Tuesday, October 08, 2002

Elder more than football

        I am wondering how to understand Elder High School. Do you need a Y chromosome? Some testosterone? Do you have to play football?

        I'm curious because the men of Elder tend to become the men of Cincinnati. They stick around to run things here. Tom Streicher, class of 1971, runs the police force. George Schaefer Jr., class of 1963, runs Fifth Third Bank. Mike Allen, class of 1974, runs the prosecutor's office.

        Then there's Bob Bedinghaus, class of 1977, the former Hamilton County commissioner who may someday be forgiven for his role in the Paul Brown Stadium. Plus media guys, such as the Enquirer's Jim Borgman, class of 1972, and Jim Knippenberg, class of 1964, and Channel 9's sports anchor Dennis Janson, class of 1968.

        Nearly 60 percent of Elder's 17,000 grads live in five west-side ZIP codes. Even when they go, they come back. John Brossart, a pharmacist in Maine, flew in for three football games this season. There's a waiting list for season tickets in The Pit, named by USA Today as one of the best places to watch high school football in America.

        Monday, the streets of Western Hills were awash in Elder's signature purple, as students left the Price Hill campus for the Annual Walk for Others. As they snaked up Glenway Avenue to Race Road, people came out on their porches to wave.

        “This is a small chunk of Americana,” says Sean Kelley, class of 1987, who works at the school in public affairs. Putting together a history of Elder, this city's oldest parochial Catholic high school, he found 40 families who sent five or more kids to Elder. The saying goes, “Nothing ever changes here. The kids only have different first names.”

        So what is it about this school? Elder grads will pause, reflect and finally say helplessly, “It's a purple thing.” It just is. West Side. Elder. Purple and white uniforms. Football. Winning. Case closed.

        Not necessarily, says Bill Koch, who wrote The Pride of Price Hill (Orange Frazer Books, $24.95). “It's a whole lot more than football. They don't have an athletes' hall of fame at Elder,” he says. “There are no names on the uniforms. They'll tell you the students cheering in the block are as important as anybody on the team.”

        In his book, subtitled Cincinnati's West Side and the Elder Mystique, he writes, “The Elder coaching staff doesn't have to spend as much time motivating its players the way coaches at many other schools do. That motivation has already been provided by the community, the alumni, the players' parents, uncles and brothers.”

        The author, a former sportswriter for The Cincinnati Post, comes by his admiration grudgingly. A LaSalle graduate, he finally married into it. His wife's brothers went to Elder. So, he decided to take a closer look at the Elder culture.

        “They think they're going to win,” Bill Koch says. “Even when things don't go well, they don't fold, don't give up.”

        Loyalty. Family. Neighborhood. Religion. Tradition. Blue-collar grit. It's a West Side Story anybody can understand.

        E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/pulfer.


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