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Saturday, December 10, 2022

Back to School

World War II fueled Evansville’s economic prosperity well into the 1950s, and the expanding population led to a major increase in citywide student enrollment. Two new high schools were born to help ease overcrowding. The public institution was William Henry Harrison High School, which continues to shape students’ lives today. (A new football stadium opened in 2011 for the Warriors.) The other high school, Rex Mundi, opened on the North Side, where retail shops and houses were exploding. Yet, Rex Mundi, which is Latin for “King of the World,” closed 40 years ago after a 14-year stint. What happened?

Under the leadership of the school’s first principal, Father Charles Meny, Rex Mundi opened in the fall of 1958 to only freshman and sophomore classes. The upperclassmen remained at the other two Catholic high schools: the West Side’s Mater Dei and the East Side’s Memorial. The parochial school board expanded Rex Mundi to a full four-year school in 1960.

Located on First Avenue near Buena Vista Road where developer Guthrie May had begun building homes in the early 1950s, the school was a modern, full-service high school with labs, a campus newspaper (the Scepter), and of course, the main three sports of the day: football, baseball, and basketball.

Certain standouts remain even decades after they made headlines. Arguably the most famous Rex Mundi graduate was Robert (Bob) Greise. The Class of 1963 graduate won 12 letters in his high school career, later played at Purdue University (where he won many awards), and then became a national household name as the starting quarterback for the Miami Dolphins.

For Evansville, the inflationary end of the 1960s saw the erosion of the city’s industrial base, and the constrictions led to an unexpected population decrease. In 1972, the relatively new Rex Mundi closed. School leaders blamed a declining student enrollment — and budgetary pressures. Parents and boosters of the school protested, but at the end of the 1972 school year, the property was turned into the Indiana vocational and technical state-run program now known as Ivy Tech Community College. The following year, the Catholic Diocese officially sold the building. Today, Ivy Tech’s expansive campus on First Avenue shows no signs of the former high school.

Yet memories remain for alumni, especially Patti Meny Wilson, a 1971 graduate. “Rex Mundi was an amazing school with great students and faculty,” she says. “It made for a close family atmosphere in an excellent educational setting.” In September 2011, more than 750 alumni and former faculty members attended a reunion of all classes. “It felt just like family,” Wilson says, “all over again.”

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