It Was Nearly a Riot

​Aquinas College High School was unique compared to other high schools in Columbus, Ohio. Columbus had two other all-male high schools, but Aquinas was located at 557 Mt. Vernon Avenue in the inner city with its five acres surrounded by poverty and crime. 

Aquinas was a ‘little white island in the black sea’ as the expression went at the time. Fifty years after its founding, the once Irish neighborhood had become a predominately black minority. The neighbors rarely seemed to bother the students or priests, except for an occasional wino asking for money to buy a drink. Just down the block near Cleveland Avenue was an employment office where day laborers hung out from 7AM to 3PM. Just east of that office was a vacant lot that looked green all year around. However, close examination showed no grass at all, just broken wine bottles littering the whole lot. A bar on the southwest corner of Mt. Vernon and Washington Avenues was the scene of constant fights. On one occasion, a man’s throat was slashed and he was thrown out the front door to die in full view of the students on our baseball diamond. Across Mt. Vernon Ave., diagonally northeast of the Aquinas parking lot gate, was La Chevous. A noted red-light establishment whose inhabitants loved year-round open windows, which made it easier to discuss current prices for services, and to make sure the clients actually had money before letting them in. Aquinians could not help but notice La Chevous--it was directly in front of the westbound trolley bus stop.

After one of our home games, early in the 1960 – 1961 basketball season, two Aquinians were jumped by 4 or 5 neighborhood thugs while waiting for the trolley bus in front of La Chevous. 
Fr. John Aloysius Segren (1909 – 1979) and Fr. Rudolph (Francis) Vollmer (1893 –1971) were in the Aquinas parking lot at the time, and heard the commotion. Both went to the aid of the students, and managed to get them just inside the Aquinas gate before being confronted by the thugs and more of their buddies. Another student, seeing all of this, ran into the locker room where the team was finishing up their showers and shouted “N…..s have surrounded Fr. Segren & Vollmer, and are going to hurt them in the parking lot”. This announcement briefly stunned everyone in the locker room area of the main building. Then all hell broke loose with oaths of forthcoming violence being quickly spoken. (Note: This was an era before “Political Correctness” became a phase in the dictionary.)

Students, who had been waiting for team members, quickly ran for the northwest door while team members hurriedly put on their clothes and shoes. Someone suggested weapons were needed, and we ran to a side door leading to the tool and boiler room underneath the Chemistry lecture room. There we found old pipe wrenches and tools that had been used on the old printing press the school once owned. Some were 2 feet long and weighed 25 pounds or so. Thus armed, we ran out and met the basketball team members, who were coming out of the main building. 

Over 30 Aquinians marched toward the parking lot, lead by Bob Vacin using a partial hula-hoop as a horn. No one seemed to have given any thought that this could create a possible race riot, or that some people could be seriously injured if a fight ensued. The only concern seemed to be the possibility of the thugs having knives. It was quickly agreed that any fast moves by the thugs would justify a wrench to the head or arm at full force. The adrenalin was pumping and the 
Aquinas student warriors were literally ready to battle. 

As we rounded the corner leading into the parking lot, Fr. Segren saw us and we heard him yell he was ok, and he did not want any trouble, but we could not see him. Finally, when we were 10 feet away near the gate opening, we could see the Roman Collars and a couple of green and gold student jackets, and some very surprised looks on the faces of the local tough guys. Our Aquinas group literally surrounded the now 15 – 20 thugs as Segren spoke to them, trying to diffuse the situation and getting them to leave. I recall that one thug seemed not to get the message, and made a move toward Fr. Segren. Tom Letzelter gently tapped the guy on the shoulder with a mighty big wrench, and the guy froze in place. The guy was lucky--Tom’s dad was a State Trooper, and I think Tom would have definitely whacked the thug if he had touched Fr. Segren. It took Segren another 5 minutes to get the thugs to leave peacefully with Aquinians providing a line on both sides of the driveway to the gate. What kind of amazed us was that some of the thugs had beards, and a few appeared to have been drinking. Most were not teenagers. After they left the parking lot, Fr. Segren appeared relieved and good ole Fr. Vollmer said something like “Thank God “. 

Fr. Segren said there was no need for this show of force and weapons. He said he thought he had it under control, but did thank us for coming to his and Fr. Vollmer’s defense. I think the heavy weapons surprised Fr. Segren, especially when we told him where we got them. He told us to put them back immediately. 

Crisis over, we all walked thru the parking lot. Some of us went to the tool room while others went to the locker room to finish dressing. It seems that most of the basketball players did not put on socks for the battle, nor had they even bothered to dry off after their showers.

This is the only instance that I know of, from August, 1959, to June, 1963, that a problem from the neighborhood actually encroached onto school grounds. The language is cleaned up a little, but the incident and facts are true.

Thomas Aquinas Burke
Aquinas College High School - Class of 1963
Columbus Ohio
April 5, 2009