Getting to Aquinas

In downtown Columbus, Aquinas College High School was a citadel of learning.  Or so we students thought.  The reality may have been a little different.  One thing that was certain, traveling to Aquinas from various parts of the city was a challenge.  City streets were often clogged with traffic.

When Aquinas was founded in 1905, most students lived close enough to walk or take the streetcar.  By the 1950’s, Columbus’ land area had expanded and urban sprawl had begun.  The automobile had become the major mode of transportation.

From 1959 -1963, I rode to Aquinas with my dad in the mornings.  He dropped me off about 7:45, on his way to work at Thurman and City Park.  Our trip got easier as the North Freeway was progressively built during my high school years. It was a marvel seeing the new roadway cutting through the city.  No one gave any real thought about the harm this ribbon of concrete did to displaced homeowners, businesses, or neighborhoods.  Ultimately, the Freeway reached the Fort Hayes area and proceeded south, cutting across Mt. Vernon Avenue, thereby isolating the near Eastside Black community.

When I got my driver’s license and dad was flying out of Port Columbus on business, I drove his 1961 Pontiac Catalina. Dad would drive to the airport, and I would take the car and go to school.  The Catalina was a beautiful cream-colored car with simple styling, yet had a V8 engine that gave it real power to move.  No! I did not hot rod with it.  However, I did test it for speed a few times.

My only chargeable accident in my life was in October 1961.  It was an Assured Clear Distance Ahead charge for squarely hitting the rear of a 1959 Ford.  The Ford with a high bumper was damaged slightly but the Catalina’s headlights were facing the ground.  I remember my dad surveying the damage without going too ballistic.  He simply said “you are paying the deductible”.  I had broken the motor mounts.  It cost me $100 out of my savings from my summer job as a Deputy County Recorder.

I remember during the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1–28, 1962), driving my dad to Port Columbus, and seeing two armed fighter jets parked at the end of the runway near Stelzer Road.  The pilots were clearly visible and obviously ready to take off and fight.  Seeing their bombs scared me. They were there day and night until the Russians started re-packing their missiles for the trip back to Russia from Cuba.

Many Aquinians car pooled.  My brother George shared his memories about this with me.  “My first two years I rode to school with Tim Fallon (later Doctor ) in his Pontiac.  As an underclassman I rode in the backseat.  Jim Dodd was picked up first and rode in the front seat as did John Cherubini.

For my last two years, I rode with Jim Dittoe in his 1951 Chevrolet convertible.  I rode in the front with Jack Mahoney, while Mike Mahoney, Tom Woodward, and Tom Verhoff rode in the back.

Jim had the car long before his birthday on January 20. Before he got his license, we used to get in his car, sometimes putting the top down, and he would drive from the front of his driveway to the back of his driveway at his home on Torrence.  For reasons I can’t explain, I found the drive (of roughly 60 feet) to be exciting, even though we only reached a top speed of around 5 miles per hour.  Jim was a very conscientious and safe driver who drove much slower than I felt was necessary.  (It was many years later that I realized that this was a sign of his maturity and my stupidity for not realizing that speed really can kill.  But as you know all too well, maturity was not one of my attributes when I was at Aquinas.)

I did get to drive Jim’s car once.  We were on our way to school in the far left lane, going south on Summit (which was one way going south).  As we reached roughly Patterson, a young boy darted out from between the parked cars and right in front of Jim’s car.  Jim didn’t even have time to hit his brakes.  In an instant the boy appeared, and the next instant he disappeared in the air.  Jim stopped as quickly as possible. We got out of the car.  I was expecting to see blood everywhere.  Instead, there was a 10 to 12 year-old boy laying stunned on the pavement.  He was not bleeding, and did not appear to be in pain.  He pleaded with Jim not to call the police or an ambulance since he said he would get in real trouble with his mother for crossing Summit without looking. All he wanted to do was get to school at Holy Name.  We picked up his lunch bag, gave it to him and made sure he got across the street safely. Jim was very shaken by the whole experience.  His face had lost all its color and was a pale white color.  Jim asked me if I would drive the rest of the way to Aquinas, and I did.  This was one time I was glad Jim was just driving at or below the speed limit.

Dittoe’s car joined the hundred or so cars in the Aquinas main parking lot.  Viewing the parking lot, a person might think it was the city impounding lot.  Yes, there were new cars but a great many appeared to be escapees from the scrap metal yards on Joyce or McKinley Avenues.  How some actually could move defied the laws of physics.

Bob Bower, my best friend, got his driver’s license just after his 16th birthday.  Bob bought his 1951 Ford sedan with a stick shift, from his mom.  It had previously been owned by his brother Mike, Class of ‘56.  Mike had tried to restore it before running out of money, so Mrs. Bower bought it from him.  It had a beautiful blue naugahyde interior, big speakers for the radio, wire wheels, and was mechanically sound.  Bob paid for it by painting the Bower house on Tulane Road during the summer of 1960.  To Bob’s frustration, he was not allowed to drive his car until he got his driver’s license.  Until then, he watched his sister, Mary, enjoy the fruits of his labor.

