South Philly natives and graduates of the high school work to preserve the legacy of Southern.
For the past century, evidence of illustrious individuals has been collecting dust in a sequestered closet on the first floor of South Philadelphia High School.
From the founder of the National Basketball Association to a scientist who helped develop the meningitis vaccine, a myriad of prolific people once wandered the halls of the public school as students.
And while such names as inventive sociologist Robert K. Merton or guitarist Charlie Gracie, who is credited for influencing the Beatles, may have made their marks in history books, the legacy of their common core could go forgotten.
Consequently, three graduates have documented such stories before it does.
“We have an incredibly rich heritage here,” said Dr. Tony Evangelisto, a 1958 graduate and English professor emeritus at The College of New Jersey. “And what a crime it would be to not record that heritage.”
Recently, Evangelisto and his wife Carol, along with 1957 graduate and historical archivist Marc Adelman and 1955 graduate Gene Alessandrini, a professor of mathematics at Camden County College who taught at the high school for 35 years, collaborated for the reclamation of Southern’s annals, as in August, Arcadia Publishing released the collaborators’ new book, “South Philadelphia High School.”
An installment of Arcadia’s Campus History Series, Southern is the first public high school to be featured in this collection. All of the book’s net proceeds will be donated to the school, as well.
The book, a 128-page culmination of the 111-year-old school history, centers upon “Southern’s Stars” through chapters, such as “entertainment and the arts,” “law and service,” “science, writing and education,” and “athletes.”
During one of the school’s hall of fame induction ceremonies a few years ago, Evangelisto was thunderstruck with the idea to write a book — partly as a tribute to the school but also as his own personal form of gratification, as he attributes Southern to easing him off gang-ridden pockets of South Philly and eventually joining the Army and teaching in countless countries.
“We were immigrants’ kids. We were poor. We were all trying to improve our lives,” he said. “But, on the second thought, I realized, it’s a lot more than that. … I had the sense that I wanted to give back to the school that gave me so much, because what I got through here enabled me to teach all around the world.”
As Evangelisto brainstormed ideas for the book, he connected with Adelman, a naval veteran, who actually began unearthing the hidden archives about a decade ago after attending the 100-year anniversary celebration of Southern.
After witnessing the abandoned primary sources, he asked the alumni association, which includes more than 4,000 lifelong members and gifts $40,000 in higher education funds each year, if he could tackle the project.
“(The archives) were in a closet on the floor in filth and vermonized, totally disrespected, and I couldn’t take that as a history major,” Adelman said.
The men also partnered with with Alessandrini who, aside from starting his 61st year of teaching mathematics this year, gives presentations titled “The Singers of Southern High” and “The Musicians of Southern High” to community organizations around the region. Alessandrini also coordinates hall of fame inductions each year.
“The amount of research and work involved in that is enormous,” said Alessandrini, who was head of Southern’s mathematics department for 17 years and returned to the school as an educator just a few years after graduating.
“(Alessandrini’s work) really helped crystalize for me that incredible, incredible background of this school and the very talented people who came out of here,” Evangelisto added.
The research of all three graduates, including archived photos from Temple University, led to the first draft of the book.
While several ideas were considered, the publication was always intended to serve as a series of profiles, including photos with corresponding text.
Initially, the book was more than 500 pages long, but Arcadia advised Evangelisto reduce the narrative to no more than 18,000 words with a minimum of 100 high quality photos — all clumped into 128 pages.
“I really had to chop down the story, which to me, makes me cry, because there’s so much that we can’t tell in such a short amount of time,” he said. “But, this book, I think, is a wonderful distillation of the highlights of our history.”
The graduates say, even though they’re proud of the final edition, the book is merely the first step. The team emphasizes their archives are based primarily on donations, so they encourage anyone’s submissions of any primary sources related to the school.
Ideally, they want to digitize the school’s entire history and then submit it to major archival institutions, such as Temple University or the University of Penn. The annals would not solely serve as a reflection of Southern but a documentation of South Philadelphia.
Adelman mentioned that historians can study the records simply to gain an understanding of the public school system — something that could be obsolete in the next century.
“(The universities) can take it on after we’re gone,” Adelman said. “What I’ve tried to preserve … is priceless, I think, to the community.”
The writers stressed community is the cornerstone of the school, especially considering Southern, which started as a boys manual training high school primarily for immigrant children in 1907, has never maintained entrance requirements.
The triumphs that studied at Southern were the product of pure aptitudes that existed in the immediate South Philly neighborhoods.
The authors say Southern wasn’t highly regarded by the school board or city until rabbi, author and Zionist leader Israel Goldstein, who graduated in 1911, rose to recognition for his works.
“The book represents here’s what we were. Here’s what are,” Evangelisto said. “Here’s what we can be.”
Although this book is a paean of the past, it also acts as a resource for current and future students of Southern.
Needless to say, demographics have shifted in South Philly since 1907, yet the school’s demographic continues to comprise of immigrant populations. The book strives to not only enlighten but to inspire students of possibilities, remembering that they’re studying under the same roof as some of the most influential figures in American history.
“We would like (students and graduates of Southern) to get a feeling of pride in their school and appreciation for the background,” Alessandrini said. “Those people who came before them that they’re literally on the shoulder of giants.”
To purchase book: www.arcadiapublishing.com/Products/9781467129503
To donate archives, contact the alumni association’s archivist chair Marc Adelman at (215) 510–3530 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.