Reliving first school day Founding: McDonogh School accepted its first students 125 years ago this month. The school is marking the occasion with re-enactments and the grand opening of a performing arts center.

November 03, 1998|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

In straw hats and stovepipes, knickers and shawls, McDonogh School students who will live most of their lives in the 21st century gathered yesterday to see how a band of poor boys helped establish their school in the 19th.

The re-enactment of McDonogh's founding, played out on a multi-colored morning on the Owings Mills campus, gave the school's 1,233 students a look at what it might have been like on Nov. 21, 1873, when the first city youngsters came by train to the "school farm" provided for in the will of Baltimore native John McDonogh Jr.

The students representing those first McDonogh boys ran and stumbled up a grassy hill from McDonogh Road, as a student portraying William Allan, the first principal, yelled from above, "Hurry up, you scrubs." Unaffected by the harsh greeting, the "Original Twenty-One" students landed in a heap and answered what represented the first roll call of the school founded 125 years ago this month.

Yesterday's re-enactment kicked off a day of festivities, with students and teachers in period dress, which included an upper school assembly program on Baltimore in 1873, a lunch of fried chicken, ham and biscuits and an afternoon country fair.

"We really know very little about that very first day," said middle school drama teacher Jon Aaron, who directed the re-enactment and portrayed John McDonogh in black stovepipe and velvet-trimmed cape. But from diaries, letters and the imaginations of today's McDonogh students, the school re-created what might have been.

"We're celebrating the olden times," said kindergartner Evan Frederick, as he sat on the hill with a front row seat for the re-enactment.

The first McDonogh boys were "from homes of such poverty as is today unknown not the poverty that lacks a bicycle but the poverty that asks in vain for more bread," says a manuscript in a 1973 history of the school. The boys, chosen for their academic promise and good character, lived and studied at McDonogh for free. Today's McDonogh students pay tuitions ranging from $11,240 for lower school to $12,950 for upper grades.

Their new home and school was the former Foxleigh estate, 833 acres of rolling woods and farmland on which boys for decades raised their own food.

In his will, McDonogh provided money for the establishment of public schools in Baltimore and in New Orleans, where he lived his adult life and amassed a fortune as a merchant and real estate investor. Because Baltimore had public schools when McDonogh died in 1850, the city used his money for the farm school and set up a board of trustees to run it.

Early on, when the school used surplus Civil War uniforms to clothe its students, the school took on a military character -- out of necessity rather than philosophy, Aaron said. The school gave up its military trappings in 1971 and admitted girls in 1975. McDonogh maintains a small, five-day boarding program with about 80 students.

The re-enactment is one of several events celebrating the anniversary. Still to come are a spring alumni reunion weekend and, Nov. 14-15, "A Showcase of Stars: Past, Present and Future," the grand opening of the school's performing arts center. Students from all grades, along with alumni who have pursued careers in the arts, will perform and exhibit their works.

Pub Date: 11/03/98

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