St. Mary's sold on its tradition

Auction fund-raiser brings in $175,000 for Annapolis school

November 05, 2001|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

The bidding started at $400 on the gemstone globe from China. A few paddles shot into the air. But there was little stir in the crowd.

The auctioneer reminded the 500 people in the St. Mary's School cafeteria in Annapolis that each country on this globe was carved from semiprecious stones and inlaid into oceans of deep blue, ground lapis.

"Now do I hear five? Yes! Five-and-a-half? Now six!" auctioneer Steve Little boomed in staccato fashion. Soon, the price zoomed to more than $1,000 and the competition was pared down to a mustachioed man in a tuxedo and a fellow in an olive blazer.

Neither was a big fan of globes, or China, but that wasn't the point. Here was something interesting to bid on, a chance to throw money in a good direction. And throw they did.

At its annual auction Saturday night, the 139-year-old St. Mary's School raised $175,000 - making it one of the most successful school auctions in the state, organizers said.

The school and parish, which is on Duke of Gloucester Street on the banks of Spa Creek and within sight of the slender State House dome, has eschewed that great Catholic fund-raising tradition (B-I-N-G-O).

The auction is in its 16th year, with each one besting the previous year's total. The 500 tickets, at $75 apiece, sell out in a few weeks. Some couples arrive by limo, the men in tuxes, the women bejeweled and in shimmering gowns. They bring their Visas and MasterCards and checkbooks and compete to see who can spend the most.

"It's nice because you feel like you're giving back to yourself," said Eileen Leahy, who has two girls at the school and is one of four volunteer auction co-chairwomen. "It's a big social event for parents and a great tradition."

The Chinese globe went to the man in the olive blazer, Brian C. Connolly, for $1,550. He has a son in the third grade and a daughter in the fifth grade.

"Everybody in the world is hitting you up for money," said Connolly, the president of a bus company in Beltsville. "But this is a first-class event. They don't push too hard, which I like."

More than 400 items had been donated by parents, alumni and Annapolis businesses for the auction. Most of them went during the silent phase of the evening, with 24 items held for the live auction.

The event had a few bargains. A 9-foot inflatable sport boat, valued at $1,350, went for $770. An oil painting, The Italian Countryside by Antonio Mancini, valued at $750, went for $150. No one bid on a Trek mountain bike valued at $330.

But most everything went for at least its market value, and often much more. Four Washington Wizards tickets sold for $595, one night in a Camden Yards skybox for $1,750, and a framed photo of Cal Ripken, with autographed ball, for $1,150.

"I'd much rather spend $300 for something here than pay $25 in the store," said Jeff Clise of Bowie, who has three children in the elementary school. "I've got to go spend some money," he said, as he returned to the bidding tables.

Volunteer alumni bartenders were never far away. A wait staff glided through the crowd with trays of fruit and Asian delicacies. The evening's theme was "Treasures of the Orient," and a crew of volunteer parents spent weeks transforming the school's cafeteria and gym into something of a small Chinatown, complete with an ornate, 20-foot-high archway.

Clutches of bamboo shoots were everywhere. A red rickshaw stood guard at the entrance. Huge 9-by-36-foot fans hung from the ceilings. The chairwomen had folded and decorated the fans in their driveways.

"My kids think I'm crazy," said co-chairwoman Belinda Butler, who shopped for decorations at dollar stores and has been working on the auction full time since July.

Though some of the families at St. Mary's are wealthy, the school is not. The tuition is thousands of dollars less at St. Mary's than at other private schools in the area. Elementary school tuition for out-of-parish families is $4,500; it's $7,500 for the high school. Parish families get about $600 off.

The school has about 1,600 students, but no auditorium (the cafeteria can do double duty) and no athletic fields. Homecoming was at Anne Arundel Community College this year.

Only seniors are allowed to park on campus. An item sold during the live auction Saturday night was a reserved parking space for a junior. Last year, it went for $2,700. This year it was a bargain at $750.

Reserved parking and seating for eighth-grade graduation went for $1,050. And an invitation to watch the Annapolis Parade of Lights from the St. Mary's Rectory Common Room, overlooking Spa Creek, sold for $2,800.

But the biggest ticket by far was for nothing the parents and alumni could take home. The school's two principals said the school needed a laptop computer cart, with 20 laptops and a wireless network system. Within minutes, the crowd pledged $24,000.

Later, someone praised the auctioneer, Steve Little, for wringing so much money out of the crowd. "With a group like this, it's easy," he said.

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