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Corvallis High Grads Cram Their Finals With Emotion

Times Staff Writer

To Francisca Thompson Feddersen, it was cheating her granddaughters.

To Jackie Pieper Maguren, it was “heartbreaking--like losing a home that I always thought would be there.”

To Patty Voght Bayless, it was an occasion for “sadness and anger--anger because I still don’t believe this had to happen.”

The women were all part of a crowd saying farewell to Our Lady of Corvallis High School, the oldest Catholic high school in the San Fernando Valley. The school is closing after 45 years, a victim of financial problems brought on by changing demographics, declining enrollment and the withdrawal in 1981 of the order of nuns that founded it.

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Feddersen, of Encino, was a member of the class of 1947, only the second class to spend all four years at Corvallis. She sent six daughters there. One of them, Deborah, in 1968 became the first daughter of an alumna to graduate from Corvallis.

“It would have been so nice to be able to send a third generation here,” Feddersen mourned as she took a goodby stroll through the polished linoleum corridors and empty classrooms with four of her daughters.

Deborah, now Deborah Bingham, agreed. Bingham had flown in from Twin Falls, Ida., and other sisters had come from Ventura and Bakersfield to join their mother at Corvallis’ last homecoming.

Maguren, class of 1952, came from Salem, Ore. “I didn’t keep in touch,” she said, as she showed her adult daughter the locale for the stories of her teen-age days. “I never thought this would happen, and then I got a letter from the school last fall. You never think of your high school not being there.”

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“This is a tremendous loss to the community--the only Catholic girls school in the East Valley,” said Bayless, class of 1963, who as president of the Parents’ Club was part of the group that faced Corvallis’ economic impasse in its last few years.

“I’m very sad that we’re losing a Valley tradition,” said Elisa Pulido-Ragus of Glendale, a member of the class of 1971 who taught at Corvallis from 1979 to 1986. “Both my sisters went here, too. There’s a need for quality education for young women that we will miss.”

“This school has produced a lot of strong, well-adjusted girls who are very loyal to its memory,” said Susan Stafford Davis of Agoura, class of 1957.

Corvallis invited about 2,500 of its estimated 3,000 alumnae--"We’ve lost track of about 500 of them,” an administrator said--to a weekend reunion and farewell.

The school hoped to provide a chance to say goodby and to raise enough money to pay off $40,000 in debts “and go out with dignity,” said its principal, Christine Thranow.

“Except for last year and this year, we’ve never had a deficit, and we’re determined to have our bills paid when we close the doors for good,” she said.

Friday night, about 85 people showed up at the school for a cocktail party, admission $10. For another $5, there was a student play, “Murder in a Nunnery,” a repeat of the school play given by the class of 1976.

Collection of Photos

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The alumnae, ranging from college-age grads in miniskirts to businesswomen in suits to graying matrons in sensible shoes, roamed the library and classrooms, exchanging memories, catching up on gossip and exclaiming over the collection of snapshots of students back to the 1940s:

“There’s our graduating class, right there. Oh, my God! Look at my hair!”

“And one year we all got together one afternoon, just the women, no husbands. Almost everybody came, and we exchanged what had happened in our lives--gut level, no bull--drugs, divorce, handicapped children, the works. It was so moving. I was in tears for hours.”

“She was so cute, one of my best friends. I heard her boyfriend died in Vietnam, and nobody’s heard from her in years.”

“I think that’s the window where your Aunt Carol dropped a book on the nun’s head.”

Saturday night, 205 people showed up for a barbecue and to see the play.

Sunday’s activities, for $10, are scheduled to begin with a 3 p.m. Mass, followed by a dinner at 4 and the conclusion of an all-weekend auction of donated items and Corvallis furnishings and memorabilia--athletic trophies and uniforms, old yearbooks and scrapbooks going back to the 1940s, filled with yellowing newspaper clippings of generations of girls in the school’s uniform of blue plaid skirt and blazer, at fashion shows and mother-daughter teas and athletic contests. The master of ceremonies will be actor Joseph Campanella.

Karen King, a California State University, Northridge, education student who graduated last June, had entered the top bid as of Saturday for the 2 1/2-foot-high school seal, offering $50, “because I loved this place.”

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A special “angel” award will be presented to Mary Tyler Moore, to be accepted by her mother, Margie Moore. The actress for 10 years has paid for an annual scholarship in memory of her sister, Elizabeth Ann, a Corvallis student who committed suicide shortly after graduating in 1975.

The school’s 45th and last graduation ceremony will be June 6 at St. Charles Catholic Church in North Hollywood, at which 64 girls are expected to receive diplomas.

In January, the principals of Valley-area and Los Angeles Catholic schools set up tables in the Corvallis gym and talked to the 162 remaining students and their parents about transfers.

