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Old School Ties

[whitespace] Bellarmine Preparatory
B'ing There: Bellarmine's Block B club of 1958 was a high-spirited group whose members would go on to become some of the area's most prominent developers, financiers, politicians and businessmen.

A chain of power and money flows out of the valley's oldest private school, the Jesuit-run Bellarmine Preparatory.

By Cecily Barnes

AT 8:30AM, on the north edge of San Jose's Rose Garden neighborhood, 150 sleepy teenage boys file into the cafeteria at Bellarmine College Preparatory, Santa Clara County's oldest private school. A life-size cross painted in pastel hues hangs from the center of the room, surrounded by bowls of holy water and cloth shrouds.

The boys move in packs, pairs and alone, their JanSport, J-Crew and Tommy Hilfiger backpacks slung from their shoulders, sweatshirts knotted around their waists. They walk slowly, searching for friends and a metal fold-out chair to fill. When everyone has settled, a young teacher with sandy blond hair and a broad jaw, who looks more suited to riding waves in Santa Cruz than to conducting a religious ceremony, stands before a microphone, wearing a flowing, white alb to begin a prayer. The prayer captures some fundamental dichotomies of the school--its duty to modernize versus its responsibility to preserve tradition; its need to prepare young men for a competitive world and how that relates to its mission of teaching students to emulate the values of Jesus.

The prayer is typed on the back of a small beige card bearing a photo of a grandfatherly man embracing a small boy, titled Reconciliation.

"Loving God, pardon us ... for our undue concern for things ... for excessive love of comfort and the good things of life ... for our abuse of alcohol and drugs ... for our concern with the trivial ... for our unwillingness to grow ... for our acceptance of mediocrity and immaturity."

Outside in the parking lot, boys who skipped the morning service are still arriving, some climbing from Mercedes sedans, BMWs and shiny black sports utility vehicles. Some students wear jeans and ratty tennis shoes. Others wear $140 Timberland boots and $200 Northface bubble goose jackets. The boys are polite, sharp, studious and humble. By virtue of their presence here, they have made the first cut. Their school, a Jesuit academy known for stellar SAT scores and a 100 percent college placement rate, turns down 750 applicants a year and accepts only half as many.

Many of the students in this elite group volunteer at homeless shelters and attend church with their families. These same boys may also spend their summers in Prague, travel to the Swiss Alps for a ski vacation or make a special trip to the Super Bowl for their 16th birthday.

Most will go on to successful careers. Last year out of the 100 percent of the graduating class that went on to college, 28 percent attended Santa Clara University, San Jose State, UC-Berkeley or UC-Santa Cruz.

If past trends continue, 60 percent to 65 percent of graduates will remain in the Bay Area after college and move into powerful jobs in the valley, either behind the scenes or in the public eye. They will join the ranks of the dozens of judges, attorneys, doctors, entrepreneurs, developers and businessmen who contribute to local political campaigns, invest in downtown real estate, practice philanthropy and make generous annual donations to their alma mater. A select few will even leave their hand print on the donor wall at San Jose's Tech Museum, or perhaps their name emblazoned across the side of a public building.

They will join the ranks of local Bellarmine celebrities who have come before them--A's owner Steve Schott, attorney and landowner Phil DiNapoli, former Mayor Tom McEnery, Lincoln Properties' Ed Thrift, developers Sal Sanfilippo and Don Imwalle, Brad and Matt Rocca of Original Joe's restaurant, car dealer Lon Normandin, attorney Sal Liccardo, Rich Cristina of Cristina & Hall and many, many more.

Class Conscience

OF COURSE, NOT every Bellarmine student will end up with a building named after him. A few will not even make it to graduation. When students who've earned the privilege to attend fail to keep up their grades, they are put on academic probation and eventually not invited back. While the school sees this as an important way to weed out the less serious students, some parents of these students feel it's also a way for Bellarmine to sift out those kids who don't fit the school's upper-class mold.

