sports fan! I follow sports very carefully. But I think it's fine that scholarship is also noticed on the same level as athletics."
On one memorable dynasty: "The Pape family from Edgewood High in Harford County sent us three siblings in a row. I designated their seat on the board the Papal Chair!"
On his favorite answers: "I don't want to use this in any disparaging way, because these kids were trying to answer the questions seriously. But the best answers I ever got were: The question was 'Who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo?' The answer came back: 'Duke Ellington.' I could hardly go on! The second one, and the guy was serious, was 'Who, along with Friedrich Engels, wrote the Communist Manifesto?' And the guy shouted out 'Groucho Marx!' Those are still my favorites and they both came out of Baltimore.