About a dozen were placed at Marymount High School in Westwood, Principal Thranow said, and about an equal number at Immaculate Heart in Hollywood, both Catholic girls schools.

Louisville High School in Woodland Hills--now the only remaining Catholic girls high school in the Valley--has accepted about 25.

No More Rivalry

Although there has long been a rivalry of sorts between students from the two schools, “Louisville has been very gracious about this,” said Bayless. “They had a welcoming brunch for our girls this spring, and told them they could wear their Corvallis uniforms at Louisville if they wish.”

About 20 chose Providence High School in Burbank. Administrators at Providence, a co-ed Catholic school that has also faced financial trouble because of declining enrollment, had been looking forward to a bigger infusion of Corvallis students.

About a dozen each have been accepted at Bishop Alemany High School in Mission Hills and St. Genevieve High School in Panorama City. Nine chose public schools and one, the non-Catholic Buckley School. Three juniors passed examinations that qualified them for high school equivalency diplomas, bypassing their senior year to go straight to college.

But the largest group--58--chose Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, in what turned out to be an ironic end of sorts to the decade-long story of Corvallis’ demise.

The school died for a number of reasons, including changing demographics in the American Catholic church and in the San Fernando Valley. But the major blow, from which it never recovered, was a pair of decisions in 1981 by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary. The order of nuns founded the school in 1941 as Corvallis High School--the name comes from the Latin words for “heart of the valley.”

In the first decision, the order rejected an offer by Notre Dame, then an all-boys school, to merge. The schools, only two miles apart, had been linked for more than 30 years in the kind of informal pairing that is common to single-sex private schools.

In the second decision, the nuns decided instead of merging to close Corvallis, saying that the order, like most others, no longer recruits enough nuns to staff all the schools it opened, and that Corvallis was not really needed for the predicted decline in the population of Valley Catholic girls.

The nuns also expressed fears that Corvallis, then over capacity at 425 girls, was benefiting from “white flight” by non-Catholic girls from integration of public schools.

The order decided to rid itself of a number of schools in California and concentrate on its link to Loyola-Marymount University and two girls high schools, the prestigious Marymount and Sacred Heart of Mary in Montebello, where the nuns felt they were needed by a poorer, predominantly Hispanic student body from East Los Angeles.

A group of parents, determined to keep Corvallis alive, leased Corvallis from the order and carried on as Our Lady of Corvallis. But without land of its own--the nuns severed all ties but refused to surrender ownership of the site--the school had a crippling financial handicap.

Notre Dame Goes Co-Ed

In 1982, Notre Dame went co-ed on its own, a decision that all the participants now agree was the death knell for Corvallis.

Thirty Corvallis girls transferred to Notre Dame at the time. In the years since, Notre Dame’s female enrollment has grown to 440, many of them girls who otherwise would have attended Corvallis, where enrollment shrank to about 200, less than half of what the campus could accommodate. In part because of widespread fears that the school was in danger of collapsing, only 30 freshmen enrolled in September.

In December, Corvallis administrators reluctantly announced to an assembly of weeping students and protesting parents that there was no money to keep the school alive, and began looking for other schools for the students.

Because of the long relationship of the two schools, many Corvallis students hoped to transfer to Notre Dame.

At first, the reaction by Notre Dame administrators was that the train had left the station long ago and the Corvallis girls had missed it. Notre Dame, with a capacity enrollment close to 1,000, is the one Catholic high school in the Valley that is not looking for more students. The Holy Cross brothers who run the school said they would limit transfers to a few girls who had brothers or sisters at Notre Dame.

“They softened after a while,” said Thranow, the Corvallis principal. “They still felt a little guilty over the role their decision played in what happened to us. They wound up taking virtually all the girls who applied.”

In return, she said, “the brothers observed that perhaps the school that took the most Corvallis girls should get first choice to buy our audio-visual equipment, which a number of schools are interested in. I thought that was fair enough. They get first choice.”

‘Big Garage Sale’

Many other school furnishings, including two computers, will go on the block at “a big garage sale” June 13 and 20, she said.

The future of the 3.4-acre site on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, just north of Ventura Boulevard, has not been determined, said Sister Kathleen Keleman, secretary at the provincial headquarters in Westchester of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary. In addition to the 2.6-acre high school campus, with its two-story classroom building and adjoining auditorium, there is also a neighboring convent, which the nuns retained when they leased Corvallis.

Keleman said no decision will be made on the future of the land until completion of a new appraisal. The land was appraised a few years ago at $4 million.

“I hope to close the door and lock it behind me on June 30,” said Thranow, a former nun, who stood in a hallway Friday night surrounded by generations of past students. Behind them were two signs posted for the occasion:

“Welcome back,” said one.

“Hold on to the memories,” said the other.


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