Diane Cooper sent her son Jarrett to Bellarmine six years ago. He had attended Leyva Intermediate School in the Evergreen Union School District and made A's and B's. He had been a Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) student and a skilled athlete. He was also African American and from a moderate-income household with no history of prep school. These last three factors, Cooper says, seemed to outweigh the others.

"I'm not sure if it was racism or money or power, but it really was a school where you had to have the right sort of child in order to fit," she says. "You really have to look at where your child has been."

Cooper remembers feeling like the other parents looked down at her because of her son's public-school background.

"There was an elitism to that school, and there was a level of the parents feeling like that they were better than everyone else, they were the cream of the crop. I would say things like my son went to Leyva and they would be like, 'What?' " Cooper laughs. "I'd be like, 'Yes, that's right, a public school in Evergreen.' All those kids, they have their future and their past kind of laid out for them. I was amazed at the cars that drove up, the Mercedes and the Porches. If you have a kid that's coming from an average home, they're still only going to have $1.75 a day to get lunch or whatever it costs. Meanwhile their friend's dad is going to fly him out to the Super Bowl. They start to feel like, I'm here, but I'm not there."

For Cooper, the approximately $5,800 tuition was a stretch. Her son would get no car, expensive vacations or lofty allowances. During Bellarmine's prestigious and expensive fundraising events, where donations of hundreds or thousands of dollars are not unheard of, Cooper stayed home with her sons.

"For me, the tuition was all that I could afford," she says.

On top of the social pressures, Jarrett struggled to balance an intensive after-school sports regimen with the three to four hours of homework he was assigned each night.

"He was a very good student in middle school, he was a GATE student, and he got into Bellarmine and couldn't make it," Cooper says.

Despite sincere encouragement from an African American dean at Bellarmine whom Cooper praises, Jarrett opted to start his sophomore year at Independence High School. In his mother's mind, he was not to blame. The school seemed designed for kids like him to fail and kids with wealthy families and a history of prep school to succeed.

The Color of Money

LAST MONTH, notices were sent to local papers throughout the valley announcing Bellarmine's summer school scholarship program for male students of color whose families earn a combined monthly income of less than $4,200.

Unfortunately, the notice published in the Mercury News failed to specify that the scholarship was exclusively for young men of color. Diversity director Steve Pinkston says he's still weeding through more than 80 responses, less than 70 percent of which came from students of color.

Last year, Bellarmine's senior class included 14 African Americans, 38 Asians, 38 Latinos and 198 whites. And administrators concede this was a huge diversity improvement from previous years, when minorities were almost nonexistent at the school.

"Clearly the numbers didn't start to take off until the '70s and '80s," says Pinkston. He says the school recruits minority students by actively promoting its financial aid program. Still, the ratio falls short of that at most surrounding public schools (with the exception of Los Gatos High School, which is 86 percent white and only 14 percent minority).

Although Bellarmine boasts a 42 percent minority student population, that percentage still does not reflect the demographics of the valley--Independence High School is 88 percent students of color. Willow Glen High School is 68 percent nonwhite, and even Saratoga High School is 46 percent nonwhite.

Public relations director Loretta Pehanich is the first to admit that students of color--especially those in a low-income bracket--may feel they don't stand a chance of getting in because of the school's elitist reputation.

"We don't have people who are applying who are in that great of financial need. That is one of our biggest public relations pushes," Pehanich admits. "A lot of times if the kid is living on the East Side, people know that this is a private school and tuition is required and they think they shouldn't even apply."

Although Bellarmine's official financial aid policy states that no deserving boy will ever be denied admission because his parents' pockets aren't deep enough, or be dismissed because money runs short midway through the school year, few actually cash in on the generous offer. Approximately 220 students get some kind of financial aid, but very few receive a completely free ride. This year there were no students on full scholarship.

"It's based on their need, and I think that most of the people who apply have some kind of financial ability," Pehanich said.

Father Bill Muller, Bellarmine's president, rejects any elitist description of Bellarmine, citing not only the school's proactive efforts to diversify but also the morality of a Jesuit education.

"I think there are probably some families and students who are here because they see it as the best way to get into the college of their choice," Muller says, "but I honestly believe that most of the kids are here because they want the kind of humanity that we teach."

