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A Private School Builds Believers in Public Service

Daniel Murphy High isn’t much to look at: a humdrum beige and brown structure on 3rd Street, a few blocks away from the trendy furniture stores and fashion shops that line La Brea Avenue in the Fairfax district.

But go inside, to a stack of yearbooks in the small school’s administrative office.

In the slightly yellowing pages of the 1961 annual, you find the face of a strong-jawed young man with a focused gaze: Bernard C. Parks, now Los Angeles’ police chief.

Open the 1970 book and you can find another familiar name, that of William Bamattre, an affable-looking young man now chief of the Los Angeles Fire Department.

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That an all-boy Catholic school with an enrollment of about 400 produced two of the city’s highest-ranking public administrators could be written off as an interesting coincidence. But the list does not end there.

LAPD Deputy Chief Robert Gil is also a graduate of the school. So are numerous others who have devoted their lives to public service.

“Parks and Bamattre didn’t just happen to come from the same school,” boasted Craig Chretien, himself an alumnus and once the third-highest-ranking official of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

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Alumni like Chretien say that over the years, an eclectic group of young men have found a common bond at Daniel Murphy: a deep sense of community and an altruistic spirit imbued with the school’s religious tenets.

Graduates “constantly run into people who are better than you are, who have better skills, more money, more time, and it can be very intimidating,” said Greg Flynn, a classmate of Bamattre who later served in the Vietnam War and is now development director for Hope in Youth, an anti-gang-violence program.

What Murphy gave them, Flynn said, was a belief akin to a spiritual awakening: “that the individual can make a difference,” regardless of his standing.

If God provided the inspiration, discipline kept students on the straight and narrow.

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During a recent alumni banquet in honor of Parks and Bamattre, graduates of Daniel Murphy (and St. John Vianney High, as the school was known before it changed to its current name in 1966) lovingly remembered Father Vincent Cavalli, a disciplinarian who regularly used a belt to keep order in the school and encouraged those who had bones to pick with each other to pick up a pair of boxing gloves.

“It was great. It was absolutely great,” said Jaime Fernandez, a captain in the Santa Monica Fire Department and a member of Parks’ ‘61 class. “They would go at it as long as their arms held.”

In a speech to those at the banquet, Parks recounted his own run-ins with the long-retired Cavalli, who used a razor belt--the thick leather strap on which barbers sharpen their blades--to mete out punishment.

“He could not hit very hard, but after three to 12 times you could feel it,” he said as the 170 guests erupted in laughter.

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That Parks and others waxed nostalgic about a man who inflicted so much pain on their glutei may strike some as odd, but Fernandez explained.

“You had a choice. You could take detention or take the swats. Most of us chose the swats because we didn’t want to be late for practice,” said Fernandez, who was a quarterback and Parks’ teammate on the school’s football team during their senior year.

“Father Cavalli was probably one of the last of his breed,” Chretien said. “You can’t take what happened in those days and transplant it to today. It was a different society.”

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And today Daniel Murphy is a different school. The Dominican priests who assumed administration of the campus in 1956 are gone. But current Principal John Finn said Catholic values are still very present in all the teachings.

“Everything has an ethical or moral consequence,” said Finn, who teaches economics with a heavy emphasis on business ethics.

Enrollment has hovered around 400 since the school’s founding in 1954, but the ethnic makeup has changed dramatically, mirroring the changes outside campus walls.

The school was mostly white during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Today, it is half Latino and about 10% white, with the rest evenly divided between Asians and African Americans.

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However, the school’s central location and relatively cheap price tag (the yearly tuition is $2,800) have drawn a diverse student body from the beginning.

“The school engaged in a fantastic sociological experiment without knowing,” Chretien said.

“There was a special closeness and appreciation for people of all walks of life,” Bamattre said. “It was a natural springboard to public service.”

Fernando Amarillas, a senior at Daniel Murphy, said he plans to study political science and eventually pursue a career in politics.

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“I’m going to make something of myself,” said the South-Central Los Angeles resident, who has already been accepted by UCLA and is now waiting to hear from Ivy League schools.

Amarillas believes the values that guided Parks and Bamattre are still there.

“The key is there if you want to pick it up and open the door,” he said.


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