They stood shuffling in the bright May sunshine, hands jammed in their pockets, eyes gazing up at the brick tower topped by a white cross.

For four years — or more — these soon-to-be-graduates of Mount St. Joseph’s High School had dreamed of this ascent. The trip up the wide wooden staircase that marked the transition from gawky teenage boys to polished young men. The chance to scrawl their names among the signatures of brothers, fathers, cousins and uncles. Or a chance to begin a legacy on a fresh patch of wall.

George E. Andrews Jr., president of the Catholic all-boys high school in Irvington, explained to these members of the Class of 2024 that the tower climb tradition stretched back at least 120 years. Students would sneak up the wooden staircase to a forbidden floor leading to the teachers’ living quarters, memorializing their mission by inscribing their names on the staircase.

The custom continued even after the buildings once attached to the tower came down, one around 1960 and a second about 20 years later. As the decades passed, the climb up the tower became a school-sanctioned event, the kickoff to the last giddy, emotion-filled weeks of high school.

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Soon these young men would be donning jackets to attend formal liturgies and dinners with their parents. Soon they would be slipping corsages on the wrists of prom dates. Then they would be graduates, driving away from this green campus near the county line in Southwest Baltimore.

But today, for the first time, the doors of the 121-year-old tower swung open to them.

The young men squeezed through the doorway and ambled into the cool darkness, peering up at faded alumni banners, oil portraits of the long-deceased Xaverian Brothers who founded the school, black-and-white photos of boys and men dapper in three-piece suits and boater hats.

Class photos of alumni at Mount Saint Joseph’s High School stretch back to the late 1800s, when students wore three-piece suits. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Eventually, each of the eight senior theology classes would make this ascent, but on Wednesday the two dozen young men in Mr. Ed Schultheis’s 8:50 a.m. class were the first. They trooped up the steps as Andrews explained that The Mount, as they call it, had once included a two-year college, a middle school and dormitories for boarders.

The young men’s faded loafers and crisp Nikes padded up the tower’s 120 steps. It was a free dress day, so they had traded their khakis, button-downs and ties for T-shirts and shorts or sweatpants. They looked both all grown-up and poignantly boyish, long restless legs, cheeks pocked by acne scars, chins lined by faint beards.

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Students in a first period religion class climb up the tower staircase while looking at historic objects. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Around the fourth landing, names began to appear on the brick walls: Michael Hinson, ’74. P. McKenna, ’78. Brian Lehmuth, ’94. K. Reagan, ’00. D. Byroade, ’00. Felipe Romo, ’23. There was former Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, and Olympic gold medal swimmer Tommy Hannan, both class of ’98.

The oldest names were scrawled in pencil on the underside of the wooden staircase, visible only under a flashlight’s beam. Some indecipherable names dated from 1905 and 1906. King Kelly, 1916. Jerry Dotterweich, 1947, the late founder of Jerry’s Belvedere Tavern on Northern Parkway, who bequeathed an endowment to the school.

Earlier classes from Mount Saint Joseph High School signed in pencil underneath stairs in the school’s tower, as seen on May 1, 2024.
In the early 1900s, students would sneak into the tower and sign their names on the underside of the wooden staircase. Jerry Dotterweich, class of 1947, went on to found Jerry’s Belvedere Tavern on Northern Parkway. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

There would be plenty of time later to look for names and find a place to sign, Andrews said, ushering the seniors to the top of the tower. The young men ducked through a doorway and stood blinking in the sun.

Before them was a vision of the city they had never seen before. To the east, the towers of downtown, blued by distance. To the west, the brick building of Mount de Sales Academy, a Catholic all-girls school, perched above a green skirt of trees.

Friends Jayden Timmons and Jeremiah Houston stood looking out at the city. “It’s peaceful,” said Timmons as the distant voices of boys on the playing field rose in the warm air. “You get to step away and think of the history.”

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Their own history at the school had begun behind a screen. They started high school in the fall of 2020, in the height of the COVID pandemic, and spent months logging into virtual classes before the school’s doors reopened.

Those online lessons dragged on interminably, but then the rest of high school sped by. The football games and mixers. Club meetings. Assemblies. The concerts and plays.

Jayden Timmons, left, and Jeremiah Houston ascend the tower, looking for a spot to sign their names. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

“I’m excited for what’s next,” said Houston, who plans to study cybersecurity at Stevenson University. “But I also don’t want to grow up.”