Begotten Sons

THE BOYS AT BELLARMINE are taught not only science, math and English, but also how to emulate the ways of Jesus. The 22 Jesuit priests who live on campus and instruct the boys in everything from chemistry to religion have each taken vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. They encourage their students to examine their lives and the righteousness of everything around them. Furthermore, every student must complete 100 hours of community service before graduation, beginning with volunteering with young children and leading up to working with the homeless.

Alumnus and well-known developer John Sobrato remembers these parts of his high school education vividly.

"They stress ethics, giving back to the community in which you make your profession," Sobrato says. "I've tried to utilize those principles in my career."

Graduate Joe Guerra recalls the priests who encouraged him to question and examine everything, from the plight of the homeless to philosophical theories. When reflecting on the school, Guerra wonders whether such an examination of the school itself would be encouraged, one that looked at the admission structures that result in such a successful local alumni body.

"Can you in Jesuit philosophy question the tradition of Bellarmine?" Guerra asks rhetorically. "That is the academic debate. And of course they need their alumni to be successful in order to give back to the school."

And then there's the other question, whether a lifestyle that emulates Jesus is inconsistent with the student race--especially at top academic schools like Bellarmine--to make high grades, gain entry to prestigious colleges and move into successful, high-paying careers.

Up until the 1950s, at least five boys graduating from Bellarmine usually joined the Jesuit order, taking vows of chastity, poverty and obedience and committing their lives to educating others. Today, says Father Gerry Wade, the school is lucky if one kid every five years joins the order. But this is the national trend, he adds. Fewer people are committing themselves to the priesthood anywhere.

The trend away from religion is strong and pervasive. In February Bellarmine hired Mark Pierotti as principal, the school's first lay headmaster in its 150-year history.

When asked whether Jesuit values conflict with the graduates' wealth-creating ways, Father Wade responds that so long as the graduates heed the Jesuit values, success is not a problem.

"We're not saying to have wealth is bad--it's do you own the wealth or does the wealth own you?"

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Match that Bellarmine grad's photo with the Silicon Valley bigwig.

Bellarmine's counterpart--the all-girl Notre Dame High School--has a different story to tell.

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Theory of Connectivity

BRIAN STENHOUSE, Bellarmine's alumni director, clicks a few keys on his computer and pulls up a 10,000-man directory of living graduates categorized under various subheadings of profession, graduating class and last name. He is the man responsible for keeping alumni linked to each other, socially and professionally. He operates the network that keeps older graduates assisting younger graduates, and all graduates assisting each other.

Although not just anyone has access to the coveted home phone numbers of former Mayor Tom McEnery and Oakland A's owner Steve Schott, less sacrosanct numbers are free for the taking.

"Guys come in and say, 'I need a lawyer.' I'll give them maybe 20 Bellarmine lawyers," Stenhouse boasts. "I had someone who just moved to the area and said, 'I need a dentist.' I said, Is there a decade you prefer? We just have so many. People will move back here and say, 'I would love to give my business to a Bellarmine alum.' "

And then of course there's the other side of this: younger graduates looking for jobs. Stenhouse says he probably places five or six college graduates every year by linking them with established alumni in the area.

"From the college level, guys feel they can come back here and use the Bellarmine connections," Stenhouse says. "That's what we want them to do."

Stenhouse taps his finger to his head, trying to recall other match and deal connections that he's arranged. Routing money and resources between Bellarmine brothers takes up most of his day. But there are other responsibilities, too--mainly fundraising. Stenhouse solicits smallish contributions, leaving the big shots to Ron Pine, who courts alumni expected to donate a minimum of $1,500. Many alumni do open their checkbooks. Last year alone, 1,333 graduates contributed $1.2 million. In return, they were granted unfettered access to the Bellarmine network, plus a chance to play in the annual Bellarmine alumni golf tournament at Almaden Golf & Country Club.

