By REBECCA RAKOCZY, Special To The Bulletin | Published September 6, 2007
When George Maloof first saw St. Pius X High School in May 1958, it was still steel beams rising from Georgia red clay. Interstate 85 ended near Clairmont Road. Dairy farms dotted the landscape, and cows roamed over what would later become the football field.
“I thought, ‘Lord, what have I gotten myself into?’” Maloof joked to a stadium full of St. Pius X students. The legendary football coach—who led the school to its first state victory in 1968—was speaking in the stadium that now bears his name, as a guest at the school’s annual feast of St. Pius X Mass, celebrated on a particularly crystal clear, but already sweltering hot, early August morning. The Mass officially kicked off the school’s jubilee year.
The Mass was celebrated by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and concelebrated by SPX religion teachers Msgr. Richard Lopez and Father Dan Rogaczewski, school chaplain Father John Shramko, former principal Father James Sexstone, SPX graduate Father Bryan Small, and Father Kevin Peek, chaplain of Blessed Trinity High School, Roswell.
After the Mass, students celebrated the kickoff of the 50th with a carnival, complete with amusement park rides, snow cones and bands, which added to the fun atmosphere.
In a powerful voice, reminiscent of his years on the St. Pius gridiron, Maloof recounted the day he accepted the job as the school’s first lay teacher and football coach, offered by Father Jim Harrison, the young, founding principal. Maloof would stay for 26 years.
“There were no desks, no fields, no gym, no lockers. One thing that we did have was a beautiful school building that was air-conditioned,” he said.
The air conditioning was a first for Georgia high schools, according to school records.
But if the school did without desks those first months (they used folding chairs), it didn’t lack spirit, he said.
“Our motto was ‘Do the best you can, with the abilities that God gave you, and you’ll always be a champion,’” Maloof told the crowd, as he extolled the virtues of what he called the “Pi-High spirit.”
When it opened in September 1958, St. Pius X was the only coeducational diocesan Catholic high school in Atlanta, the brainchild of Msgr. Cornelius Maloney, then schools superintendent. Msgr. Maloney convinced Atlanta Bishop Francis Hyland to go forward with the concept. At the time Atlanta Catholic high schools were run by parishes or orders. Sacred Heart, Christ the King, St. Joseph’s High School and the Marist School were located in Atlanta.
Msgr. Maloney’s vision demonstrated the “fine line that often exists between genius and insanity,” noted Steve Siler, SPX development director. “In that day, there were certainly many who could never envision the viability of a Catholic high school out in the dairy farms at the end of the northeast expressway. The plans for I-85 (north of Clairmont) were still just a line on the map.”
The diocese bought 26 acres at $6,700 an acre.
Nearby was the Naval Air Station, on what is now Peachtree DeKalb Airport, and the beginnings of Southern Technical College, now Southern Polytech. Both institutions have since moved to Cobb County.
Msgr. Maloney’s idea extended beyond his vision of St. Pius; the school was to have been the first of several coeducational diocesan Catholic high schools in metro Atlanta. But that dream was put on hold for 40 years, until Archbishop John F. Donoghue opened Blessed Trinity and Our Lady of Mercy High School in 2000.
Father Sexstone, now parochial vicar at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, came to St. Pius as chaplain and religion teacher in 1969 and was named principal in 1973, taking over from Father Richard Kieran. Father Sexstone served as principal until June 1976.
“When I came to St. Pius, the school was jam-packed, with 800 students and a trailer,” he said. “St. Pius was my first assignment after being ordained in the archdiocese.”
The biggest event during his tenure was the construction of a gymnasium. Prior to that, the basketball teams had practiced at all hours, at Marist School and downtown at the former St. Joseph High School and often at IHM.
“We went 16 years without a gym. It was a challenge all those years; we had to borrow and rent gyms, and organize carpools,” he said. “Marist and St. Joseph’s were generous about renting their facilities for practices and games.”
Although there were always plans for a gym, construction began in earnest when it was learned the school’s Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accreditation was in peril because of the lack of space to have physical education.
“The gymnasium was built—it took five years—largely through the efforts of the leadership of a number of St. Pius parents,” he said.
Despite having the first air-conditioned high school in Georgia, the new gymnasium was built without this comfort.
“We had the equipment donated, but the archdiocese told us that they wouldn’t foot the cost (to hook the system up and run it),” Father Sexstone said.
He came to the school during the heyday of modular classes and an open campus structure, an experimental educational system that eventually was phased out both in public and Catholic institutions. He still regards those years as an exceptional time.
“My most vivid memories were the faculty, staff and the students; they were the most exceptional people I have had the privilege of knowing and working with. I have students who still remain in contact with me; it’s been a real pleasure and joy to see them grow into their adult lives, and see their children.”
SPX math teacher Beth Thompson came to the school in 1971, teaching until 1974 before leaving for three years after the birth of her second child. She returned to a school that had grown dramatically during her absence. This year she marks her 33rd year of teaching at SPX.
“When I came back in ‘77, Father (Terry) Young was principal, and St. Joseph’s had closed, and the faculty and students were sent to Pius,” she recalled. Women Religious, who had made up the bulk of the teachers, were leaving the school, and lay teachers were taking their place. “That was a big change.”
Technology was also moving forward.
“Our first calculator cost our whole math budget, and we screwed it to a table. That way everyone knew where it was, and we couldn’t afford to lose it,” she said with a laugh. Today there’s a computer on practically every teacher’s desk and a calculator in every student’s backpack.
While having the technology to teach is important, it is the atmosphere at SPX that keeps her there.
“As a teacher, it’s always been a school that has supported me in my professional growth, and where I was valued and supported and encouraged to be my best every day. And the students—the quality of the students hasn’t changed over the years. They’re still very earnest and industrious, and the kids just love being here. It’s a great place.”
Thompson sent both of her children to St. Pius, a practice shared by many other faculty members.
“That speaks well of the school,” she said.
For Molly Messner Lane, the youngest of six siblings to graduate from St. Pius in 1974, during Father Sexstone’s tenure there, the school still has that Pi-High spirit George Maloof talks about. Her youngest son, Jeff, graduates from St. Pius this year, ending—for a time—the legacy her family has sustained at St. Pius, while seeing the school grow tremendously.
Her oldest sister, Mary, graduated in 1964, followed by George in ‘66, Anne in ‘68, “Till” in ‘69, Mike in ‘71, and herself.
“We moved down here from Chattanooga when I was 3,” Lane said. “My father was a convert, it was important that all their kids received a Catholic education,” she recalled, describing both her parents as “very Spirit-filled people.”
“They were more than satisfied with the school’s education, and the fact that it was Catholic was huge,” she said.
Lane remembers going to St. Pius football beginning when she was 5, “cheering as loudly as I could possibly cheer.” When she entered the school, her teachers included Beth Thompson and Charlene Klister, still an English teacher there.
Despite the lack of a gym, Lane played basketball all four years at the school before continuing her athletic career at Trinity College in Washington, D.C.
“I followed in the footsteps of my sisters, who also played basketball,” she said.
“We practiced in the parking lot of IHM, and my mother traipsed all over the place, trying to find gyms for us to play in,” Lane said. “We would play at St. Joe’s or Marist, and sometimes we wouldn’t start practice until 8 p.m.”
When the gym finally opened—the year after she graduated—her parents won a school raffle celebrating its opening. “They won our first color TV.”
Among her favorite memories of the school was the senior walkout, a tradition that has since been discontinued. “On the last day, all the seniors met at one part of the school, and we would all walk out of Pius together. My senior year, several boys in our class hired a helicopter. It landed on the front lawn and took them away.”
Her parents’ devotion to the school is memorialized at the George Messner Plaza by the stadium dedicated to her late father.
Today Lane and her husband Jeff are still active at the school. Their youngest son, Jeff, plays football, and Lane regularly hosts the Thursday night dinners for the team.
“They are the nicest kids,” she said.
The legacy of St. Pius graduates sending their children to the school continues. David Buechner, now alumni director for the school, was a Pius graduate in 1973, and the first of seven Buechner children to go through the school.
“I aspired to have my kids go to St. Pius,” he said. “It was the fulfillment of a personal dream that my daughter would be able to go here.”
After she graduated, Buechner became the alumni director in 2001.
Like Lane, Buechner also remembers his high school years during the era of modular scheduling and open campus at St. Pius.
“The mood of the time permeated Catholic school; people were generally rebellious,” Buechner said. “Having (first) experienced a large public school, then an all-boys Catholic school, the atmosphere at St. Pius was a very, very civilized place. The teachers were respectful of students, and students were respectful of teachers.”
Those were the years when St. Pius was established as a great football power.
“Marist had just turned coed and moved to Ashford-Dunwoody (from downtown Atlanta.) They had not beat us in football yet,” he said.
Although the times allowed for more freedom for students off-campus, there weren’t many places for them to wander. Perimeter Mall had not been built, and there was a lot of undeveloped land between the school, Tucker and Dunwoody.
“Buckhead and Roswell Road were a lot closer to us in terms of time. There wasn’t as much traffic. We’d hang out in Roswell or Buckhead or Decatur, or go to parks,” he said.
The modular system and the open campus ideas didn’t last long. But the impact on friendships made still resonates with Buechner.
“Pius remains a place that it’s still OK to have high school spirit. It’s a good, healthy, active community, a huge community of families. I would say, too, that there has been an extraordinary number of lifelong friend bonds made at Pius.”
Sharing comments with the student body at the 50th anniversary celebration Mass, Steve Spellman, principal of St. Pius, emphasized he believes the school’s character has been firmly established and will endure.
“None of us knows what the future will hold for the next 50 years. The buildings might change, additional land be purchased, the student body could be larger or smaller. It’s hard to predict a long-range future in an era of constant change, but I am confident that I can predict one thing with certainty. St. Pius will still be St. Pius: a proud, Catholic, college-preparatory institution that will continue to produce graduates, women and men, of both substance and character. That is our proud tradition and a tradition, with the help of God, that will continue. With God’s blessings, our future is a vibrant future.”