Both students were the first in their immediate family to attend the Mount, so they staked out new spots to write their names. Staff members instructed the students to confine their autographs to the outer landing and top few floors of the tower. There would be plenty of room for the 193 members of the Class of 2024.

Unique traditions mark this time of transition at other area high schools. At Dulaney High in Timonium, seniors paint rocks behind the school in their class colors in the fall. At Notre Dame Preparatory in Towson, students jump in the pool, fully clothed, after the senior farewell liturgy. And seniors at the McDonogh School in Owings Mills also climb and autograph a formerly forbidden tower.

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Mount Saint Joseph alumni say the tower climb is a rite of passage that isn’t soon forgotten. Craig Randall had to wait until his 20th reunion to sign the tower because it was off-limits when he graduated in 1977.

“It was a big deal,” recalled Randall, a radiologic technologist, whose two sons are also Mount St. Joe alums. “My name will forever be written on a wall in that school.”

John David Cecil, ’85, is among five generations of Cecils to attend The Mount, all descendants of John Thomas Cecil, a boarding student in the late 1880s. Last year, John David Cecil climbed the tower with his older son, John Daniel Cecil, ’23. He hopes to join his younger son, Brian David Cecil, ’25, in the tower next year.

“It’s a very special feeling,” said John David Cecil. “You get to make your mark.”

Media strategist Damian O’Doherty played in the shadow of the tower as a child at summer camp, then spent four years gazing at the tower as a student before graduating in 1992.

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He sees the tower as a potent symbol of each student finding their place at The Mount, whether on the baseball diamond, the science lab or the school newspaper.

“The cool thing about the tower is that when you get to the top, you realize there is room for everyone,” said O’Doherty, the co-founder of KO Public Affairs.

Eli Modlin, ’11, also dreamed of climbing the tower since he was a kid at summer camp. “It was always this kind of mysterious and exciting place,” said Modlin, vice president for public affairs at Salisbury University. “It’s what you see when you drive by the school, a symbol of accomplishment and achievement.”

Back on the top of the tower, Joseph Schuberth, Mount St. Joe’s alumni director and a 2000 graduate, waved the group together for a photo.

“Gentlemen, you’re all brothers,” he said. “Get closer together. Put your arms around each other.”

Then came a murmur from the stairwell. “A straggler!” called a teacher.

Christopher Larkin, a gangly senior with dark brown curls, clambered up. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said, pulling a tightly-folded late pass from his pocket. He had hit traffic on his commute from Westminister.

Larkin swiveled his head, taking in the sights. This was his first time in the tower. But he was the ninth Larkin to stand here.

Jack Larkin graduated from The Mount in 1955 and his sons and grandsons have followed in his footsteps. Grandson Christopher Larkin is a senior this year. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)
Christopher Larkin, center, shows his friends where his family has signed their names atop Mount Saint Joseph’s historic tower on May 1, 2024.
Christopher Larkin, center, shows friends the names of his grandfather, father, uncles and cousins atop Mount Saint Joseph’s historic tower. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)
Mount St. Joseph’s seniors used to leave their school ID cards in the tower, but staff have since gathered them in a filing cabinet. However, the card of John E. Larkin III, who died of cancer in 1996, remains tacked to a ceiling beam. His nephew, Christopher Larkin, is among the Class of 2024. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

His grandfather, brothers, uncles and cousins had all attended the Mount. There by the stairway was a hand-drawn emblem with all of their names, including that of his uncle, John E. Larkin III, who had died young of cancer. Soon Christopher would etch his name among the rest.

“Honestly, this is more important than walking for graduation for me,” said Larkin. “This is what I worked for all four years of high school. I hope we have our legacy stay here for as long as possible.”

Around him and on the floors below, young men were passing around Sharpie markers then inscribing their names on the walls, bricks and staircases. David Wilder of Woodlawn signed his name above that of his father, Dave Wilder, ‘97.

Nearby, his classmates posed for photos with friends. Teachers frowned at several names scrawled on an otherwise untouched lower floor. The bell was about to ring. There were AP tests and final projects to prepare for. The young men hurried out the tower doors, some casting a final glance backward.

Whatever the future held, they had left a part of themselves here. They had made their mark.

Julie Scharper is an enterprise reporter for The Baltimore Banner. Her work ranges from investigations into allegations of sexual harassment and abuse to light-hearted features. Baltimore Magazine awarded Scharper a Best in Baltimore in 2023 for her series exposing a toxic work culture within the Maryland Park Service.

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