John Bapst Memorial High School, 100 Broadway, Bangor, Maine. (Photo by Peter E. Zelz)
The image appeared before me on a computer, a Facebook post from a friend that simply said, “Bring back any memories?”
It was a photo of a stairwell, one that realistically could be in any building in America. Steps that lead up, steps that lead down. But if you had ever climbed those stairs on a daily basis, you knew better. If those stairs and that building was a part of your life, you know it was so much more. They weren’t just a set of stairs. They were a part of you.
The stairwell that brought back the latest flood of memories. (Photo courtesy of Dani O’Halloran’s facebook page).
The stairs were located inside a place that embodied our coming off age. Some days, the climb to the top was effortless and exhilarating. Other days, the journey took forever, the dread of what was to come swallowing you whole with every step you took toward your destination.
We walked those stairs every day. We sprinted up and down those stairs for track and cross country practices until we literally puked.
We even held hands and fell in love while sitting on them, forcing foot traffic to the side of our own little world. And yet we also broke up, broke hearts and cried our eyes out sitting on those stairs, oblivious to the world around us as we just let the pain take hold of us as we sat there, certain for sure the sun would not rise the next day.
Like I said, they weren’t just stairs, not to us. There were our home, our friend, our safety zone, a place where we felt comfortable enough to sit, to laugh, to cry, to hold court and just be ourselves as day after day as we found out a little bit more about what was to come on this journey called life.
We grew up on those stairs and that’s why when Dani O’Halloran, my old friend who posted those photos, asked, “Bring back any memories?” they came in an unstoppable flood. In fact, it has taken me three days to process through those memories and finally find a prompt to sit down and write about them.
It was an image that made me smile and made me hurt, too. Pretty heavy stuff for a set of stairs.
The stairs in question physically reside at 100 Broadway in Bangor, Maine — better known as John Bapst Memorial High School, a private school of 450 students.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Bapst — as it is informally called — dates back to Sept. 10, 1928, when the local church Diocese opened a Catholic high school as a result of overcrowding at two of the other city’s schools. It was called John Bapst High School in those days and it stayed that way until the spring of 1980 when the church decided to cut ties with the school, leaving it for dead.
Fortunately for the many students who have traversed the school’s hallways since — and climbed those stairs day after day, month after month, year after year — a group of people who loved John Bapst stood up for what they believed in and kept the school alive.
That fall, without the church’s support or backing, John Bapst Memorial High School was born and 194 students walked into the building to keep the dream alive.
I am proud to say I was one of those students.
For a 14-year-old freshman, entering high school is daunting enough. To do it at John Bapst is a little more so for a couple of reasons. First, the school does not just draw from the city in which it sits, but also about six other local communities. Thus, when you went to high school, you were not doing so with all the students you had gone to middle school with and grown up alongside. To the contrary, there might be a handful of your friends there, but there were far more strangers walking the halls around you.
The great part about John Bapst — especially when it only had 194 students — was the school quickly became an extended family where you literally knew everybody by the time the school year was done.
But that first week, with all those strange faces, and all those new teachers, and all that homework, and the fact you were being force fed classes like “European History” — there was a pretty high scare factor for freshman.
And then there was the building and all those stairs.
The physical lay-out of John Bapst Memorial High School is immense. From a straight-on, front-side look at the building, which takes up almost a full city block just above downtown Bangor, it appears to be your basic four story building, with some sharp planning details that include three large arch-way doors center mass, and pillars high above the sidewalk that run the length of the facade.
Once inside, though, it’s an expansive bastion of hallways (and, of course, stairwells) that lead to so many unique nooks and crannies throughout the building. Just being able to explore that world was an education in itself.
But, yes, four floors is what the story that outside view would tell you.
What many people don’t realize, though, is if you walk through any of the middle doors, you are in the lobby to the John Bapst Auditorium — which takes up more than two stories in the heart of the building, and has a full balcony that runs from stage right, around to the front house, and all the way to stage left.
The John Bapst Auditorium. (Photo courtesy of Bangor Daily News)
It was there, every morning, leading up to the 8 o’clock bell, that most of us would gather and wait for the start of another school day. We would plant ourselves at tables, or in chairs that lined the open floor, or even plop ourselves on the edge of the stage itself, waiting for that first bell.
Each wing of the school almost mirrored itself from classroom to classroom, from floor to floor, and the reason for this was because after the school opened as a co-ed facility, one half of the school was the boys’ side of the school while the other half was designated for the girls.
Never the two shall meet, right?
Well, legend has it, there were certainly ways for the two sides to meet up, including the auditorium and the library, which sat in the front of the building, on the second floor, tucked between classrooms as it wrapped itself behind the back wall of the balcony at the top of the auditorium.
As the school’s Wikipedia page explains, “The school operated for four decades as a gender-specific educational environment: the school was bifurcated by the auditorium, with the north wing for boys, the south wing for girls. Later, due to fire safety codes the rear parts of the auditorium were turned into the front hallways on the first and second stories which now connect the two wings of the original building.”
The third floor was all classrooms and, of course, it was those stairwells that took us up there.
In the middle of the building, though, was another unique marvel that few outside the Bapst family would know about. In the middle of the third floor were a set of three stairs that rose above the hall way and following a sharp 90-degree turn toward a perpendicular hallway led to three more stairs which led up to — if you will — a pair of “fourth-floor” science labs and a lecture room complete with risers that students would sit in to listen to that day’s lessons.
Have your flat floor classrooms with five rows of eight desks, public schools. This was John Bapst’s most-likely premiere classroom and I had the pleasure of taking both Earth Science and Chemistry in that room.
During my freshman and sophomore years at John Bapst, the northern side of the third floor was boarded off because the enrollment wasn’t enough to call for using the classrooms beyond that point, and it was deemed as a way to save heat.
