Vavra to give speech for last class

T-L Photo/ROBERT A. DEFRANK Belmont County Common Pleas Judge John Vavra has the bittersweet honor of giving the send-off speech to the final graduating class of St. John Central High School. An alumnus, Vavra experienced some of the formative lessons provided at the school.

BELLAIRE — The announcement that St. John Central High School would close in June came as a blow to current and former students, but the school’s legacy includes many successful alumni and high hopes for its final graduating class.

Belmont County Common Pleas Judge John Vavra has been selected as the speaker to give the 2019 graduates their final send-off on May 25.

“I was asked to do the speech at the last graduation of St. John’s Central High School,” he said, adding that this will be his first time making a speech to a graduating class there. “It is a bittersweet event.

“I haven’t completely finalized everything at this point. I’m waiting for some information from the school principal, but my theme generally is going to be based on a quotation from a former chief justice (Oliver Wendall Holmes) of the United States Supreme Court, to the effect that certainty is an illusion. Repose is not the destiny of man. In other words, there’s changes that you’re going to encounter in your life, some that have nothing to do with you or caused by you, and you have to address those and move on, and that’s where your training comes into play,” he said.

An alumnus of the school who also sent his own children there, Vavra is well versed in the history of the school and its contributions to the local community.

“I have very fond memories of my own experience there and the experience of my children at the school. They all I think had positive outcomes. It’s just sad that times have changed to the extent that it won’t exist anymore as we know it,” he said. “I attended there. My entire family did. My wife was a St. John graduate — in fact, it’s where we met, and our four children all graduated from St. John’s.”

He noted that the school holds precious memories of his first meeting with Joan DeMatte, who would become his wife.

“We were in the same class in high school,” he said. “We met in high school. … She dumped me at first, and then the relationship rekindled in the senior year.”

A graduate of the Class of 1971, Vavra shared some of his formative experiences at the school.

“I had a very good experience at St. John,” he said. “Back then, the faculty was composed mostly of priests and nuns back when I went. Of course that has certainly lessened over the years in terms of the number of those who are available to offer that. That certainly had an impact, with the reduction in religious available as teachers and instructors.”

Vavra recalled the variety and quality of his education.

“The instruction and the leadership from the teachers, in particular the nuns, were fantastic,” he said. “The religious instructors were not just religious teachers. The English teacher was a nun, the Latin teacher was a priest. The effort that they put into not only teaching you the subject, but teaching you the skills that you needed to succeed, were also beneficial.

“The principal at our school was a priest — Robert Clouston. He was a fantastic man, extremely intelligent, great leadership skills,” Vavra said. “He smoked a cigar in school. … He would be seen walking up and down the halls with a cigar in his hand.”

Vavra listed the qualities imparted to him by the staff and their lessons, including the need for persistence, conscientiousness and hard work.

“We had excellent athletic programs. I participated in football and track. Coaches were excellent, and you had cooperation and support between the teachers and coaches,” he said. “Trying to form the whole person, as it were, toward having a healthy mind and a healthy body and striving to do your best. … I had a very good experience there, both academically and athletically.”

He added that he has remained active as an alumni.

“I’ve been involved in various councils and programs over the years with the school on a volunteer basis, trying maintain the high academic and athletic standards until, unfortunately, we got to this point,” he said.

St. John Central High School is operated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Steubenville, which decided in February to close the school at the end of this academic year due to low enrollment and high costs. A group of alumni have since formed the new St. John Academy, a private high school not affiliated with the diocese that is scheduled to open in the same building in August. The diocese has agreed to give the building to the group, which says it has raised enough money to operate the academy for five years.