He called it “The Gord”.  Ugly would not adequately describe it.  It was covered in black dull primer paint .  Bob could fix it with a crescent wrench, screwdriver, and hammer.  Yet, it ran and helped produce many high school adventures and memories for us.  Bob also used his car for his after-school job. 

 In “The Gord”, a week after graduation, Bob and I drove up to Ruggles Beach on Lake Erie.  Then we meandered to Pepper Pike, and Erie Pa. to visit friends.  Then it was on to Ripley, NY for our first legal shots of liquor.  Ultimately, we ended up sleeping in the parking lot on Goat Island, Niagara Falls NY and spent the day sightseeing and shopping in Niagara Falls, Canada.  We then bee-lined to home.  Thank God for cheap gasoline, as I think we made it back to Columbus with maybe one dollar in our pockets.  “The Gord “got us home safely.

Many Aquinas students were similar to Bob.  Their cars were their chariots, no matter how ugly.  Although utilitarian, they also were symbols of status and the owner’s coming of age. Everyone took pride in them.  Sharing the ride with friends came with the car.  Often the Aquinas parking lot was packed tight with vehicles, yet no one scratched another car. It truly was an accident if this occurred.

Occasionally, Fr. Francis Clem McKenna, OP or even Fr. John R. Smith, OP directed parking in the main lot near the driveway entrance to Aquinas.  The south lot behind the 1925 Building was rarely used.  When the priests were in the parking lot many student cars slowed down before entering, so cigarettes could be extinguished, and then thrown out the windows, and ties put on.  Cars often came into the lot with so much smoke coming out of the windows that a viewer might have thought they were on fire.

The electric trolley bus delivered around a third or more of the school’s students to the southwest corner of Jefferson and Mt. Vernon Avenues.  This was just a few yards east of the parking lot entrance to Aquinas.  Since the demise of the streetcars in 1947, the electric trolley bus was the mainstay of the Columbus Transit Co, a subsidiary of Columbus & Southern Ohio Electric Co.  In 1959, most of the transit routes were running electric trolley buses.  There were only a few diesel bus routes but later the entire system would use diesel buses.

An electric Trolley Bus is a bus that is powered electrically by two overhead wires.  The overhead wires did not beautify the city.  These live wires could kill if touched.  They often sparked and when heavily iced would not conduct electricity, thus the bus stopped running.  I think the fare was 12 cents and the driver hated to make change.  In October, 1961, I tried to pay the fare with a $100 bill.  The invectives let out by the driver were unprintable.  Of course, I had witnesses to the prank.  Luckily, the driver promptly gave me back the $100 bill and I gave him a bus ticket.  I needed the $100 to pay the insurance deductible for my accident with the Catalina.

The progress of the freeway (I-71) eventually cut off Mt. Vernon Avenue, making it a dead end just past Jefferson Avenue.  The Mt. Vernon Avenue trolley bus was re-routed to Long St.  The other closest bus stop was Cleveland and Mt. Vernon Avenues.  Riding the city buses was fun at the time.  It gave us time to read our school assignments, but written homework was difficult to do because of the bumpy ride. Of course, the more students on a bus the less homework was done.  Transferring buses downtown often lead us to shop.  I bought my first old book, Paradise Lost, an 1826 tome for 25 cents, from a bookstore in front of my downtown bus stop.

However, some students really did walk to Aquinas even as late as 1965.

Bob Stark, Class of August ‘65, shared this memory with me  “I only had 3 years at Aquinas, but I never got blasted by anyone and I only went to Smitty’s once because I was tardy once.  So I got a late slip ---- then Fr. Cenkner says I didn’t need to do that because religion class hadn’t started yet! So my final record shows no missed days and one tardy. That’s the only time I had to see Fr. Smith.  I even had a reason – my sister had missed the bus to St. John the Evangelist grade school so my mom told me to walk her there. Normally, I walked to Aquinas which was maybe a mile and a half in the opposite direction, so I figured there would be no chance to avoid being late.  I walked my sister to the school at Ohio Avenue and Newton, nearly to Livingston Ave., then proceeded to do the fastest race walking I ever did to get to Aquinas which was at least 2 or 3 miles away. As it turned out, I was only 3 minutes later than normal and if I had gone straight to class, my attendance would have been perfect.”

No matter what mode of transportation was used, getting to Aquinas on time was a serious matter and paramount to each student, because being tardy meant going to Fr. John R. Smith’s office and facing the consequences. A scary thought.

Aquinas College High School closed in 1965.  The campus was sold to Columbus Technical Institute.  It became the nucleus of today’s sprawling 80+ acre Columbus State Community College with over 24,000 enrolled students.  The average class size is 18 students.  Each day thousands of students still try to get to class on time.  The 1925 Aquinas College building is now called Aquinas Hall.

Aquinas College High School 
Class of 1963
31 August 2016