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Catholic expo answers school marketers' prayers; Testamints are breath of fresh air at summit


Is it a breath freshener or a Bible tract?

If it's a Testamint, it's both.

The hard candy with a Scripture verse on every wrapper was among the more creatively marketed products offered by the 479 exhibitors at the National Catholic Educational Association's 97th Annual Convention and Exposition, which concludes today in Baltimore.

"We want to encourage people to freshen their breath and to receive encouragement and inspiration they can take with them," said Juliet McElwee, a company representative for Testamints, each of which has a cross embossed into it, and carries an Old Testament or New Testament message, in English or Spanish.

Covering 170,000 square feet of space at the Baltimore Convention Center, the exposition featured every variety of product and service that might be of interest to a Catholic high school teacher or principal, including scoreboards, portable speed bumps, and a religious Internet service provider that screens out pornography and violence and provides a Catholic-themed home page.

"It's like sending your kid to the Web equivalent of an old-fashioned Catholic school," said John Zmirak, editor of

But the best part was the freebies.

"I'm loaded down," said Molly Babineaux, a teacher from Lake Charles, La., who brought an extra suitcase for her take, which included hundreds of fliers from the Knights of Columbus on How to Pray the Rosary. "I've got three bags full of stuff. I've already dumped four bags full of stuff."

"This is what makes it worthwhile to come," said her principal, Connie Dronette, as she gestured at the 27 aisles of exhibitors. "If it was just the classes, you could do that at home, you wouldn't have to travel. With this, you get a feel for the new materials and innovations of the textbook companies."

The Cadillac of displays were assembled by the textbook companies, which had large signs over archways at the exhibit entrances, custom lighting, colorful shelves and extra cushy carpet that provided welcome relief for aching feet.

The booth occupied by featured colorful, school-themed ties worn by school administrators. If Kurt L. Schmoke, who was known for his whimsical haberdashery, had been an elementary school principal instead of the former mayor of Baltimore, he would have stocked up here.

Several companies were selling uniforms, the plaid skirts and jumpers, and light shirts and dark slacks familiar to every boy and girl who has attended a school that begins with a "St." or an "Our Lady of."

But one purveyor stood out: Land's End, the clothier of mail-order catalog fame.

The Land's End line seemed to favor a preppier look of polo shirts and khaki slacks. "The schools seem to be going for more of a casual look," said Cindy L. Leix, who coordinates school accounts for the Wisconsin-based company. "We started the line because so many customers were ordering individual pieces for school uniforms out of our kids' catalog."

At the other end of the hall, an Uncle Sam character beckoned to passers-by with a new twist on an old plea: "I need your empty Inkjet cartridges."

Uncle Sam was promoting an Orange County, Calif.-based company that pays schools that collect used computer printer cartridges, then fills them up and resells them at deep discounts.

Three Dominican nuns in white habits, all native Filipinos, wandered by and stopped, charmed by the oversize Uncle Sam.

"I thought there was nothing inside, just helium," said Sister Rebecca Ortega, of Oxnard, Calif. "Then he started to talk in our language!"

It turns out the Sam who greeted the nuns in Tagalog was Aldin Zurilla of Buena Park, Calif., formerly of Bicol province in the Philippines.

Sister Rebecca said she will come away from this NCEA convention with at least one new tidbit of information: "It seems that Uncle Sam is a Filipino."

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