Historians often examine the past, but it’s not too often they get a chance to examine their past as well. This happened for John Rossi, emeritus professor of history at La Salle University who, for the University’s 150th anniversary, has been there for more than 58 years.
A project several years in the making, Rossi had the opportunity to explore things he didn’t know and re-examine things he did.
“It was fun reliving an experience that I had thoroughly enjoyed the first time around,” said Rossi, who graduated from then La Salle College in 1958 with a degree in history.
“In 2008, La Salle University President Brother Michael McGinniss asked me to write the 150th anniversary history of La Salle. I was honored and immediately accepted, beginning a journey reliving not only the life of La Salle but also my own connections with the campus on which I first set foot in the spring of 1950 as a high school freshman. Over the next 60 years, La Salle became my second family.”
“I enjoyed my journey into La Salle’s remarkable past, reliving some of the school’s finest moments,” said Rossi. “I can still remember my excitement watching La Salle’s basketball team’s two championships, victories that gave the school a national identity.”
Titled Living the Promise, the book recounts La Salle’s history, from its founding in 1863 by the Lasallian Order of the Christian Brothers (who still operate the school) to the present time. In 1862, Bishop James Frederick Wood of Philadelphia asked the Brothers, who had already been teaching in the city since 1853, to create a secondary school and college for Catholic boys in the city. It was the beginning of a long and productive relationship between the Archdiocese and the Christian Brothers, a relationship based on the great respect the clergy had for the teaching prowess of the Brothers,” said Rossi.
While pouring over the University’s archives and research materials, Rossi said he was surprised by “how close in the past La Salle came to closing. Just when things looked the grimmest along would come some individual, usually a Christian Brother, and save the institution. There are many examples of this, such as President Brother Anselm during the depression going around to businesses and literally begging them to support La Salle, and President Brother Emilian during World War II when student numbers in the college sank to around 100, declaring that he would keep the college open even if he had only one student.”
“Until after World War II, La Salle’s survival was always, as the Duke of Wellington said of the Battle of Waterloo, ‘a close run thing,’” said Rossi.
When it came time to research the school’s history, Rossi says he had a head start. “History Professor Ugo Donini, who was my first office mate, began teaching at La Salle in the mid-1930s and was a storehouse of tales of the difficult times La Salle faced during the Depression. He claimed that there were times when the school couldn’t pay the faculty and gave them free food to tide them over.”
“Having attended La Salle, I was fortunate in knowing many of the faculty who gave the college its personality— men like Joe Flubacher, ’35, Bob Courtney, ’41, Charlie Halpin, ’43, Jack Rooney, ’46, Joe Mooney, ’49, Joe Markmann, ’49, Dennis McCarthy, ’47, Howard Hannum, ’48, and “the Good Doctor,” Roland Holroyd. They regaled me with stories of how La Salle survived and grew. Flubacher, who owned one of the few cars among the faculty, used to loan it to students for proms,” said Rossi.
He learned that La Salle’s early years were also difficult. The school combined primary, secondary, and collegiate education with only two or three students graduating some years. In 1886, La Salle moved into the Bouvier Mansion at 1240 N. Broad St. During its 40 years there, the school survived a terrible fire that almost destroyed it, the banning of the teaching of Latin and Greek that undermined its educational standards, and a series of financial crises. At one point at the beginning of the 20th century, La Salle’s total enrollment was less than 100.
The move to the then open spaces of 20th and Olney in 1929 in the city’s East Germantown section portended good times. La Salle, said Rossi, had a new, modern campus and expectations were high. But La Salle’s new home opened just in time for the greatest economic crisis in American history. The fact that La Salle survived can be directly attributed to the work of a man largely forgotten today, Brother Anselm, La Salle’s President from 1932 to 1941. According to Rossi, Br. Anselm raised academic standards, continued La Salle’s reputation for preparing students for medical and dental schools, brought in lay faculty, and used sports, especially football and basketball, to spread La Salle’s name.
“During World War II, enrollment sank to fewer than 100 students, and the college depended on the high school to survive. But in the half-century after the war, La Salle flourished. The G.I. Bill students and the Baby Boom generation transformed La Salle from a struggling small college into a first-class urban institution,” said Rossi.
“During my half century, I saw La Salle grow from a small college into a dynamic university, one known for its emphasis on teaching and its concern for the welfare of the student. These years also witnessed the maturity of the faculty, with the growth of the numbers earning the Ph. D.,” said Rossi. “The student body became more diversified, no longer drawn from the diocesan high schools but rather from throughout the country and even from nations abroad. Finally and most dramatically, the addition of women to the student body changed La Salle forever, bringing not only a new group of students to the campus but also adding a new understanding of what La Salle would become.”
“The past 13 years, under President Br. Michael McGinniss, F.S.C., has seen phenomenal growth and change: there are the physical changes, such as a new science building, a new dormitory, and The Shoppes at La Salle, but equally impressive has been the growth of the University’s graduate programs, both at the master’s and doctoral level.”
In addition to his extensive research, Rossi interviewed 20 people in person for the project, and listened to tape recordings of 20 more La Salle personnel done by students for the oral history course as part of the University’s Master’s in History.
“Tracing these events, a large part of which I lived through, was exciting, even fun. Going co-ed, earning university status, new buildings, a huge expansion of campus, and new residence halls all were a testament to the determination of the Christian Brothers, administrators, and faculty to make La Salle the great institution it is today,” he said.