Garrett Uekman, Catholic High and ties that bind

When I wrote a newspaper column earlier this week on Little Rock’s Catholic High School for Boys, I knew I would receive feedback.

I don’t write columns with feedback in mind. But understanding how strongly Catholic High graduates feel about the place, I knew this particular column would generate calls, texts and e-mails.

As I noted in the column, I’m not a Catholic High graduate. Our oldest son graduated from there in May. The night he graduated as valedictorian (he is blessed to have his mother’s brains) was among the proudest moments of my life.

Austin is now at Hendrix College. His younger brother is a freshman at Catholic High. That means I’ll have the pleasure of being a Catholic High dad for another four years.

What I didn’t have in front of me when I wrote that column was the text of the amazing eulogy the school’s principal, Steve Straessle, gave at the funeral of Catholic High graduate and University of Arkansas tight end Garrett Uekman.

Here’s part of what he said: “Letting go of a good kid is hard to do. Letting go of an exceptional kid is almost unbearable. At Catholic High, we’re surrounded by boys who are striving to be exceptional young men. You should see them. They all enter our doors as scared, shaking little freshmen who are wondering if they can survive in a school with no girls and no air conditioning. Then, as seniors, they graduate as confident young men who know that they are armed with strong faith, a strong work ethic and the ability to endure life’s pitfalls.

“No easy roads are promised at Catholic High. Instead, Catholic High promises the strength to rise to challenges and to be more than just an average man. Oftentimes, we are fortunate to get a few freshmen who are not shaking and scared. We get a few of them who are quietly confident in their ability and revel in the challenges we present them. That was Garrett Uekman.”

Steve added this: “At Catholic High, we have one rule that encompasses all the others, one rule that transcends everything else and is at the heart of Christ’s message. That rule is: Never be a bystander. If your faith is tested, defend it. If someone is hungry, feed him. If one is downcast, encourage him. If your test is difficult, prepare for it. If your friends are troubled, step up. If the little guy needs you, be there. Bystanders watch life go by. People like Garrett Uekman get in the game. Bad things happen when bystanders are in the crowd. Good things pour forth when people like Garrett step up. You don’t live your dreams by twiddling your thumbs when action is called for. You live your dreams by getting into the game. It’s just that simple, and Garrett was the embodiment of that spirit.”

“That spirit.”

Spend some time around Catholic High, its alums and the boys who currently attend school there and you’ll know that spirit is real.

Michael Moran, who graduated from Catholic High in 1961 and later spent four decades teaching at the school, wrote a book titled “Proudly We Speak Your Name: Forty-Four Years At Little Rock Catholic High School.”

Through the stories he tells in his book, which was published by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in 2009, he captures the essence of the school.

He sets the stage for the book this way: “Catholic High School for Boys was established in Little Rock in 1930 by Bishop John Morris at 25th and State streets, where Little Rock College and then St. John’s Seminary had formerly been located. In January 1961, CHS moved to 6300 Lee Ave. (now Father Tribou Street). The first graduating class of 1931 numbered five. Since then, more than 7,000 students have become alumni.

“Father George Tribou is the towering figure in Catholic High history. Coming to Little Rock from Jenkintown, Pa., George Tribou was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Little Rock and in the second year of his priesthood was assigned to CHS, where he served as teacher and principal for more than 50 years, until his death in 2001.

“Any recollection of Catholic High School would be incomplete without recognition of the centrality of Father Tribou’s role in defining its character. Even when elevated to the position of monsignor in his later years, he preferred to be called ‘father,’ a role he played in the lives of untold numbers of Catholic High boys.”

Ah, Father Tribou.

As a boy, he had worked as a film projectionist back home in Pennsylvania. He later would say that part of his inspiration for becoming a priest was seeing the movie “Boys Town” and Spencer Tracy’s portrayal of Father Flanagan.

His approaches were unique – and effective:

— Boys were sometimes allowed to settle disputes with boxing gloves. They would then spend the next day at school together and be allowed only to talk to each other.

— He once announced to the student body that he had seen a boy smoking a cigarette on the school grounds. He said that if that student did not show up in his office immediately, his penalty would increase. Within minutes, there were more than a dozen boys in Father Tribou’s office.

— He was known for getting to the point. When a number of urban schools began installing metal detectors, Father Tribou said of Catholic High: “That would not work here. These boys have too much lead in their asses.”

I know Father Tribou would be proud of the job Steve Straessle is doing in the role of principal.

At one time, Steve wanted to be a lawyer. After graduating from college in 1992, he decided he wasn’t quite ready for law school.

Steve, a Catholic High graduate and the son of a Catholic High graduate, called Father Tribou one night to say he was thinking about teaching history for a year before entering law school. As luck would have it, a history teacher at Catholic High had asked for a one-year sabbatical.

Steve’s grandfather had been a custodian when the school moved to its current location in 1961.

“My grandfather walked through these halls,” Steve told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette several years ago. “And while I’m walking through the school, I often can’t help but think of my grandfather sweeping the halls. I learned a couple of things from my grandfather — the importance of humility and hard work.”

He went on to tell the newspaper this about his experience as a Catholic High student: “It laid the groundwork perfectly for the next stone of education to be laid in college. It was also about Christian formation, and at Catholic High in particular, we still hammer home the idea that we want you to be successful. But success to us means that you are a good husband, a good father and a good citizen as well as a good member of your profession. My classmates were and still are my best friends. They were in my wedding. They are my closest confidants. They are the people who will carry me to my grave.”

At the end of that newspaper story, Steve had this to say about Father Tribou and about Catholic High: “He was a child of the ’40s. He was raised in the era of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman and Humphrey Bogart. I was raised in the ’80s in the era of Van Halen and Charlie Sheen. Those are big differences, but there are some things that are timeless such as the adherence to the belief that rigorous academics and high expectations are the keys to success, the belief that self-discipline and work ethic are virtues and the idea that all ambition should be tempered by a doctrine of faith — and the absolute fact that a sense of humor is as important as an arm or a leg. This is our school. In succinct terms, this is what we do.”

As the father of a Catholic High graduate and the father of a current student, I’ve come to understand the Catholic High brotherhood.

Here’s how the school’s website describes it: “At CHS, boys experience a special kind of fraternity, often referred to by faculty, graduates and students alike as the Catholic High brotherhood. What forms this brotherhood? From time immemorial, challenges have bonded men, and the rigorous academics and strict discipline of CHS are certainly enough for that; but all-school masses, pep rallies with the skit cheerleaders, athletic events and intramurals serve to strengthen CHS boys’ brotherhood, rooted, as it is, in faith, laughter, competition and common goals.”

Faith.

Laughter.

Competition.

And common goals.

Sadly, it took a tragedy for many Arkansans to realize what a treasure resides in the middle of Little Rock.

God bless Garrett Uekman.

Long live Catholic High.

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