Over the last 30 years or so, there have been cries for help and usually those pleas have been answered.
There have been false alarms that St. Anthony High School was about to fall by the wayside, become victim of the Parochial school purge that has engulfed the Archdiocese of Newark, become one of the many others that have put padlocks on the doors, like St. Aloysius, St. Mary’s, St. Michael’s (both Union City and Jersey City) and Holy Family Academy before it, like the countless amount of grammar schools that have packed up and gone away.
St. Anthony was always going to become just another statistic, another fading memory of how Catholic schools just no longer work in the inner-city without outside help – or in the case of Hudson Catholic, succession from the once-almighty Archdiocese.
But something always saved St. Anthony – and usually it was the school’s incredible basketball program and its incredible Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley. The tireless basketball legend would always somehow find a source to keep the building open, keep his basketball legacy going for yet another season, as we rapidly approach his 50th anniversary at the downtown Jersey City school.
Those last-minute salvations came from generous benefactors who also truly believed that the city of Jersey City and the state of New Jersey basketball would be far worse off without Hurley and the Friars, that the legendary program with 28 state championships and 13 NJSIAA Tournament of Champions crowns just made everything better – both athletically and educationally.
Through all its trials and tribulations, St. Anthony managed to survive and defy the odds by keeping its doors open. And Hurley kept coaching the Friars, also after false alarms that he might retire and call it a career.
A little more than two years ago, the school and the Archdiocese both agreed that the best way to keep the school afloat would be to turn the keys over to the Hall of Fame coach and make him the school president as well as basketball coach. This way, the school’s biggest and best asset would fundraise with a title. It would give the school a little more juice.
And frankly put, the holier-than-thou Archdiocese could say, “If Hurley couldn’t save the place, then no one could.”
Hurley took the non-paying job as school president – only after he was instructed to do so by his loving wife and scorekeeper Chris.
Now, St. Anthony has reached the crossroads once again – and this time just maybe the time has come to finally buy that padlock and chain.
The school announced last week that unless they can raise a staggering, almost unthinkable total of “$10 to $20 million” before January, St. Anthony more than likely will close after the current school year ends in June, 2017.
The school’s Board of Regents made the announcement last week in a press release and in a special meeting to the current faculty and parents of the current student body. The school feels the need to establish an endowment, with operational costs of approximately $1.5 million per year, in order to stay in the business of Catholic education. And to have that endowment operational for the next five years or so, they need to raise the established $10 to $20 million figure.
If the funds aren’t raised by February when enrollment for the next school year begins, then the announcement to close will be made official.
“There was never a plan in place for me retiring,” said Hurley, who just turned 69 years old in July. “We were never able to develop that so this enables us to develop into the future. To do that, we need some sort of endowment. We would like to be able to sustain. We might be able to keep the short term going, but what about the long term? We don’t want to have to scramble to make that happen.”
Some local schools, like recently Queen of Peace in North Arlington, had a last-minute fundraising effort that enabled that school to remain open.
“We could do that,” Hurley said. “We could try to do that by raising tuition and doing some downsizing. We could merge some classes and try to get the enrollment up. But we had expectations this year of being around 210 and we’re at 185 or 190.”
But $10 to $20 million? Some of the biggest charitable organizations in the country don’t raise that much money with corporate underwriters. The Muscular Dystrophy Association got $40 million or so from the Jerry Lewis Telethon – and that was worldwide. And that was to help sick kids everywhere, not just kids at a New Jersey high school. That number seems to be nothing more than a pipe dream, again floated out there in case the plan simply falls flat.
“Having grown up here and lived here my whole life, those are numbers I can’t compute,” Hurley said. “I know that this one seems unrealistic. But I feel it’s realistic for the long term. We could try to keep it going in the short term. We’re worried about the long term.”
The timing of this announcement also seemed very peculiar, especially since there is a fundraising get-together this weekend at the Casino in the Park in Jersey City to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Hurley’s arrival at St. Anthony.
Hundreds of people have already committed to attend the dinner, one that Hurley has been looking forward to, because it will be like a reunion of all his former players from over the last five decades.
“Yes, it will raise money and it won’t be negative at all,” Hurley said about the festivities. “We had this scheduled long before we went to the Archdiocese. It’s just a night together of laughs and memories. We’re going to enjoy ourselves and have a good time.”
Hurley said that the school didn’t want to wait any longer to make the announcement about the possible closing.
“It wouldn’t be fair to anyone,” Hurley said. “It’s better than waiting until April or May to do it. But since we made the announcement, no one has called to complain. Not a single student has transferred out. If we’re going to be open, we’re going to make sure we’re operating for a while. That’s why the endowment plan. We’ll see where we are by January and then make a decision.”
Two things have to come into play here. One, the property where St. Anthony sits in downtown Jersey City, near Newport Mall, is at an all-time premium. One real estate expert put the price tag on the property at “$10 to $20 million.” Gee, does that number sound familiar? Maybe the Archdiocese of Newark has been doing its homework and realized that St. Anthony is more valuable to them closed than it is opened. A real estate developer could easily put a 50-story skyscraper on the property with a tax ratable bonanza and think nothing of it.
Two, maybe St. Anthony can decide to break away from the Archdiocese and operate on its own as a private school or a charter school at a different location, say the METS Charter building across the street where the Friars play their home basketball games.
That would be a major gamble, but one that could happen. It worked with Hudson Catholic and worked with St. Patrick’s of Elizabeth, which became The Patrick School.
In that respect then, St. Anthony wouldn’t need $10 to $20 million, just about $1.5 million to operate for next year. That seems a lot more feasible. The $10-to-$20 million seems like Fantasyland, unless there is a blanket corporate sponsor like Pepsi or United Airlines underwriting the costs.
Don’t be surprised by that one. Grassroots organizations don’t raise those gigantic totals with $50 and $100 donations. It just doesn’t happen.
Hurley has stated for the record that he will not coach another high school team anywhere, so the rumors about him possibly moving on to the financially stable St. Peter’s Prep (Hurley’s alma mater) are not true.
In his heart, Hurley doesn’t know what to think this time. Sure, the school has endured battles with the Grim Reaper before and won. This time, he’s not as certain.
“I’m thinking it will all work itself out,” Hurley said. “But that’s not a business-like approach. Things can happen to make it a reality. But now the time has come to walk the walk instead of just talking the talk.”
It seems to be more of a pie-in-the-sky pipe dream, but who knows? St. Anthony has certainly survived the scares over the last 30 decades, but just not one as looming as this one.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com