Every time Alex Kurth spotted a Cardinal Gibbons High School classmate approaching the ITE Building at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, he would throw open the door and say, "Get in here!" with a grin and a firm handshake.
"These are my people," he said.
Kurth had just graduated from Lansdowne High School, but he was celebrating his three years at Gibbons, one of 13 schools the Archdiocese of Baltimore closed last year. About 80 young men earned diplomas from dozens of different high schools this year, but they consider themselves the Gibbons Class of 2011.
About half of the graduates returned to the Gibbons fold Wednesday evening for one additional rite of passage: induction into their shuttered school's alumni association.
"Thanks for hanging in there, brothers," Michael Reeb, a former Gibbons teacher and alumnus, said in an address to the graduates. "You are all honorable men, distinguished for your tenacity."
Like many of his classmates, Bradley White said he missed the camaraderie he encountered daily at Gibbons.
"I just took it day by day this year," he said. "I have a Glen Burnie diploma, but I went to high school at Gibbons."
The archdiocese, which closed the high school and a dozen elementaries in a consolidation prompted by declining enrollments and mounting costs, would not allow the class use of their old campus on Wilkens Avenue for the ceremony. Instead, the classmates, their families and many alumni filled a lecture hall at the university. Steven Cole, Gibbons' former vice principal, shook the hand of each new alumnus.
"It is important to let them know they are brothers for life," he said. "They are part of the family that is Cardinal Gibbons."
In the lecture hall, the group prayed, sang the alma mater, shared memories and listened to heartfelt oratory. Perhaps the most telling words came from Jordan Green-Ellis, who reiterated his senior speech at St. Paul's School, where he had reluctantly transferred for his senior year. He told of wearing his Gibbons ring and pin to classes at his new school, his difficulties adapting to an unfamiliar environment and his longing for the bonds of friendship he could not re-create.
"Imagine a place where you could call each person there a member of your family, a true brotherhood," he said to seniors gathered at St. Paul's chapel. "Gibbons was that place for me."
Then he asked the St. Paul students to imagine their own reaction to news of a school closing. He said they would likely shed the same tears and ask the same unanswered questions.
"You would have no more school to come back to, no more games to watch on the same fields you played on, no place to call your school home," he said. "I told them to be proud of their school, for one day it might be gone."
Green-Ellis told his Gibbons friends that St. Paul students truly understood and gave him a standing ovation, a response repeated at the alumni ceremony.
"I will do anything in my power to help reopen Gibbons," said Green-Ellis, who plans to attend Coppin State University in the fall. "It shaped me into who I am today."
Each alumnus received a framed certificate and photograph of the imposing grey stone building that began as St. Mary's Industrial School early last century.
"Look at our school and realize it is a symbol of what was best for you," said Brian Walsh, president of the alumni association, a 1991 graduate, who put together the certificates and planned to hand-deliver them to those who missed the ceremony. "Do anything you can do for Gibbons."
The alumni have worked for the last year to reopen the school and have twice made purchase offers to the archdiocese, said John Dillow, chairman of the Gibbons Educational Foundation, a nonprofit organization with the goal of buying the 33-acre campus and reopening Gibbons as an independent school.
The archdiocese "is conducting a thorough review of potential uses of the property," said its spokesman, Sean Caine. "We continue to be in communication with Gibbons alumni and share in their desire to maintain and promote the school's history and lasting legacy in the community."
Barbara McGraw Edmondson, superintendent of Catholic schools, wrote her congratulations on graduating to each of the Gibbons students and expressed her empathy for the challenges that senior year presented to them. She also gave each a pin with the Gibbons insignia.
Dillow said the alumni are determined to move forward.
"We keep chipping away, but everything goes back to the archdiocese," Dillow said. "The longer the building sits there, the harder it is for them to justify what they have done. We are not going away."