In all of my years being associated with the school, though, those boards were the only blight I ever remember; though there was a crotchety old librarian who worked there for a few years, too.
But the fact that John Bapst rose above Broadway was just half the story. Yes, stairs can lead upwards, but they can also lead downward, too, and from the school’s main entrance one could traverse down one flight of stairs and be underground in an instance. It was there where the band room and art rooms were located, as well as other rooms that, for a time, included the school’s weight room and plenty of storage rooms.
Two floors below that — which is three stories below street level, mind you — was the gymnasium; a tiny band-box of a facility with padded pillars standing courtside like guards watching over the team’s athletic warriors.
This is where the Crusaders’ athletic teams are first formed.
The school never had its own home fields or facilities. They would use Garland Street Field, home of the Bangor High School Rams, to play football on Saturdays. They used various baseball fields and other facilities around the city for soccer and field hockey. And it’s basketball home was split between the 6,000-seat Bangor Auditorium, or the gymnasium at the Eastern Maine Community College, which became Eastern Maine Technical College, which became who knows what these days.
But that gym was as special to any Bapst athlete who wore the purple and white jersey because out of that tiny little cave rose the dreams of championships that were just as true and just as pure as any school that had everything it needed out in the back yard’s of their own campuses.
For me, it was while waiting for practices for those athletic events to begin that allowed me the time to explore the building at 100 Broadway, and I mean every single inch of it.
If I had married a super model, I wouldn’t have known her body as well as I did the physical exterior and interior of 100 Broadway.
From the boiler room — which we sought out once for proof that there was once a pool underneath the basketball court (there wasn’t) — to the upper expanses of every bathroom and classroom and teacher’s offices that filled the interior of the building, it was discovered.
We climbed up the rickety old ladders that led to the catwalk high above the stage, only to find countless names of others who had also made the journey before us. And just like them, we proudly signed our names and/or initials as those who previously discovered such a nook of unique paradise so few students and city residents ever knew would exist.
The entry way to the John Bapst Auditorium, where food was once stored because of the building’s role as a Cold War fallout shelter. (Photo courtesy of Dani O’Halloran’s facebook page)
Perhaps my most famous adventure inside of John Bapst Memorial High School came during my sophomore year while waiting around for a basketball practice.
For whatever reason, we were in the main lobby area that provided the entrance to the auditorium on show nights and during band concerts. It was a room that was certainly out of time, a beautiful entryway with cathedral-like ceilings and light fixtures that belonged in the 1940s more than the 1980s.
But tucked away inside the stairwells that led to the balcony seating area were two small doors, and on this day we were just curious enough to find out what was behind them.
There were three of us there and I don’t remember who it was that picked that locked and got the door open, but we got the job done. This was not a full-sized door mind you, but more like a small quarter door that led into a crawl space that you had to step down into. And, once inside, standing wasn’t allowed. There simply wasn’t enough room.
We unabashedly crawled into the darkness, having no clue as to what we might find. I don’t even remember how we lit the room, if there was a light we turned on, or if we went off to find a flash light before the journey, or if somebody had a lighter in their pocket.
But once we were able to see our surroundings, we found boxes upon boxes of crackers and canned food stacked neatly against the walls.
John Bapst didn’t have a kitchen to feed its students. We all brought our lunches from home every day, waiting for our 11 a.m. homeroom period so we could eat.
This was something else.
Suddenly history hit us like a right hook.
Throughout the building, signs listed John Bapst Memorial High School as a “Fallout Shelter” and they had been hanging on the walls for years. If Bangor, Maine, was going to be bombed, this is what the survivors who rushed to the building would live on, we realized.
The Cold War wasn’t officially over yet, so it gave us pause to realize the importance this building. Our school could literally play an important role in a day and age where we never truly knew if something could fall from the sky and change everything we know.
Little did we know come 2001, we would find out it could.
Before we left this little cubby hole, though, we discovered one more door and, of course, we had to know what was on the other side. Much to our surprise, once we opened the door, we were given an aerial view of the gymnasium where our practice would soon be starting.
The quizzical faces that looked up at us is an image I’ll never forget.
We scrambled out of the crawl space and quickly raced up the stairs and back into the auditorium, hearts beating faster and still surprised by our discovery. Who knew that little cubby hold existed and could be so important.
I have so many of those kinds of stories from the three years I spent in that building, from climbing those stairs, from exploring all ends of it; from learning the lessons in many of its classrooms and forgetting just as much after walking out of the doors.
The teachers there, especially the ones I had and especially enjoyed, are embedded into my head to this very day, and there are times I can still hear their advice rise up from somewhere within me, a reminder of where I came from and what I was taught.
But the stairwell in the picture brought forth more than just memories of the building.
A building is just a building. Mortar and bricks and drywall and wood, holding together a structure.
It’s the people who made John Bapst Memorial High School the special place it has always been, just as it had made John Bapst High before.
The friends I made there and the memories we procured in that building, where the stairwells led us to each and every moment, will never be forgotten; at least not by me.
I had the fortunate instance to spend an extra two years inside 100 Broadway, working as a coach and substitute teacher, getting to see how special a place it remained through a growing, older set of eyes, and from the students who also got to call that incredible building their home away from home.
I hope today’s students feel it is still as special a place as it was 30 years ago.
Friends who I have grown to love deeper over the decades to enemies who have I learned to forgive over the years, they are all a part of the flood of memories that came back when that image popped up in front of me on my computer screen.
Their smiles, their laughter, their tears, their fears. On those stairwells, inside that building, we were all in it together, and I like to think our time there has left us as a special distantly-related family who share the same feelings and emotions.
That building and those stairwells at 100 Broadway are a part of all of us.
That’s why one image of a stairwell can mean so much.