This past January, I spent an hour speaking with Ron Donatucci, a native South Philadelphian and long-time Register of Wills. He has been a fixture at City Hall for the past three thirty-five years. Before that, he was a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, a Democratic ward leader, and a lawyer in private practice. He also serves on the Board of Directors of City Trusts, and Temple University’s Board of Trustees, the board of Girard College, and Wills Eye Hospital.He was childhood friends with the attorney Frank DeSimone, who I interviewed for a previous piece for PhillyHistory.
When asked what he felt was the most formative experience of his childhood, he replied that it was his three years at Central High School in the mid-1960s.
For Ron Donatucci, asking, “What class were you in?” is his version of the classic Philadelphia question, “Where are you from?”
He grew up in the Girard Estates section of South Philadelphia, a comfortable enclave of 1920s Tudor and Spanish revival homes within the boundaries of St. Monica’s Parish. With a few, mainly Jewish exceptions, the Girard Estates neighborhood was Italian-American and devoutly Catholic, mostly second and third generation Americans who had become doctors, lawyers, and small business owners. Donatucci’s father, an old school “Roosevelt Democrat” and local ward leader, ran a successful plumbling supply business.
After attending the local parish school at 18th and Ritner, Donatucci went to Bishop Neumann High School for a year. He then tested into Central’s 224th class, and joined about 15 other neighborhood kids who got on the Broad Street subway each morning to the Logan campus.
Donatucci remembered going up to his English teacher, Dr. Logan, saying, “I’m new here. How many books do we need to read.”
“One book a week,” Logan responded.
Outside of the guidance counselor’s office, Donatucci saw a boy sitting on the floor looking bereft.
“I screwed up,” he muttered sadly. “I got a 1590.”
“You screwed up?” Donatucci replied with amazement over his fellow student’s almost perfect SAT score.
The Central High School of the 1960s took Philadelphia’s smartest boys out of their neighborhood and parish schools and threw them together in a rigorous, competitive environment.
“All of the sudden, I was in a high school that was predominately Jewish.” Donatucci remembered. “These were the students that wanted to pursue an education that was free, and the type of competition was scary.” Among the future stars in Donatucci’s 224th class was Raymond Joseph Teller of the magician duo Penn and Teller. In 1964, the school newspapers reported that Central’s 224th class boasted more National Merit Semi-Finalists than any other school in the country. At Neumann, he said that he would study about two hours a day after class let out. At Central, he upped his study time to six.
The all-boys experience was a critical part of the Central experience. “We weren’t distracted,” he claimed. So was meeting people of different ethnicities. At lunchtime, people tended to separate into their neighborhood ethnic groups: African-Americans, Jews, Italians, and Ukrainians. “The guys from South Philly would sit at the same table,” he said. Yet the cultural exchange continued with swapping lunches. “I would give them pepper and egg sandwiches,” he said. “The Jewish kids would bring in blintzes. The Ukranians brought in perogis.”
He often found himself at the homes of his Jewish friends for the High Holidays. When describing Jewish and Italian culture, he said, “They are so similar.” He joked that his Jewish name was “Ronny Dumberg.”
Donatucci graduated from Temple University in 1970, and aside from a stint in Baltimore for law school, has remained in Philadelphia ever since. His two sons did not follow him to Central: they went to St. Joseph’s Preparatory instead, which remains an all-boys school, unlike his now-coed alma mater. Yet he still remains on the Central board of managers. “I’ve met guys in Central who are my friends today,” he said. “It’s such a great feeling when you’re talking to someone and you ask, ‘What class are you in?'”
“Ronald R. Donatucci,” Mationi, Counselors at Law, http://www.mattioni.com/R_Donatucci.aspx, accessed April 5, 2016.
“Central Leads the Nation in Merits,” The Centralizer, October 7, 1964.
Interview with Ronald Donatucci by Steven Ujifusa, January 26, 2016.