By Christine Bordelon
It was 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. The Vietnam War was raging. Apollo 8 astronauts orbited the moon. Two African-American athletes earning medals at the Summer Olympics raised gloved fists in silent protest against racial discrimination in America.
This turbulence of the late ’60s was experienced by the class of 1968 at then-coed Xavier University Preparatory High School, run by the Blessed Sacrament Sisters in Uptown New Orleans. But they overcame obstacles through discipline, education and hard work, and they tout life successes today.
“My mom was a strict disciplinarian,” said retired Coast Guard Rear Admiral Stephen Rochon, class of ’68 Student Council president. “I wanted to get involved in the civil rights movement, but she was too afraid something would happen to us.”
He said his mother and father met at Xavier Prep and were also taught by the Blessed Sacrament Sisters who, with the Josephite priests who ran the nearby Blessed Sacrament Church, grounded African Americans in faith and taught life lessons by example.
As a former director of the executive residence and chief usher at the White House from 2007-11 and a retired customs and border protection officer with Homeland Security, Rochon was invited to be the keynote speaker at the May 18 graduation of the current St. Katharine Drexel Prep. That school evolved from Xavier Preparatory, founded in 1915 by St. Katharine Drexel, who established the Blessed Sacrament Sisters and Xavier University of Louisiana.
In his speech, Rochon planned to impart “18 gems of wisdom” for graduates to use in the future.
“Here it is 50 years later,” Rochon said. “Although the name of the school has changed, it has remained the same. … (They should) cherish the fact that they received a great education from a school founded by St. Katharine Drexel. It has a Catholic religious background but was always known for its academics. Whatever they do, give it 100 percent. It paid off for me. My four years there gave me the foundation to succeed.”
The Class of 1968 will be recognized at the Baccalaureate Mass at St. Louis Cathedral and march in with this year’s graduates. In addition, they will gather for a party at Rochon’s home, an after-graduation party at Dooky Chase, a luncheon for alumni and family, and a Mass May 20 at Blessed Sacrament-St. Joan of Arc Church. Graduation activities will culminate with a tour of their former school, an all-girls’ high school since 1970. A memorial dedicated to deceased classmates will be present at all functions.
Class of ’68 valedictorian Deidre Charlot was a National Merit Scholarship finalist, and she became a chemist for Proctor and Gamble in Cincinnati before returning to New Orleans. She married classmate Lucien Charlot, who retired as assistant comptroller of the City of New Orleans.
She recalls her class gaining recognition for drama productions, including operettas (class member Kermit Gray currently sings opera in Europe), band, chorus, athletics and literary prowess. New Orleans Archbishop Philip Hannan participated in their graduation.
By adhering to the Blessed Sacrament Sisters’ emphasis on “education as the key to success,” they overcame adversity. The male class members, especially, were aware that if they didn’t go to college, they could be drafted to serve in the Vietnam War.
“We had very solid education in math, science and English,” Charlot said. “We had very dedicated teachers who were there for love, not money. They prepared us for a lot and wanted us to be able to comport ourselves wherever we went, and they gave us the experience and tools to do that. I think our class did very well. And even though we had good jobs and moved to other places, many of us came back.”
Class of ’69 graduate Jane Bell returned to Xavier in 2008 and assisted the ’68 class in organizing the reunion as the school’s administrative assistant. She said 85 people attended the 20-year ’68 class reunion and anticipates about half of the graduating class of 120, with spouses, to attend this year’s four-day celebration.
By continuing the tradition of including the 50-year graduating class at graduation, current graduates have the opportunity to “look at the success of the people who walked the same halls before them,” letting them know “you can achieve what these people have achieved. Because you were prepared by this institution, you can do anything,” Bell said.
“People love this school,” Bell said. “There is a certain culture here with dedicated faculty. Mr. (Jacob) Owens, who is the current principal, has been here since 1990, and there are other long-time teachers and staff. This is our first love. We like what the school stands for – what St. Katharine Drexel established to recognize school and individual accomplishments.”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.