St. Mary’s College & Black Friday

As Saint Mary’s College of California celebrates its sesquicentennial, the History Press looks forward to a new book chronicling the college’s enduring legacy. In this special History Press West feature, author and historian Ronald Eugene Isetti offers a unique look at one of the critical points in St. Mary’s College history.

On these Promising Shores of the Pacific: A History of Saint Mary's College by Ronald Eugene Isetti

Black Friday

Ronald Eugene Isetti

Friday, July 25, 1937, was a sweltering summer day, untypical of mild, breezy Oakland. A crowd of about forty, composed of news hounds, reporters, photographers, and the merely curious, gathered on the steps of the Alameda County Courthouse to witness the auction of Saint Mary’s College to the highest bidder. Bespectacled Sylow Berven, Trust Officer of the Central Bank of Oakland, took almost fifty minutes to read “in a low drone” the long bill of sale. After fifteen minutes, the crowd had dwindled to a handful. A street “urchin” hit up the remnant for nickels, but pocketed only one. The country was still mired in a deep economic swamp, despite New Deal relief and recovery programs. At last, Berven opened up the bidding, offering at auction not only the Moraga campus but also, in turn and separately, three additional properties belonging to the College: the campus of its high school in Berkeley, 247 unimproved  acres on Foothill Boulevard in San Leandro, and 47 unimproved acres in the city of San Mateo. “Do I hear any bid for Parcel No. 1?” Berven asked. There was complete silence; it continued as other offers were made. Heightening the drama, a long funeral procession wound down the adjoining street. Was this a harbinger of the school’s own demise?  “Do I hear,” Berven continued, wiping sweat from his brow, “any bid for the properties of St. Mary’s College in their entirety?” Two mustached “mystery men” in panama hats put in a bid of $411,150. They were Gerald S. Levin and Leland B. Groezinger, attorneys of the San Francisco law firm of Pillsbury, Madison, and Sutro, which had been representing the College’s bereft bondholders scattered across the country. A reporter from Time magazine later reported:

“Cameras clicked as Mr. Levin handed Mr. Berven, as a down payment, a crumpled cashier’s check of $43,000. Thus transferred lock, stock & barrel. . . . was the most famed little football college on the West Coast.”

Photographs of both men, along with one of the campus, appeared in the August 9 edition of Life magazine. The auction of the College had become a national news story.

Pictures from Life of the Sale of Saint Mary’s College to its Bondholders in 1937 .

“Black Friday,” as the day Saint Mary’s was sold at auction came to be called, was assuredly the darkest up to that point in the College’s long history, stretching back to its founding in San Francisco in 1863 by missionary Archbishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany.  Since that time and a move to Oakland in 1889, it had survived two devastating fires in 1894 and 1918, the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, and a takeover by the Army during World War I. When the school moved to Moraga in Contra Costa County during the Roaring Twenties, it looked forward to a bright future in a beautiful new, Spanish-style campus.  But the Christian Brothers, who had operated the College since 1868, went too far in debt in financing construction. Almost $1,500,000 in interest-bearing bonds was sold to the general public through Dean Witter. The Great Depression hit, enrollment suddenly dropped, and the school stopped making payments to its bondholders. A football program comparable to Notre Dame’s could not save the day, if only because it sometimes spent as much as it took in. When Saint Mary’s went bankrupt, it ironically had on its roster perhaps the highest paid football coach in the entire country, the legendary Edward P. “Slip” Madigan. His colorful teams beat powerhouses such as California, Stanford, and Fordham; Joseph Kennedy sat on the Saint Mary’s bench; and Errol Flynn, Ginger Rogers, and Babe Ruth became avid fans of the Galloping Gaels, as the school’s athletic teams were called. Saint Mary’s games were beamed over national radio networks, and in 1930 more people packed Market Street in San Francisco to hail the victorious team than had greeted the “Lone Eagle” Charles Lindbergh a few years earlier. The Gaels became the darlings of New York sportswriters Grantland Rice and Damon Runyon.

A photograph of Edward P. “Slip” Madigan with his mentor Knute Rockne of Notre Dame at Saint Mary’s in 1931. Courtesy St. Mary's College Archive.

Fortunately, Archbishop John J. Mitty purchased the school from its bondholders in 1937, and the Brothers were able to buy it back from him in 1953 with the profits of their world-famous Napa Valley Winery.  Christian Brothers brandy became a national best seller. But it had not been an easy road to hoe. During World War II, the Navy commandeered the campus, fortunately saving it from temporary or permanent closure. Big-time football, which continued on after Madigan was fired, progressively bankrupted the school until the College was unable to meet its upcoming payroll in late 1950. Once again its very existence hung by a thread, as it had in 1894, 1918, and 1937.

Today, Saint Mary’s is a stable, growing, and highly-ranked college devoted to a three-fold tradition of Catholicism, the liberal arts, and Lasallian or student-centered education. It is nationally known for its continuing commitment to a Great Books core curriculum. The present flourishing state of the College can falsely suggest an unimpeded ascent or at least a steady evolution. As a matter of fact, it is only slightly less than a miracle that Saint Mary’s still stands. A large number of colleges and universities have perished over the years from the same kind of fires, natural disasters, wars, and financial woes that could have spelled doom for Saint Mary’s. In my history of this fascinating little school, I have tried hard to factor in the element of contingency. Far more than historians are willing to admit, chance and the unforeseen play an important if not crucial role in history. Proper attention should therefore be devoted to the fortuitous and even the chaotic.

Saint Mary’s College in 2009. Courtesy of St. Mary's College.

On These Promising Shores of the Pacific: A History of Saint Mary’s College by Ronald Eugene Isetti will be available from the History Press November 2013.

Related Posts:

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Introducing Napa Valley Chronicles

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4 Comments on “St. Mary’s College & Black Friday”

  1. Phil Gilbertson Says:

    Hooray! I can’t wait to read this story of St. Mary’s because I know as I complete writing the history of University of the Pacific that the schools have many parallels in their perils and fortunes–high drama. I know my history of Pacific will benefit greatly from this reading.


  2. Daphne Says:

    Fabulous writing skill, Ron! This looks like a fun and informative true mystery to read! Intriguing! Grandfather Francis (Brother Zachary Leo Meehan would be so proud of you. He would have been honored to write a book review for you. Maybe he’s doing that right now!!!! Something new to do in Heaven!!!


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