Jim Vasconcellos, not to be confused with his uncle Sen. John Vasconcellos, who is also an alum, never thought about his school ties until 1994, when he decided to launch his own consulting firm, Visus Group. Unsure of how to build a client base, he enrolled in a course for aspiring entrepreneurs. Lesson one brought him straight back to Bellarmine. Tap every possible resource, it explained: family, friends, old colleagues, church groups and, of course, school chums.

"It dawned on me that I have this whole alumni directory to draw from," Vasconcellos said. "I realized that I had a lot more potential clients than I realized."

Jay Ross, who currently sits on San Jose's Planning Commission and is a partner with Hopkins & Carley, recalls Bellarmine helping him land his very first job after graduating from UC-Santa Barbara.

Ross was at his first-ever interview at the San Jose law firm Howell & Hallgrimson. He handed the partner his meager résumé, with zero job experience and only high school and college degrees to show for himself. Apparently this was plenty.

"He looked at my résumé and said, 'Oh, you went to Bellarmine. Why didn't you say so? Hey, guys--guys, come here.' He called all these other partners in and introduced me around," Ross recounts. "I have no idea if it helped me get the job, but I got it. That was the very first indication I had that going to Bellarmine was more than just an education."

Ross has since had the opportunity to return the favor. A few years back the attorney was phoned by a young man who explained that he too had gone to Bellarmine and would Ross please meet with him to talk about attorney job opportunities in San Jose. Ross obliged and the two met to discuss the young man's career.

"I've never had anyone call me and say, 'Oh, I went to UC-Santa Barbara,'" Ross muses, referring to his undergraduate college.

Dozens of Bellarmine men have such stories. Bill DelBiaggio Jr., class of '85, turned to Bellarmine friends for investors when founding San Jose's local Heritage Bank. The checks came in droves.

"More than half our initial investors were Bellarmine people," DelBiaggio says. "Lon Normandin, Mike Fox Sr., Glenn George, Art Carmichael Jr., Kirk Rossmann ..."

The list goes on, 15 investors out of a total of 31.

In his office, DelBiaggio displays his wood-paneled President's Club plaque showing he contributed at least $1,500 to the school this year. It's the least he could do.

DelBiaggio says there's no doubt that his Bellarmine connections have given him a leg up in the business and professional arena of the Santa Clara Valley.

"There's no question," he says conclusively. "Business is all about people, and I've been fortunate to be around a lot of great ones."

Anatomy of an Election

WHILE greatness may lie in the eye of the beholder, there can be no disputing the magic of Bellarmine's spell, especially in the public sector in San Jose.

When former Mayor and Bellarmine graduate Tom McEnery first ran for mayor in 1982, Bellarmine pals Phil DiNapoli, Rich Cristina, Peter Carter, Don Imwalle, Ted Biagini, Tim Nobriga and Pat O'Brien were happy to step up to the plate. O'Brien served as campaign treasurer; Nobriga fundraised. The others gave contributions, advice and time and ultimately formed an undefeatable team that ushered McEnery into office.

Six years later, when McEnery supporter Ken Machado ran against Nancy Ianni for the District 6 council seat after Ianni fell out of favor with McEnery, many of the same people--Biagini, Cristina, Hall and Imwalle--ponied up for their pal's favorite candidate.

Examples of Bellarmine brethren supporting McEnery are abundant. After a bad bond-market investment lost the city of San Jose $60 million, McEnery called upon attorney buddy Biagini to review and tighten the city's investment policies. When McEnery published one of his books, a story of his ancestor Thomas Fallon, school pal Peter Carter's advertising firm was chosen to help with promotion and design.

To implement a revitalization plan for downtown San Jose and put its newly acquired and ample tax-increment financing to work, McEnery returned the favors to his old pals, investors and developer friends. Phil DiNapoli, for example, received a $13.6 million subsidy from the city to build the San Jose Hilton hotel with developer Lew Wolff.

DiNapoli surfaced again in 1986, this time shelling out money to pass Measure J, which gave Mayor McEnery new power over the budget, city manager and other aspects of the job.

