By George Valadie
It was 15 years ago in another city and diocese, but I remember as if it were yesterday.
The building had some shape and a whole lot of walls, but not much else really. Some sections didn’t even have a roof yet.
Dumb as it sounds, and bare as it was, we hoped to generate donor enthusiasm by offering after-hours guided tours of this new, though not ready, high school using little more than flashlights … in the dead of winter.
And remarkably, the people came. So many that we organized another tour, and then another.
I don’t know what we were thinking. With no heat, no light, no common sense, and probably no insurance, we invited folks to take a peek at what they probably couldn’t see in the dark anyway. Still, curious visitors came bundled up to traipse through the mud, bump into the tools, and trip over the wires for an initial glimpse of the school they hoped their child would someday attend.
That diocese had conducted and completed its demographic study, with the data revealing what we had long known. Too many moms and dads had been trying to enroll their children, but couldn’t.
Our school was located in the perfect spot at the intersection of exploding and hungry, with a cool new mall down the street. New homes were appearing in the area almost daily, having seemingly sprung from nowhere.
And a lot of them — Catholic and not — were starving for what we had to offer. But quite simply, due to our small size, they couldn’t have it.
As principal, I was added as a member of the Project Committee in spite of the fact that I had never even built a shed out in back of my house. Handy I am not.
Needless to say, there were meetings upon meetings to discuss the feasibility of this sort of bold endeavor, the first such diocesan construction in 40-plus years.
How much money could we raise? How many students could we attract? How much tuition would be needed to keep the doors open?
And those were the meetings I got invited to. There were others involving the bishop and his cadre of decision-makers. You can’t blame them. It behooved them to walk slowly and choose wisely.
Catholic Church canon law said that whatever we built was going to be owned by the bishop and thus the people of the diocese — all of them. The building would be his; the debt would be ours; the risk belonged to all.
But spending $25 million never fails to inspire other sorts of meetings, too, in parking lots, behind closed doors, some attended by people with authority, and others organized by those who had none.
As great as this new facility was to be, it was even questioned by some of our own teachers, confident we’d be forced to “take just anybody” to fill it up, confident we’d lose that small-school feel, confident their salaries would decrease in order to make budget.
Their doubts were understandable. After all, we began the construction conversation with a mere 320 high school students on the rolls, yet we were talking about building 184,000 square feet to house 1,000 teenagers.
And no one had any guarantee that “if we build it, they will come.”
With a hearty dose of prayer and even more guts than I can imagine (or was it faith?), our bishop decided to go forward. Some were ecstatic; some thought the man had lost his mind.
After the decision to move forward had been made, the fun — and my education — began. At least I kind of remember it being fun. I certainly recall the learning curve being steep. Were it not for a colleague who taught me the things I needed to know and spared me from the things I didn’t, I don’t know where I or that building would have ended up.
In our 40 years of marriage, Nancy and I have always agreed on one thing: We will never build a home from scratch. Too many decisions, not enough money to buy what you decide. Turns out, building a school is no different.
I learned the difference between mill-work and casework, soffits and soldier course, hardware and equipment, and who knew there was an infinite number of door handles.
Every single thing your eye would see had to have a color — and we had to choose it. And it took darn near three days to decide how every door in the building would be keyed.
Did I say fun?
It wasn’t all fun. We lost a worker in the process. Literally. He died of heat stroke in the middle of a brutally hot summer. He’d been sending money home to his family and I like to think he left a fragment of his generous soul among our bricks.
In the end was it all worth it?
I’ve thought about that for years. But I’ve never known how to compare dollars spent on bricks to the value of a Catholic education. Generally, I come down on the side of the thousands of kids who got to enroll and the message we got to teach them.
Those who chose another school would likely disagree. Those who had no kids would likely disagree. Those who focused on all the other things that kind of money could buy would likely disagree.
Is there some way to know what God really wants? I don’t.
Dear God — We’d probably do more of what you want if we could figure out what that is.
George Valadie is the president of Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga.