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Alumni Known by the Companies They Keep

From left to right, St. John's College High School alumni Kevin Plank, Raul Fernandez, Joe Robert and Jim Kimsey.
From left to right, St. John's College High School alumni Kevin Plank, Raul Fernandez, Joe Robert and Jim Kimsey. (Vicky Pombo - For The Washington Post)
By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 14, 2008

Some graduates say it's the chip-on-your-shoulder culture. Some say it's the Christian Brothers, the Catholic teaching order that has run the school for 157 years and preaches a pragmatic use of intellect. Some say it's the fierce competition for grades and respect. Or the military component. Whatever it is, Washington's St. John's College High School has spawned a horde of rich businessmen.

You can see their names sprinkled across the campus.

Students study science and math in the Kimsey Center, named for AOL founding chairman James V. Kimsey, Class of 1957, who gave the school $1.5 million for the renovation.

Inside the Kimsey Center is the Joseph E. Robert Jr. science hall, named for a self-described troublemaker who set off smoke bombs, clocked a fellow student, was kicked out at least once and then went on to become the billionaire head of a real estate private-equity fund. Robert gave $1 million for the science hall.

For exercise, St. John's students head outside to Fernandez Stadium. That's Raul Fernandez, Class of 1984, who was president of the computer club. Fernandez has since made several hundred million dollars building Internet service businesses. He gave the school $1 million.

And when the student-athletes play baseball and football, they wear Under Armour athletic equipment and clothes, courtesy of another St. John's graduate, Kevin Plank, who founded the fast-growing athletic-apparel company in Baltimore. Plank has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the school.

Add it up and Kimsey, Robert, Fernandez and Plank have given more than $5 million to St. John's, which is located on 27 acres off Military Road in Northwest Washington. The man in charge of separating them from their money is Phil Brach, the school's chief fundraiser, who said St. John's must raise millions of dollars to defray rising tuition costs, which now total $12,600 a year.

It's a big issue not just for high schools but for universities that charge far more. Harvard and Yale recently said they would dig deeper into their endowments to boost financial aid. St. John's distributes about $1.7 million in aid annually to two-thirds of its 1,100 students. Brach said the help comes from a $23 million endowment and from gifts. The school is relentlessly tapping its alumni, which has enabled St. John's to modernize and expand its facilities without going into debt.

Washington has plenty of elite private schools with wealthy and prominent graduates, many of whom give generously, but administrators at St. John's take pride in cultivating a network of alumni in the local business community.

"We probably have five guys that approach, or are at, billionaire status," said Brach, who graduated from St. John's. "We are not the business high school. But we do have a disproportionate number of business successes."

In his small second-floor office that was formerly the living quarters for the Christian Brothers who run the school, Brach spends hours on the Internet, examining public records and corporate filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission to gauge an alum's net worth.

"I pore through licensing files, databases," Brach said. "I can see if someone owns a licensed boat and find the size of it. Maybe he owns a 70-foot yacht. I want to know. We run this school like a business."

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