McEnery then won a citywide vote on public funding for the San Jose Arena. Using his enhanced authority, he was able to lobby for additional funds for the arena and assist in securing a professional sports franchise--the San Jose Sharks hockey team. When McEnery left office, the Sharks made a spot for him as vice chairman. The Sharks' website unabashedly admits that networking is McEnery's greatest asset.

"His longstanding relationships and friendships with many key corporate leaders within the Silicon Valley enable the Sharks to reach their goal," the site states.

Reflecting on this chain of connections, as compared to her own in the term preceding his, former Mayor Janet Gray Hayes says there's no doubt McEnery's local ties gave him a leg up both during his campaign and all the time he held office.

"I think Tom's campaign was made easier because he was a hometown boy and had tremendous connections and roots," she says. "Whether it's fair or not, I think the electorate has to make up their own mind about it. I mean, he was re-elected. But so was Bill Clinton."

But the power of Bellarmine is not unstoppable, as shown earlier this year in the life of another Bellarmine alumnus seeking office, U.S. District Attorney Tony West.

Three weeks before last November's election, Bellarmine hosted a semiformal reunion at its Liccardo Campus Center for West's graduating class, the class of 1983. By the time the nearly 200 people showed up, it was unclear if the gathering was a political fundraiser for Tony West's District 3 council race or a Bellarmine reunion. Earlier that week, West had thrown his last fundraising soiree with the same group of guests. This was no coincidence.

When West put out feelers to begin his campaign, the first place he looked was to his graduating class. At age 17, West had been voted most likely to be president in the year 2000.

"I started with my classmates and then talking to alumni, and it was sort of a chain," West says.

West and his benefactors began banging on the larger Bellarmine network, and money soon trickled in from all directions. Besides former classmates like Jude Barry and Joe Guerra, both in Mayor Ron Gonzales' office, even men whom West had never met reached into their pocket for their fellow Bell.

"When Tony [West] told me he was planning to run for City Council, I basically said, 'What can I do to help?' even though we hadn't been in close contact for years," Jay Ross said. "All these guys that I called not only agreed to contribute but agreed to commit their time and effort at the events, too."

With every phone call and fundraising event more money came from the pockets of local notables like advertising leader Peter Carter, developer John Sobrato, former Mayor Tom McEnery, Rich Cristina of Cristina and Hall, attorney Phil DiNapoli, Mike Fox Sr. (who sits on Bellarmine's board of directors) and Heritage Bank's Bill DelBiaggio.

Other recognizable Bellarmine names on the contributing list are from the families of Imwalle, Biagini, Stuart Shiff and Frank Bisceglia.

However, even with the network in action at full force, West ended up losing to Cindy Chavez.

Seated in his small office in the Federal Courthouse on N. First Street, West smiles humbly. "When I left Bellarmine I knew I could do anything I wanted to do, except win the City Council race," he jokes.

West, who has since landed a job with Attorney General Bill Lockyer, can joke because he knows--and everybody else knows--that he will be back. He work-studied his way through Bellarmine, breezed through Harvard, rubbed shoulders with the team that pushed Clinton to the presidency and landed on his feet with an important job in the U.S. district attorney's office and a spot on San Jose's Planning Commission. This is not the end. He'll be back, and when he is, the Bellarmine network will be ready and waiting. After all, it never hurts to have friends at the top.

Local Motion

ON AN early morning in October, the president of Bellarmine walked out of a meeting in O'Donnell Hall with some troubling news. In an attempt to speed up train service between San Francisco and San Jose, CalTrain was planning to eliminate the train stop near Bellarmine, used by some of his private-school boys.

Maybe no one knew that the stop was used and needed by the school. Maybe no one cared. Either way, Bill Muller knew what he had to do. Within minutes, his fingers were punching the buttons on his phone to call up his Rotary pal, mass-transit advocate Rod Diridon, for advice.

Diridon directed Muller to deal with Susan Fitts, a woman long employed in the public transportation agency, whose own son was a Bellarmine grad.

The network quickly kicked into action. At Fitts' suggestion, Muller launched a massive letter-writing campaign and published an editorial in the Mercury News. He met with project manager Andy Nash on several occasions, and on Nov. 5 a mob of train-stop supporters crowded the CalTrain board meeting. Within minutes, Nash announced that College Park Station would be struck from the list of doomed stops. Nash admits he succumbed to the school's skillful lobbying efforts.

