HYATTSVILLE, Md. – When DeMatha Catholic High School opened its doors in September 1946, they led into a monastery basement, where 18 boys paid $275 each to study for the Trinitarian priesthood. The teens studied a curriculum that required Latin but made no time for sports, music or other electives. The boys were all white and all Catholic.
As DeMatha celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, it now boasts more than 900 students. About 35 percent are non-Catholic and about 30 percent are black. Many students now participate in the wind ensemble or basketball programs, which rank among the country’s best, or in the nine additional music groups or 12 other varsity sports. The tuition for the 1996-’97 school year is $4,760.
Despite many positive changes, DeMatha parents, students, and faculty are just as proud of what has stayed the same.
DeMatha students are still all male, they still pray every day and take four years of religious instruction, and continue to pursue what veteran principal John Moylan calls the DeMatha mission: “character over credentials.”
Sally Hein of Bowie, mother of DeMatha senior Chad Hein, said she has seen this mission reflected in the growth of her son, academically ranked second in his class, and his peers.
“I think DeMatha did exactly what Mr. Moylan told us it would do,” she said. “He tells the parents of every freshman class he will turn the boys into young men of integrity and I believe he does that.”
Joe Tanis, class of ’62 and president of Bond Beebe certified public accounting firm in the District, remembers the excellent instruction and emphasis on integrity and “Christian gentlemanly conduct” from his years there.
When Tanis attended DeMatha, it had about a third of the students it does now. But he said he saw the same closeness between students and teachers when he returned recently as a career day speaker.
“Whether it’s ’62 or ’92, it’s still the same,” he said. “The closeness between teachers and students is uniquely DeMatha.”
Tanis’ freshman year, 1959, marked a major growth spurt for the DeMatha campus. Six classrooms, two laboratories, an addition to the kitchen and cafeteria, a paved parking lot, tennis courts and an outdoor swimming pool were added. Less than a decade earlier, the main classroom building had been constructed.
By the mid-’60s, the school had grown to 450 students and a staff of 35, complete with a full-time librarian, secretary, cafeteria crew and three soon-to-be legends: Moylan, English teacher and baseball and football coach Charles “Buck” Offutt and varsity basketball coach Morgan Wootten.
Wootten, who went on to coach more than 1,000 games with one of the winningest records in high school basketball, brought DeMatha its first gleams of the national spotlight in 1965 when his varsity team defeated the seemingly unbeatable Power Memorial of New York, breaking Power’s 71-game winning streak.
Around this time, Moylan recalls, administrators felt the need for rules on boys’ hairstyles, which were becoming longer in the style of the time.
Administrators decided to let students have hair to above- the-shoulder length but no ponytails. They could grow moustaches “if they could” but not beards, and have sideburns no lower than the earlobes, Moylan said.
The haircut rules have not changed, except for the stipulation about sideburns.
“A while back we had an excellent, brilliant student who had sideburns below his earlobes,” Moylan explained. “We had a crisis: `What do we do? We have this great kid, but his sideburns are too long.’ ”
Moylan said administrators decided to change the rules, allowing longer sideburns, provided the boys stayed clean-shaven to complement a dress code that includes ties and blazers.
The dress code reflects the distinctly conservative, Catholic bent of the school, an orientation it is proud of, Moylan said.
There is an American flag and a crucifix in every room, and each morning the 936 boys stand to recite the pledge of allegiance and bow their heads while Father William Sullivan, DeMatha’s rector for the past 19 years, says a prayer over the loudspeaker.
Daniel Curtin, secretary for Catholic education of the Archdiocese of Washington, which oversees DeMatha, credits the school for retaining its Catholic traditions while broadening its general curriculum.
“What they have done is provide very strong religious classes and religious discipline, which is just as important if not more important than the regular classes,” Curtin said. “That’s the difference with DeMatha: They’re not afraid to make religion classes more important. They’re not afraid to be a Catholic school.”
But DeMatha has not let religious studies eclipse other academic and extracurricular interests.
DeMatha was named a Blue Ribbon School for Academic Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education in 1984 and 1991.
Its wind ensemble has been named the nation’s top Catholic High School Band by the National Catholic Bandmaster’s Association for 15 of the past 17 years. The basketball team has won 30 conference titles and five national titles.
DeMatha has steadfastly remained a brotherhood and will most likely stay that way, despite pleas by parents and students to let girls enter, Moylan said.
“A lot of DeMatha parents want it to go coed so their daughters can come here, but we wouldn’t be DeMatha if we were coed,” he said.
A few girls did manage to slip into DeMatha’s halls and history. When Regina Catholic High School, an all-girls school in Adelphi, closed at the end of the 1989 school year, DeMatha agreed to let 21 interested Regina girls from the 1990 graduating class spend their last high school year at DeMatha.
It was a one-year arrangement and the boys ended up grateful that it was, Moylan said.
“Our boys were all excited when they found out, but about halfway through the boys started coming to me saying, `Mr. Moylan, let’s stay the way we are,’ ” he said. “I’d like to go coed about once every five years so they could get it out of their systems.
“You’re more popular here because the girls don’t know you,” Moylan said he tells his students. “If they knew you, they might think you were a jerk.” -30-