"They had an awful lot of people come out and write letters, and as kind of a credit to them, they showed that they were willing to work with us. They said they would help us lobby to get government funds," Nash said. "And they were polite. That's a really good way to be."

Besides bringing in its own experts to soften up the decision makers, Bellarmine offered the transportation folks a swap. If they salvaged the train stop, Bellarmine would volunteer its help in return. "If we can be in a position to lobby for them, [to get grants] or help in that way and attend county supervisor meetings, we will," Muller said. "It's in our best interest to make sure the process continues."

This was not the first or last time Muller had called upon the Bellarmine network to help.

When the school built its new swimming pool and track in 1995, Mike Walsh of Walsh Building Contractors breezed down to his alma mater with expert advice on the best swimming pool products. And when Bellarmine sought to purchase Annex Street on the other side of Hedding in 1997, then Councilmember Frank Fiscalini, who used to teach at Bellarmine, navigated the city's loopholes and bureaucracy for them.

"The wealth of knowledge and power that [our alumni] have in the valley, if you need to know how to get something done, you can pick up the phone and call these guys," Brian Stenhouse said. "Some of us here obviously have some expertise on how to get things rolling, but when you have all these major movers and shakers in the valley, why not ask the people who do it day to day?"

In the last mayoral election, Bellarmine put its feet up and watched with confident amusement. If Pat Dando had been elected, she would have made an obvious Bellarmine ally, given that her sons attended the school. And when Ron Gonzales prevailed, that was just as good, since his chief of staff, Jude Barry, had graduated 19 years before.

"Jude Barry [chief of staff for Mayor Ron Gonzales] is now going to be in power, and we could call him and say [about a project], This definitely affects us--what are the steps and processes we should do?" Stenhouse said.

And surely Bellarmine will.

Sibling Rivals

BUT favor-swapping among Bellarmine's brothers is not always a given. One story of enmity between grads has become something of an urban legend in San Jose. It involves former Mayor Tom McEnery and Supervisor Jim Beall, then a San Jose councilman, who nearly came to blows at a council meeting in the mid 1980s. No one can recall the issue that led both men to rise from behind the San Jose council dais, puff out their chests and clench their fists, mainly because animosity had brewed between the two for years. They graduated from Bellarmine seven years apart, McEnery in 1963, Beall in 1970. McEnery had played basketball, Beall football. McEnery was the third member of his family to go to Bellarmine--both his father, John, and brother John Jr. had attended--and Beall was the first in his family to attend.

McEnery comes from a wealthy San Jose family, and Beall work-studied his way through school, a self-described "Cambrian kid."

When the two were on the City Council together, enmity was common.

When the council voted whether to name the convention center after McEnery, Beall was one of the few opposing votes. When McEnery supporter Ken Machado in his race against District 6 Councilwoman Nancy Ianni in 1988--with the funding help of the Bellarmine network--Beall contributed to Ianni's campaign.

The unspoken rivalry between the two politicians in many ways mirrors an often unacknowledged split in the Bellarmine student body: between those who fit a certain mold and those who do not. Talking only about his own experience, Beall puts it in a nutshell.

"There's a group of people who went to Bellarmine who had lifelong connections through parochial school, Bellarmine and then Santa Clara University. Do you understand? Do you see?" he probes. "There were the people from wealthier backgrounds. And then there were people like me. I'm a Cambrian kid. I come from a family of 10 children. Through most of my career at Bellarmine, I paid my way working in the fields."

And while Beall admits that a core group of Bellarmine elite has moved into positions of power locally, he points to himself and others like John Vasconcellos who hold prominent public office too, while rejecting the Bellarmine network.

"You can say there's a group of people in politics and government that have lifelong associations going back even before Bellarmine, that have worked together for many years," Beall says. "Do they run this community? No. Do they have a lot of say in this community and have in the past? Absolutely."

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From the April 22-28, 1999 issue of Metro.

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